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Decision Theater connects communities to science

May 21, 2007

ASU President Michael Crow had a vision for a new type of visualization center, one focused on connecting the science of the university with the needs of the Arizona community. Two years after opening its doors, the Decision Theater has made the vision a reality.

Crow's vision called for taking the cutting-edge computer science and graphics expertise of ASU and creating a visualization center that would particularly benefit policy-makers faced with increasingly complex decisions. He hoped these leaders would find a home at the Decision Theater where they could take advantage of visualization, simulation and modeling, and collaboration tools all aimed at helping users to find solutions.

Rick Shangraw, the Decision Theater's executive director, speaks to a group from Seattle, Wash. about the services the center provides.

The 21-person, multidisciplinary team, led by the Decision Theater's executive director, Rick Shangraw, has undertaken more than 20 projects in support of a variety of government and commercial clients. These projects have helped policy-makers, business leaders and others explore issues ranging from the environment and education to health and community development.

“Through our services, our clients can experience a more comprehensive way of addressing issues,” Shangraw says. “They generally come to us with a lot of complex information from different sources, and they ask us to integrate that data, to fuse it in a way that allows everyone to look at the information in a more understandable form.”

In recognition of the Decision Theater’s second anniversary May 23, an open house is being held from 1-3 p.m. for ASU community members. The Decision Theater is located in the Brickyard. For a map and more information about the Decision Theater, visit:

Using state-of-the-art technology, this information is displayed on a large, 260-degree screen, which gives participants a common frame of reference for exploring issues. This common picture, Decision Theater staff members say, is worth way more than a thousand words. It's worth millions.

Shangraw points to the city of Tempe as one example of how this type of visualization has helped policy-makers. The Decision Theater created a three-dimensional, geographically accurate model of the city, which includes yellow buildings representing structures that are planned, proposed, or under construction. City officials have been able to use this model to better understand how the character of Tempe could change in light of the construction, and also as a tool to help set height restrictions for buildings in various parts of the city.

“The mayor told us the detailed visualization allowed city officials to make a decision in hours versus days or months,” Shangraw says. “They were able to ‘see' a changing city on our immersive screens as we took them on a virtual flying tour.”

Clients also benefit from simulation and modeling tools. For example, the Decision Theater recently completed an elaborate model for Scottsdale Unified School District , which allowed district officials to see annual enrollment projections to the year 2030. Scottsdale School leaders immediately saw the value.

“The Decision Theater helped us to better see the future in terms of potential student enrollment at all of our schools,” says John Baracy, the district's superintendent. “I'm impressed with the talent and tools that were put to use in support of the Scottsdale Unified School District . This study – this analysis – is now part of the foundation for our planning efforts.”

Collaboration is another important tool used at the Decision Theater to help clients explore issues more thoroughly and ultimately make more informed decisions. For example, officials in communities such as Surprise have used the Decision Theater's collaboration tools to help address how they want to grow. Using a Decision Theater facilitator, participants anonymously and collectively ensure all points of view are heard or read, understood and discussed. This tool is generally combined with other Decision Theater tools for maximum impact.

Surprise's planning and community director, Scott Chesney, believes these tools are making a difference.

“Impacts of growth management decisions are hard to visualize, and the Decision Theater is making that possible for our commissioners and councilors,” Chesney says.

Shangraw is quick to point out that, while the initial vision may have been achieved, that vision has continued to evolve.

“We know Decision Theater capabilities are making a difference in Arizona,” he says. “We also know the issues we're helping address here, such as urban growth, transportation and water resource management, are not unique to Arizona. We see great potential to assist others in developing Decision Theater-like facilities in communities around the nation and world. Better decisions mean a better world.”

ASU officials are in preliminary discussions with individuals in China, the Middle East, Washington, D.C., and Seattle who are considering building similar facilities.