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‘Location Intelligence’ - Why Construction Needs GIS (and vice versa)


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The construction and real estate sectors are both major creators and major consumers of geographic information. We, therefore, need to work closely with the GIS community to manage our ‘location intelligence’ legacy.

Humankind has created maps for hundreds of years. Until recently, these have been largely paper-based, flat representations of the world around us, but since the 1980s, we have become familiar with digital views of locations, and of our own positions in those places, as civil access to global positioning system (GPS) data began to grow. This spawned, among other things, the growth of satellite navigation systems for vehicles, and the GPS-based location services that are now standard features on many smartphones and tablets. However, GPS is just one aspect of geographic information systems (GIS).

What are geographic information systems (GIS)?

For the construction and real estate industries, integrating management of big data with GIS will help us make more informed decisions.

GIS tools capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and display geographic data. In GIS, location is the key variable. We can capture individual locations using x, y, and z coordinates – representing longitude, latitude and elevation, respectively – and relate these to other locations, and to the specific dates/times that the data was captured. By combining multiple location points, we can then build representations of the real world that we can use for analysis and visualization. As such, they are critical foundations for billions of daily business and social transactions, helping individuals and organizations make decisions relating to transport, logistics, planning, engineering, insurance, natural resources, telecommunications, etc.

Maps are the basis of a GIS but are often augmented by aerial photography and satellite imagery, so that data and attributes can be accurately identified.

The first computerized GIS was developed in Canada in the 1960s to support federal and provincial land resource planning. In 1964, the Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis at the Harvard Graduate School of Design was founded, quickly stimulating academic and commercial interest in GIS worldwide. Public domain and commercial GIS systems began to emerge in the 1970s. We started managing GIS data in databases during the 1980s and by the end of the 1990s, GIS data format standards (agreed by what is today the Open Geospatial Consortium, OGC, founded in 1994) were in place – vital for a world beginning to exploit GIS data via the World Wide Web. Such standards support interoperable solutions that ‘geo-enable’ the Web, wireless, and location-based services, including proprietary web applications, such as Google Maps, and open-source alternatives, such as OpenStreetMap, giving public access to huge volumes of geographic data.

Why GIS matters in construction

Having long been focused on the creation of buildings and other structures in certain locations, and on the development of infrastructure to connect those locations, the world’s construction industries have both created GIS-captured data and, increasingly, become heavy users of that data.

Accurately setting out a new project traditionally involved identification of a fixed point of reference (a temporary benchmark), a baseline, and then a network of horizontal and vertical control points, accomplished by using measuring chains, theodolites and other surveying equipment. However, theodolites have increasingly been replaced by total stations. They combine theodolite functions with electronic distance meters, meaning they can accurately capture and process data for further use by computer-aided design (CAD), building information modeling (BIM), or GIS software.

Technological advances, however, may see the total station supplemented or even replaced by laser survey or Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) methods. A tripod-mounted laser scanner can capture the precise distance of thousands of densely-scanned points rapidly, creating a ‘point cloud’ that can be used to generate 3D imagery for use in CAD and BIM. Such instruments can measure around a million points per second with great accuracy – for normal terrestrial survey work + or – 2mm per 100m. They are becoming invaluable for surveying existing facilities for retrofitting or refurbishment. Vehicle-mounted Lidar scanners are also used in conjunction with GPS to rapidly and accurately survey linear infrastructure, such as rail tracks and highways.

Fundamentally, both systems store spatial information and, with proper integration, can avoid duplication.

As BIM use widens, construction people will increasingly be exchanging digital information between their BIM tools and GIS – and vice versa. For example, as previously described, BIM may reuse GIS data captured from initial site surveys for design and construction purposes. Once a built asset is completed, an as-built laser survey will accurately geolocate that asset, providing information such as geometrical dimensions, materials, project phasing, costs, energy consumption, number of occupants, etc. All these may produce useful GIS data. Fundamentally, both systems store spatial information and, with proper integration, can avoid duplication.

GIS and smart cities

Working with the geospatial community to manage this ‘location intelligence’ will be vital, particularly, if we are to create a more connected world. In its Foresight 2020 report, the UK’s Association for Geographic Information says a truly connected ‘Digital Earth’ can only be achieved by tackling issues of BIM and GIS data quality and data management to enable enhanced decision making. Report author Anne Kemp says:

“There is far more to location intelligence than maps. It’s all about data, what you do with it and what outcomes you can provide that counts. We are seeing an explosion in the volume of sensors and mobile devices in cities, homes and workplaces which are producing torrents of data. The role of location intelligence in the management of these datasets is vital, with it becoming the glue to connect them.”

For the construction and real estate industries, integrating management of big data with GIS will help us make more informed decisions relating to our built environment and the people living and working in it.

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