A fusion of technologies is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and environmental spheres—making a new source of truth for an entire project. Most significantly within the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry, the growing connection between BIM and a geographic information system (GIS) enhances contextual awareness.
Far more than a niche technology, GIS is relied on across industries for a combination of content, mapping, spatial analytics, and enterprise integration that enables data-driven decisions and holistic problem solving. Rather than looking to a single application, planners now utilize GIS and complementary technologies—the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and data science tools—that can address a variety of processes such as clash detection, scheduling, estimating, asset optimization, sustainability, and facility management.
Equipped with the right tools and anchored within the crucial context of location, planners, architects, engineers, and contractors can make better decisions that lead to better outcomes, not only for improved livability and convenience but also in terms of project efficiency, deeper social connection, lower environmental impact, and stronger economic development.
GIS enables intelligent infrastructure solutions in many key areas, including in the water, transportation, and smart city planning scenarios we offer below.
Water: Empowering Smarter Solutions
As water issues intensify, so does awareness of the effects of water management decisions. Many aging, large water engineering projects need to be replaced with designs in tune with natural systems.
AEC firms have a strong opportunity to support utility companies, municipalities, and other water-focused organizations in solving challenges. By leveraging GIS in combination with other key technologies, engineering firms can help harness and make sense of the vast amount of water and infrastructure data to become indispensable advisers and partners with their customers.
Here are some ways GIS enables smart water planning:
Data collection and analysis—While a survey of the water industry shows that 33% of water utilities are interested in real-time control and advanced analytics, they are hindered by challenges associated with managing and analyzing big data. Using an enterprise GIS tied to cloud computing resources, engineering firms and utility operators can collect, store, analyze, map, and display all relevant data points.
Smart technology enablement—The Internet of Things can connect a GIS with valves, pipes, pumps, pipelines, waterways, aquifers, and wells embedded with sensors and actuators. This allows a water utility to collect and report real-time information about water availability, consumption, quality, and losses. Esri recently launched ArcGIS Velocity, a cloud-native capability that enables analysis of real-time data feeds at unprecedented volumes and speed.
Modeling for the real world—In creating a 3D representation of water infrastructure solutions within a GIS environment, users can model waterways and create whole watershed forecast models that greatly expand situational awareness about flooding risk. Operators can also use modeling to evaluate performance and conduct environmental impact studies. The location of existing water infrastructure layered with real-time information creates a digital twin that can be used to simulate changes in operations to improve efficiency and to perform predictive maintenance.
Water resources analysis—Water industry professionals can gain valuable insights into water resources and watersheds by using GIS to display water flow rates, direction, depth, and accumulation—on the same map, at the same time. In tandem with terrain analysis and pollution data, engineers can identify, monitor, and protect water sources.
Customer-centric solutions—Sharing project deliverables with clients securely via GIS allows them to understand project decision-making, easily access and manipulate data, provide collaborative feedback, and integrate models within their own GIS for future needs.
With a simultaneous view of all vital variables, AEC firms can support water planning decisions and fine tune system performance to serve the most people with the least environmental impact.
One community in Southern California is located in an area prone to low annual rainfall but has high water demand for agriculture, golf courses, and neighborhoods with swimming pools. The region’s water resources must be carefully managed, even though the valley has one significant advantage—an enormous aquifer hidden beneath the valley floor that has served as the desert’s main water source for centuries.
To support healthy and productive water management, the district implemented several GIS-anchored solutions.
Infrastructure mapping—Before they can inspect or fix any water pipe, pump, valve, or hydrant, field crews and contractors have to locate it. Crews are guided by GIS-based smartphone apps that reveal key details on data-driven GIS maps. The utility added high-resolution imagery, so its maps and apps have a horizontal accuracy of 10 inches (25.3 cm) and a spatial resolution of under 3 inches (7.63 cm). This data also guides the collection of further asset attributes in order to model the behavior of the system.
Water conservation and reuse—The district developed a recycled-water system for golf course irrigation that reduces the cost and energy required for water treatment and shifts course from direct well withdrawal. They also offer cash rebates to encourage customers to remove grass and replace it with desert landscaping that doesn’t require as much irrigation. Satellite imagery visualized on a map plays a role in both of these programs. When a customer expresses interest in participating, district team members view imagery of the property in GIS, measure and map the area, and calculate the rebate based on square footage.
Aquifer protection—A major river and three large, strategically placed replenishment ponds on the east and west ends of the valley provide all water to the underground lake. The team uses GIS to measure withdrawal and renewal levels to help sustain the invaluable resource for the long term.
By mapping the valley infrastructure using GIS and equipping field team members with mobile apps that sync updates with the water district office, the team was able to significantly reduce errors and speed communication. Water conservation and reuse initiatives have been largely successful, thanks to GIS and high-resolution imagery. This technology helps the team meet program requirements remotely, without costly trips to the field.
Transportation: Become an Indispensable Partner for Customers
As the core business of transportation authorities shifts from construction to operations, transportation professionals must increasingly manage complex systems under constrained revenues and an ever-increasing set of performance expectations from the public. These trends are occurring in the context of a changing regulatory environment, which requires a greater emphasis on comprehensive information systems to support better decision-making regarding where and how scarce public resources are allocated.
For AEC firms to help customers meet new regulatory requirements and support evidence-based decision-making, they must provide an efficient way to transparently share data and employ comprehensive planning grounded in reality. In the past, transportation plans were often presented to stakeholders and the public in documents filled with technical jargon and presentation formats that nontechnical readers couldn’t understand. A geospatial approach solves these problems, making a GIS-savvy AEC firm indispensable to its customers.
For instance, planning professionals can use multimedia presentations called ArcGIS Story Maps, which combine high-quality graphics, maps, text, and videos to present each element of a plan. These interactive communication tools convey technical information in an easy-to-digest way to convey context to key stakeholders and the public.
Firms can securely collaborate with stakeholders, contractors, clients, or any outside party, all within a controlled environment, using GIS project delivery tools. They can view and fine-tune workflows and assets in real time throughout a project’s life cycle. An additional benefit is gaining contextual intelligence since the history of decision-making and project components are all stored in one place.
An AEC firm’s longtime client identified the need for data and digital products to be delivered in a new way. Traditionally, 3D design data was stored as a BIM model when it was issued, but the client was finding that access to product deliverables was limited and understanding was restricted to only those with BIM software knowledge. Many team members didn’t find the information easily available, and they weren’t able to visualize or analyze the project the way they wanted and needed to.
As part of the project, the team had already created a GIS portal to share geospatial information with the client. At the time, they were using it to share smart maps, Esri Story Maps, and other location intelligence data. They began to look for a way to allow their client to easily interact with and interrogate BIM models and object data within the same web-based GIS environment.
To make BIM data more available to visualize and access, they created an automated data processing workflow within GIS. This allowed users to easily view the proposed 3D design against other project data sets with the capability of viewing individual features and utilizing them for decision-making. An added benefit was the ability to apply changes simultaneously to multiple files and multiple projects.
The team used their enterprise GIS platform to process and share the massive amounts of project data. It also allowed them to easily tap into the national grid to map the location of subsurface underground utilities and layer it with other geospatial data like topography and elevations.
The process and data sharing efficiencies achieved by these changes have allowed the firm to save considerable time and money for its client.
Smart City Planning: Leverage GIS and BIM to Create a Digital Twin
Planners and design and engineering firms face new opportunities to shape the future of communities by employing transformational technologies and processes. When communities learn and adapt with data-driven workflows, they deliver intelligent infrastructure design that supports urban mobility, resiliency, and sustainability. This is critical because the decisions made today will affect communities for generations to come.
To achieve these outcomes, AEC firms must adopt solutions that support integrating data about people, networks, and the environment. When 3D design tools are combined with location intelligence, a project gains real-world context, and it becomes easier for planners to visually communicate the proposed and potential impacts of zoning changes, new construction, and other planning and engineering efforts. Likewise, when a plan is created within a collaborative and interactive GIS environment, government customers, residents, and business owners can better understand the implications of those plans and provide meaningful feedback.
Collaboration between Esri and Autodesk now enables BIM to be integrated within a GIS environment, creating a geographically anchored digital twin of any project or community. GIS helps stakeholders see a project modeled with interrelationships such as terrain and structures around proposed project sites, including underground utilities. BIM provides a detailed 3D view of the structure being built. With the combined tools, planners can see a 3D model in context before they break ground—which can prevent rework and cost overruns.
Singapore, with an area of 722 square kilometers (279 square miles) and a growing population that stands at 5.5 million residents, needs to make use of all available space. The country's meteoric rise from low- and middle-income nation to upper-middle-income economy has meant that economic growth has far outpaced land growth. As a result, country officials have been forced to get creative in making the most of limited resources and landholdings.
An integrated map system, managed using GIS technology, informs development plans and daily government operations. The platform acts as a point of truth about what is where in the country, delivering location-as-a-service data to a large number of purpose-built government and resident-oriented applications. A recently released mobile app for residents delivers live traffic feeds and routing, including highlighted walking routes that are sheltered from the frequent rains.
The country’s living digital twin effort marks an important marriage of GIS and BIM data, integrating planning and construction documents within the broader context of the country. This project is progressing, using pilot tests to see how microwaves travel through high-density areas and thus detect gaps in cellular network coverage, and to model natural phenomena such as sea level rise and flash floods.
For water, transportation, smart cities, and more, GIS and BIM combine to move data between all of the stages of design, construction, and facility operation, yielding better designs and more efficient infrastructure.
Micah Callough is the technology director for AEC sector based at Esri in Denver, Colorado. He has a background in technology delivery based on his 25+year career in the AEC space. For the eighteen years he has worked for a leading AEC firm across their Water, Infrastructure, Environment, Buildings, and Global Digital Solutions (IT) business lines. Throughout this period, he served as a GIS professional, a management consultant, project manager, a department manager, a technical leader, a technical sales leader, product manager, scrum master and a global IT director. His passion is transforming businesses using technology as a catalyst. When he is not at work, he is probably driving his van to his next outdoor adventure.