Flexible tech and vertical strategies open doors for GIS

GIS taps into an essential human characteristic: we are visual beings. By providing the ability to show many kinds of data on one map, GIS enables people to visualise and analyse patterns, trends, and relationships. It’s transforming the way companies and governments manage assets and activities.

As geospatial professionals, we are familiar with the basic aspects of GIS, such as collecting and sharing spatial information. Regardless of how it will be used, data gathering and processing for GIS applications is built around core technologies for positioning and data management. GIS leverages these common characteristics to address an extensive array of needs for information and workflows. More than any other facet of the geospatial industry, GIS faces a wide — and demanding — variety of applications and opportunities.

To satisfy the large diversity of needs, GIS solutions providers are turning to the strategy of vertical segmentation. Using this approach, GIS technologies can be adapted to specific needs and supported by dedicated teams for distribution and service. GIS can also be teamed with other industry-specific technologies to provide information and services that carry geospatial information deep into an organisation’s operations and decision processes.

Adapting GIS technologies

For example, utility companies that provide water, wastewater, electricity and natural gas services operate large networks of physical assets. In addition to collecting location data, field technicians can capture information such as serial numbers, operating status and history, physical condition and performance parameters. Using GIS field hardware customised for their application, crews can collect barcodes, RFID information and photographs with the same device used to capture GNSS location data. External sensors connected to the GIS hardware via cable or wireless link capture environmental data, gas concentrations and other information associated with the feature or location.

Field software can be customised as well. The utility company can incorporate multiple data collection activities into a single form or workflow, reducing time and potential for error. The information can be synced to the cloud and shared with asset management systems for maintenance and lifecycle planning.

Utilities can also return GIS data to the field. Utility field technicians often carry hardcopy 'truck books' containing locations and other information about field assets. Using GIS, a tablet or laptop computer can replace the truck book to display up-to-date information about pipelines, wires and equipment. Utility companies report that field crews can work faster and have higher confidence in the information they are using. During work to update and maintain GIS data, field technicians can use GNSS to ensure they are working at their intended locations and assets. On assets equipped with RFID, maintenance records can be stored with the asset, streamlining reporting procedures and reducing the need for separate maintenance logs.

The geospatial component of GIS data also helps mitigate service outages. By correlating the addresses of reports from customers with known locations of utility assets, operators can quickly identify likely sources of problems. GIS can even determine the most efficient routes for repair vehicles to reach the trouble spots — a crucial time-saving benefit in congested urban areas.

Vertical flexibility

GIS technologies can be readily adapted to provide additional benefits within a vertical segment. Software and hardware can be combined to produce desired characteristics in work processes and deliverables. For example, field technicians can obtain positions using GNSS built into their smartphone or field computer running field software. In applications that call for more precise positioning, they can wirelessly connect those same devices to GNSS receivers. Using correction data provided through GNSS networks, it’s possible to use GIS workflows and capture real-time locations with precision ranging from metre- to centimetre-levels.

This sort of flexibility enables GIS developers to create customised GIS solutions for many different uses within an industry. Segments such as utilities and transportation often require differing levels of detail and precision. Some requirements may be met using survey-grade positioning with GIS workflows to collect comprehensive attribute data. Other applications can operate with lower precision but still require detailed attributes on features and context. Examples of these verticals include cadastral surveys in developing countries, forestry, natural resources and environmental management. The requirements can be handled using handheld GNSS receivers and tablets running application-specific workflows coupled with satellite-delivered correction services, providing better than 4-cm to sub-metre horizontal accuracies worldwide for the ease and flexibility to work nearly anywhere.

Integrated solutions for some markets combine GIS with information from other advanced technologies. For land use analyses, terrestrial GIS data can be blended with aerial and satellite imagery. Using software for automated change detection and feature characterisation, operators can locate and confirm changes to structures and terrain. In the transportation segments, railways and rural and urban transportation corridors can use solutions such as a mobile spatial imaging system to collect thorough inventories of assets. Individual features captured by georeferenced LiDAR and digital imaging can efficiently be identified, checked and shared using GIS databases.

Providing the central core

In many industries, accurate spatial information is at the core of efficient, profitable operation. Working in the geospatial arena, nearly everything we do produces some sort of geographic information. GIS professionals need to know how the information is used and adapt their practices accordingly.

Trimble understands this. By incorporating GIS into the vertical concept, we can provide solutions for multiple needs and tasks within a given segment. The approach helps to ensure that the different disciplines operating within the segment receive information that is consistent, timely and readily utilised across the enterprise.

Ron Bisio at Trimble