Geospatial technologies are capturing the imagination and the headlines. But what impact are they having at local authority level? Patricia Moore looks at the science of where.
Drones, driverless cars and sensor-driven cities; are we living in the future? Are cash-strapped councils accessing these smart solutions to improve performance and deliver a greater return on investment to their stakeholders?
For many councils, geographic information systems are already used across services ranging from waste recycling to emergency management and network operations.
Scott Campbell, head of technology at Eagle Technology says local government is inherently spatial. “So location is used to connect many of the enterprise systems and databases a council maintains.”
But the science of geographic information systems (GIS) has evolved. Scott says the drivers behind GIS today are powerful, easy-to-use, configurable tools, which are being put into the hands of the wider organisation. And these are often people who may not know or care what GIS is.
“GIS has gone beyond simple mapping to building on mainstream technology trends like the cloud and focused apps, combined with less traditional data sources such as sensors or drones to encompass areas like the internet of things (IoT), building information modelling (BIM), big data, machine learning and virtual reality (VR).
“This may sound a bit like buzz-word bingo but GIS now harnesses these capabilities where it is increasingly being applied for mission-critical purposes. We refer to this combination of advanced technology and geospatial as the ‘science of where’.”
Tony Elson, a director at Geographic Business Systems, suggests it’s not so much about the impact of new GIS technologies but, rather, whether councils are equipped to utilise trends and have the capacity to do so.
He highlights three main areas where they should be taking advantage of web GIS.
“Users don’t have to be GIS experts,” he notes. “Decision-makers can look at common operational pictures of their assets, understand where and why ratepayer money is being spent based on location data, and where future capital expenditure projects may be implemented. For many councils, this is not happening.”
Secondly – something Tony says specialists have “been banging on about for years” – councils are finally using in-field processes to collect, maintain and validate assets and events. Tony says councils have been “way too slow” to take up this capability.
Finally, he says another huge innovation in GIS is the ability to render 3-D data across any device. “Coupled with this is the driver from external organisations for councils to consume, manage and display BIM data.”
At Tonkin + Taylor, drone technology has become a “business-as-usual” reality for tasks such as collecting data in dangerous, remote or challenging terrain, and the collection of post-disaster information.
Charlotte Reed, manager: strategy and information services, says the use of drones means staff can avoid entering such terrain and still achieve project objectives.
“We’re seeing the best outcomes of drone technology when our technical specialists collaborate with technology innovators to solve clients’ challenges with more efficient and data-rich solutions.
“As an example, we’ve used drones to capture high-resolution multi-spectral datasets for use by our ecologists. This information has been digitally post-processed to identify attributes such as vegetation ‘health’ derived from indices or tree heights, for an assessment of environmental effects.”
She says drone imagery can be turned into ‘virtual fly-throughs’ or 3-D models enabling clients to picture the value of the ecosystems their decisions are affecting.
GIS can also help eliminate silos within councils. Roya Hendesi, WSP Opus geospatial team leader, explains that by making available an interactive view of background information in relation to spatial representation, GIS provides a decision-making tool to pull information from different databases into one place.
An important element is the identification of the physical location of each asset.
“If systems are compatible, unique IDs can relate all available information which can then be represented and visualised in GIS.”
Roya says interactive GIS viewers are easy to understand and user-friendly, allowing authorities to make timely decisions and implement plans more effectively.
“Furthermore, live GIS data from different organisations can instantly be accessed and visualised in conjunction with other datasets,” she adds.
“Historically our asset condition assessment on the field was conducted in a single environment with little or no automated relationship with other information stored in the system against those assets.”
Roya says this resulted in a lot of manual work, post field data capture and the risk of inaccurate data entry.
“Implementation of integrated data capture processes through ArcGIS has introduced cost- and time-saving benefits by minimising the risks and having a truly efficient system which points to one source of truth.”
So where next for the science of where? Roya notes that increased awareness of technological advances is becoming more evident, and solutions, such as GIS viewers, are more popular.
But, she concedes, there are challenges. “Funding, lack of suitable skillsets, resistance to change; but the benefits are well worth the effort and investment.”
Scott Campbell agrees, suggesting that as GIS matures beyond traditional mapping and extends its application into new technology, challenges for local authorities will include governance, eg, where does GIS sit?
“The current situation in many councils is that they are still in the process of fully rolling out self-service GIS and analysis but see this as a priority due to the need to support increased demand with finite resources.”
For Tony, one of the biggest issues is funding. “As long as councils continue to look at price as a determining factor when implementing systems and processes, it’s always going to be a key element. The consequence is a greater cost in the long-run, because of either project failure or cost blow-out.
“Councils need to be doing more to keep their good people and train them. There has to be a willingness within councils to move forward and take advantage of the new technologies.”
Charlotte points out that by enabling greater and more spatial access to information already held by councils, communities can make more refined and informed decisions.
“For example, the GIS team at Tonkin + Taylor believes releasing more planning information, imagery, elevation and hazard information, and transforming these from reports into a machine-readable and spatially-represented form, would enable all of us to make much greater use of the data we already have.”
But she says, for non-users, fully understanding the capabilities of a geospatial system may not be easy.
“The challenge to geospatial practitioners is to ignite the imaginations of elected members, technical advisors and communities so that together we can unlock this potential.”
• Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the June 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.