Geospatial technology today is barely recognizable from what it was when I joined the industry 20 years ago. In that timeframe, we have witnessed major evolutions in technology, customer needs and the role of a Geographic Information System (GIS) professional. In just the last three years at HDR, we’ve seen a 30% increase in geospatial professional staff and a 100% increase in non-geospatial staff that are leveraging GIS technologies on a daily basis. This trend seems to be accelerating, and our clients—typically large public sector agencies responsible for building and maintaining our physical infrastructure—are having similar experiences. In short, digital transformation is well underway in the AEC industry. There are five current trends I see that will continue to transform the industry.
Web-GIS enabled democratization of GIS technology
Web-GIS has democratized access to GIS platforms, data, and analytical tools providing users with the ability to access quality data and services on demand. The general trend towards “openness” of systems and data allows the seamless sharing of data between departmental silos, organizations and even government agencies. A plethora of apps designed for targeted workflows have emerged on GIS platforms that enable users to accomplish their work and change and analyze data without ever going to the GIS professional. This trend has brought immense value to users, and for the first time we have been able to realize the return-on-investment (ROI) that early investments in GIS technology had promised. A significant side effect of this trend has been that the role of the GIS professional has changed from being the “data creator and analyzer” to the “data curator, integrator and app builder.” Other side effects include some concerning issues around data ownership and privacy, and we will see some governance around these in the coming years.
Smartphones and tablets are ubiquitous in field applications in the AEC industry today. Data collection activities that support site planning, design and construction, and asset maintenance are driving the popularity of GIS applications. Apps that are built for these platforms offer users an easy and cost-effective way of collecting geospatial data and help improve the quality and speed of data collection. The increasing demand for “mobile-friendly” and “mobile-first” apps that offer GIS users a much simpler and user-friendly experience are changing traditional workflows. They are enabling fast access to reliable high-quality data to drive decision-making. It is not uncommon for AEC project managers and clients to monitor field activities in real-time and have the ability to make data-driven decisions on-the-fly.
Integration of GIS with other conventional data
This is a growing and still maturing trend of integrating GIS with traditional building and infrastructure data types (BIM/CADD), ERP systems and asset management systems. The goal of this effort is to bring location-based knowledge and analytics to financial and asset management systems-of-record, for the purpose of improving efficiency and enhancing the decision-making process. GIS and BIM integration promises to deliver seamless transition in planning-design-construction-maintenance, i.e., the ability to leverage data throughout the asset life cycle. Integration with ERP systems improves accuracies and brings efficiencies in financial recordkeeping and thereby improving customer satisfaction. Integration with asset management systems improves efficiencies of large infrastructure. Maturity of this trend will lead to highly connected and “smart” urban infrastructure. Several cities in the United States and around the world are already embracing “smart-city” initiatives.
It is not uncommon for AEC project managers and clients to monitor field activities in real-time and have the ability to make data-driven decisions on-the-fly
Trend towards intelligent data
As the analytical capabilities around artificial intelligence, machine learning and deep learning technologies mature it is inevitable that they will be increasingly adopted in GIS workflows. Growth in the GeoAI discipline is driven by real world use cases of these technologies including traditional GIS activities like automated feature extraction from imagery for GIS layer development, anomaly detection to find unauthorized activity in massive aerial imagery datasets, as well as automated building footprint segmentation. GeoAI is also contributing to more advanced machine learning workflows like automated pavement crack classification and condition analysis.
It is STILL all about the data
For those of us a little perturbed by the dizzying changes in geospatial technologies, the good news is that some things never change. GIS is still very much about data, and the old adage “garbage in, garbage out” still holds true. Quality control and management of large volumes of generated data is a critical task for GIS professionals. Advancement in technologies like drones, mobile indoor scanners, hydrographic survey equipment and nondestructive testing capabilities means that we can now capture and process more accurate data, faster and less expensively than by traditional methods. Reduced data storage costs and increased computing power allow us to double our data management and processing capabilities every 18 months. Ongoing trends of standardization of data and data management across different industries will help us leverage this data and bring solutions to end users faster and in a more cost-effective manner.
The AEC industry is evolving, and geospatial technologies are at the forefront of driving that transformation. Engineers, architects and scientists are constantly looking at new ways to deploy geospatial technologies and meet their clients’ growing expectations. New partnerships between tech companies—Microsoft, Autodesk, Esri, SAP, City Works etc.—are being forged to bring value to end users at increasing speeds. The traditional AEC business model will also need to evolve by bringing in more technologists to help our project teams and our clients and guide us through this digital transformation.