A Little Bit of GIS in My Life

So today Rick Knights, technical service associate, with WTH Engineering stopped by to continue his work on helping us implement our city geographic information system, or GIS. Rick is a certified ENP or emergency number professional who is very familiar with how the 911 system works in the states. We began discussing the many intricacies of the 911 system, how it all evolved, and then started in on GIS – where we are at and where we are going. Wow – this was one of those conversations that begins low key and ends with a major revelation.

Because I am excited about the potential of virtual worlds and augmented reality and how it all fits with the GIS component, we began going down that road. Well, while we were debating the need for accuracy in determining parcel boundary data, Rick threw out this idea: perhaps someday, we would decide to develop parcel data to the point that it did accurately reflect the actual property boundary so that this data would then serve as the established property line. As a former land surveying technician, I was not too certain of how this would be received by that industry. But then when I entered the idea of using augmented reality, Rick brought up an intriguing idea of being able to project property lines onto the actual ground using that technology. How useful that would be when determining setbacks or resolving property disputes.

From there we went to using GIS data that is officially established and maintained by utilities and government agencies and running it through an augmented reality interface to create virtual lines on the actual ground.

Well for anyone who has worked construction, you realize what this could mean. Using the proper technology, you could arrange to project utility lines on the ground – both proposed and existing. With this technology, perhaps one day, I could PROJECT MY DESIGN PLAN DRAWN IN CAD FOR A PARTICULAR AREA ON THE ACTUAL GROUND ON WHICH IT WILL BE BUILT! Then I could walk around making sure everything fit with existing grades, structures, etc. And I could better show the residents who always want to know, “how far is the road going to be widened into my yard?”

Having read about and looked into augmented reality, I cannot believe my mind had not already made this leap before! How useful that would be during the design and even the construction process. Can you imagine having the proposed sewer line projected onto the ground during construction so the backhoe operator can always see the alignment, along with all the other utility locations.

Perhaps others have already made this leap in the use of this particular technology, and I have just not yet come across it. So far everything I have seen has been about projecting a proposed building design on a lot for planning or projecting internal body systems onto a person’s outer skin. The idea of using this technology in the engineering and public works industry to virtually display designs and utilities on the ground or internal buildings systems on a wall is exciting to me because this is bringing the technology down to the level at which it becomes useful on a daily basis to city personnel.

So thanks Rick for the 911 info and help and that little extra promise that GIS can bring to my world.


Musings After a Week at AU

I just got back from spending a whole week attending Autodesk University, AU, and as usual have come away with a lot of knowledge, but also a lot of questions about the engineering profession and where it is going.

At the opening session, there were presentations related to the future of design which were incredible. The one that appealed to me as a civil engineer was a fly through of a city showing all visual components of an urban area that could be drawn/re-created in a 3-D virtual environment. We were shown virtual streets, landscaping, underground utilities, and buildings. The cool element of all this is that the whole virtual site would be populated in a GIS-type fashion making the "drawing" a type of 3-D GIS production.

But everytime I am shown some futuristic presentation like this, I can't help but wonder how all of us are going to find the time to learn how to do it all, and as software becomes more involved, how many of us are going to be able to keep up with the learning curve. At what point have we evolved beyond where the majority can keep up?

Someone has to collect and input all that data and information, and someone has to know how to run all that software. The amount of information to collect and the amount of work required to input all of it to produce that type of 3-D model presents a daunting challenge. Particularly at a time when the workforce is diminishing and the government continues to cut investment in infrastructure.

There are several signs that point to this emerging challenge. Several people I spoke with at AU were reluctant to embrace some of the existing programs that have been around for a while due to the learning curve required to master the software. I am included in this group – I would love to move up to Civil 3D because it appears to be an awesome program, but I cannot invest the time right now to learn it. As long as I can continue to produce with the software I already have and know, there is little incentive to invest any more time and money on learning new software.

A recent survey related to this subject was conducted by CE Magazine. The results, summarized in an article at www.cenews.com, showed that almost 70% of those surveyed did not feel they were trained well enough to maximize the use of their civil engineering software. Yet a little more than 60% reported that 3-D modeling and GIS/CAD interchange would have the biggest impact on the civil engineering profession in the next five to 10 years.

Some say the younger generation growing up with computers in their homes will fall right into this type of work environment. However, my experience has been that not all of this younger generation can always make technology work for them – they don't have the magical connection with it that some seem to imply is there. An analogy would be that all of us living today have grown up with cars, drive them almost every day, and yet many of us cannot fix the car or make it work if something goes wrong. We need an expert who has been trained in car repair to get it working for us again.

Just because a future engineer grows up with computers and software, we should not think/hope/expect them to show up on the jobsite after graduation prepared to fully utilize all of the computer equipment and software that we provide. The key components to fully utilizing the tools that are already available and which will be developed in the near future is education and staffing. That is why I feel attendance at events like AU is so important for those of us in engineering and public works.

As was stressed at AU, the tools are no longer holding us back – companies like Autodesk are at the cutting edge of technology and are driving us into the future. I just hope there will continue to be drivers to keep us going.