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GIS and Big Data: Why ' Where in the World' Matters

By Steve Bein, VP-GIS, Michael Baker International


Steve Bein, VP-GIS, Michael Baker International

We have heard dozens ofdefinitions of “Big Data” and the “Internet of things,” and how they have been changing, and are going to change IT forever. There is one component of both of these revolutions that unifies and joins all these data together and  allows for analytics that would otherwise be impossible. That component is location. A leading manufacturer of Geographic  Information Systems (GIS) software around the world, Esri, made this point in front of map making practitioners and GIS  professionals at a recent conference, “Geography Matters.” Location information is associated with almost every piece of data in your enterprise and GIS makes it possible to harness that location information and view it in new and exciting ways for  better decision making and improved management and organization of your information.

"As more and more location-based “Big” datasets become available, companies will be finding new and innovative ways to leverage it"

Why otherwise would advertising titan Google in 2004 purchase a three year old startup called Keyhole which sought to bring  seamless global satellite imagery and mapping to the US intelligence community? Google had the foresight to recognize that their advertising and customers were location based, and they could improve the quality and responsiveness of their  advertising by linking it to location. With the broad endorsement of Google Maps, Google Earth and the myriad of Google Apps embedded to these platforms, this foresight has clearly proved its wisdom. 

Google recently announced its plan to purchase a satellite imaging company, Skybox, for $500 million, with the intention to  launch a total of 24 satellites in coming years. In June, the U.S. government lifted restrictions on the allowed size of  visible features for satellite imagery from 50cm to 31cm for one commercial company, Digital Globe. These changes are coming  fast and it means that we will soon know the precise location of everything from mailboxes to manholes with an accuracy and  ubiquity we never imagined.

Michael Baker International owns and operates a state of the art Optech LYNX mobile LiDAR system. Simply put, this system  measures and collects hundreds of thousands of location points per second and dozens of hi-res photos per second as it drives down the street. Each point measurement includes a highly accurate location, and together these points and photos can create  a 3D scene from which automated and manual techniques can extract useful information such as the location of a manhole, the  location and size of a pothole, or even the diameter and species of a tree. Engineering firms are often contacted by local  governments to perform such infrastructure mapping and with the growing proliferation of cloud computing and freedom of  public information, organizations may find this information is increasingly available for use. But is your enterprise ready  to make use of this Big Data?

As more and more of these locationbased “Big” datasets become available, companies will be finding new and Steve Bein  innovative ways to leverage it. In the engineering industry, we are using GIS and Augmented Reality (AR) to aid in design and construction because it allows us to visualize our preconstruction designs as well as the pipes and infrastructure under  the streets in real-time. In a previous article in CIO Review, Dan Horton, our CIO at Baker, recognized that Google Glass and  AR could bring significant value and cost savings to many organizations. When mobile mapping technologies like LiDAR and visualization like AR are combined it allows us to assess real-world conditions remotely or bring vital information to  the field. According to new research published  by Markets and Markets, AR and VirtualReality markets are expected to grow to  reach $1.06 billion in 2018.

GIS technology and location based information has also shown ubiquitous growth due to mobile technology features such as  camera and a GPS (Global Positioning System) on smartphones and other mobile devices, which allow users to both map their  location in real time and provide data back to Big Data sources. In some cases this upload of data is intentional such as  field data and photo collection for a project, or to route you to a destination while avoiding traffic, or even to “checkin”  on social media. In other cases, our Apps are collecting this information without us consciously being aware of it.

For example, by loading Google Maps on our smartphones and clicking the “Agree” button, we have authorized Google to track us  nearly everywhere we go. Other Apps have followed suit and we are now seeing this very Big location based data becoming  available in the commercial marketplace to be exploited by your organization to improve and optimize your services. As an example, some cities are now using this type of data in concert with censors under the streets to monitor individual  vehicles as they travel through the City to adjust traffic signal timing to improve traffic flow based on the driving habits of motorists.

We have all listened as Jeff Bezos, CEO  of Amazon, showed us how he would use drones to deliver our packages. While that might be a ways off, drones will very soon provide a new avenue for Big Data to support our GIS mapping applications. Once  approved by the FAA, drone flights will be used by many firms to collect aerial data once relegated to costly helicopters and airplane flights. This aerial imagery and data will be used to extract and map features on the ground, further adding to our knowledge about and location of everything in the world around us.

Further, there is a new revolution in Big Data being rolled out which will increase  by orders of magnitude the amount ofinformation available to each organization. The so-called “Internet of Things” (IoT) refers to the connectivity of devices  and machines to provide information on how they are running, to alert you if you are running low on milk, or that you left  the garage door open. According to Gartner,  “There will be nearly 26 billion devices on the Internet of  Things by 2020.”  This proliferation of information along with recent advances in Cloud computing and mobile communications means that we can all benefit from this information, regardless of whether we are using it to check on the status of a package we ordered,  deliver our products to someone’s doorstep, or map out trends to support a new marketing campaign.

Location is important and Big Data is here to stay. Using GIS technologies, we can better organize and understand this  information to the benefit of our business. Each organization has a good use for the location based Big Data that is  available today and on the horizon. However, it is only through ingenuity and insightfulness that we, like Google, can  recognize how much location matters to our business and leverage the tools GIS provides to strengthen and optimize our  operations.

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