Director, Atkins Global
Geospatial people should feel that they are an important part of BIM and should get more engaged rather than working in silos, feels Anne Kemp, Director, Atkins Global, one of the largest global infrastructure consultancies
About three years ago at an AGI conference you presented an awardwinning paper: BIM isn’t GIS or is it?
What was your central thesis? At that time, the UK government was just formulating their BIM strategy which said publicly funded projects above about £50 million ($76.9 million approx) would be required to use BIM by 2016. (The mandate has now changed to impact all publicly funded projects). I was asked to become the Network Chair of geospatial. I said as an infrastructure consultancy at Atkins, it was really important that we realised that the important driver is the intelligent use of data and information and that the technology should be subsidiary to that. I said that what we really need is a Network Chair of integrated digital solutions which would cover CAD, BIM, GIS, virtual reality, and augmented reality.
So my motivation, working in an infrastructure consultancy with clients where we deliver infrastructure and make key decisions on how to deliver particular outcomes and achieve smarter, integrated projects regardless of technology, is being able to deliver a means of interrogating and viewing data in such a way that you achieve a shared understanding. I feel that geospatial people should feel that they are an important part of BIM. They should get more engaged rather than working in GIS silos. This motivated me three years ago and still continues to do so.
What is the situation now in the AEC industry on the geospatial side?
There has been frustratingly slow progress so far. However, we gained some momentum in the last nine-odd months. More and more people are starting to talk about it and challenge it. At a recent BIM for Infrastructure Conference at the Royal Geographical Society, we had David Henderson from the Ordnance Survey talking about smart cities, with some superb illustrations of the integration of geospatial and what people would regard as BIM data. The boundary between what is coming from which technology becomes rather incidental; it is much more about what questions you are asking of that data and what are the intended outcomes of the project. Henderson was followed by David Philps, who is heading the BIM task group for the UK government and he conveyed a very similar message. That motivated a series of good conversations. The programme then started to go a bit deeper into data — such as the COBie, IFC and ISO standards. Some people from the ISO UK said they now realised how relevant our work could be. We really do need to link these standards together with OGC, BuildingSmart and ISO. They were eager to be a part of this dialogue and I will certainly be facilitating that progression. I think this could be a turning point.
Are you seeing a specific business driver that is motivating people now?
There are a number of things. I think what is really opening this up is the realisation that this is about the whole life cycle and managing overall portfolios. Geospatial people are realising that it is about managing and integrating all of infrastructure. And that is just core geography. Being able to analyse and blend that with what is coming from the CAD and BIM world will get really exciting. The goal of what that enables you to do is what is important, not the individual technologies.
Do you think that designers may already be using geospatial data and technology, but just not calling it GIS?
I don’t hear negative things about geospatial from engineers. If you show them the integration and how this can actually fit into their workflow, they will use it, but they may not recognise it as GIS. And I wonder if that should matter.
There was a UK Government Construction Summit recently where an immersive technology Mission Room was demonstrated. That is an immersive space where you have visuals on all sides including photogrammetry data or video; and CAD or BIM models. One of them involved going into the Nottingham Rail Station. It was so immersive that I was experiencing real motion sickness!
It was such a visual way of being able to spatially locate and remember in your mind key assets within that space. What they are using was very much spatial data: survey and photogrammetry data, combined it with junction diagrams and CAD drawings which were put into real-world coordinate space for accurate display. I asked one of the people demonstrating Mission Room if this was GIS. He admitted that it was, but they didn’t call it GIS.
Are engineers and architects using a lot of geospatial data and technology?
Certainly, and that is great. For instance, one of the rail companies is QR coding their assets and geolocating them. They have photogrammetric data that is being collected by the Atkins survey and geospatial team who have put it into an open source GIS portal. It incorporates tools for instance which can accurately measure the length of cables. This was a challenge before using their own linear referencing systems — these often get impacted when a milepost gets shifted — so they didn’t have an accurate way of measuring the length of their cables. But by integrating that information they are now able to do it; only they don’t call it GIS. They are essentially calling it BIM.
For years now, Atkins has embedded some of our team who are using geospatial for information or data management within large multi-disciplinary projects such as Crossrail, and the Olympics. They were not called geospatial or GIS people, they became data managers or information managers. But the fact is what they were using then, and I have been mentoring them for the last 5-10 years in what we are now calling BIM. The way you could and should attribute a graphical model and make it intelligent using different analysis tools and so forth — as BIM is now presented — is very much the same principle we were using when we developed the Atkins spatial data infrastructure.
It is said that geospatial people and engineers have a different perspective on the world: geospatial people are scientists and think in terms of universals, while engineers are worrying about door knobs and the size of screws. Do you think that is an issue?
I do think this is an issue. Although I can’t agree with the implication that one might be better than the other! How many of us have felt as though we are regarded as coming from a different planet when talking with engineers! I think that is why it is so important to get the geospatial people to connect more proactively with others, and consider whether they need to change their perspective and do some element of retraining.
I am seeing it more from the perspective of the whole life cycle of infrastructure with a designer or engineer’s eyes, and actually enabling that conversation, that dialogue between the geo people, the designers and the upper management. Bridging the divide between the different disciplines is really core to enabling collaborative working.
What’s your vision for the future of BIM-geospatial integration?
I think it is going to be a bit longer than five years. There will be a lot more than is actually done by the designers and engineers rather than specialists, and there will be challenges for our industry around that. We will be dealing with a whole range of data which will incorporate location, but is not hardcore geo-data. This will include big data, cyber security and real-time sensors. Geospatial will be part of the armoury but it won’t be the only armoury.
Geography is an important base to enable a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding and solving problems. A number of professional institutions are collaborating to launch a group called Survey for BIM which is really indicating the way that this is going. There is a white paper developed for Survey for BIM focused very much on point cloud survey and laser scanners. But there is actually a much wider survey consideration to be made. It involves a whole range of different people, chartered surveyors, vendors, such as Leica and Trimble, land surveyors, asset surveyors and building surveyors.
Actually getting them to all understand that there is a common purpose that they all need to serve — getting all the information into and maintaining that in a BIM model — so that the facility managers and operators who need reliable data can use it many times without the need for endless re-survey. The fact that there is this common thinking across engineering, survey, BIM and geospatial professional institutions is a very tangible indication of where we are headed.
When people use Google Maps, they don’t think of that as being GIS. In the future, we are going to see engineers and architects having to learn geospatial technology whether we call it geospatial or not. There is going to be cross-fertilisation of the disciplines.