Home Articles Sustainable Infrastructure: Geospatial tech in the forefront

Sustainable Infrastructure: Geospatial tech in the forefront

Prof Ian Dowman
Editor – Europe, Geospatial World
[email protected]

A sustainable infrastructure fulfils the present societal needs while reducing the impacts on future generations by integrating materials and methods that promote environmental quality, resource efficiency, economic vitality and public safety through its design, construction and operation. This article brings out the use of geospatial technology in infrastructure lifecycle and the associated challenges

In this age of climate change and global warming, sustaining our environment for the future generations is a priority for the humanity. Those involved in geospatial technologies know well that they can contribute to this; indeed, they can make a vital contribution to protect the environment and to allow sustainable development. How do we do this?

We have at our disposal the means to collect data which is indispensible for this purpose and we also have tools for processing and analysing the data. These tools are recognised by decision makers and are being used extensively in areas like agriculture, for monitoring changes in the natural environment and for managing disaster response. In other areas however, the benefits of geospatial technology are less well understood, and at times not appreciated by decision makers who control the purse strings.

One component which is very important is a spatial data infrastructure (SDI), necessary to allow data and information to be available to many organisations. This article is designed to bring together information on issues and good practices, and to present a comprehensive picture of the role of geospatial information in the development and management of infrastructure, particularly in the built environment.

Infrastructure is defined by Wikipedia as the basic physical and organisational structures needed for the operation of a society or enterprise, or the services and facilities necessary for an economy to function.

A Sustainable Infrastructure is considered to be one in which maintaining, repairing and upgrading the infrastructure sustains our quality of life.

Green Infrastructure is a strategically planned and delivered network comprising the broadest range of high-quality green spaces and other environmental features.

A Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) is a framework of spatial data, metadata, users and tools that are interactively connected in order to use spatial data in an efficient and flexible way.

Data issues
There is much discussion at present on building a smarter planet to deal with the many challenges which face us. These include increasing population, migration of people to cities and increasing purchasing capacity resulting in increasing consumption. This is very much related to the political situation: developed Vs emerging Vs developing economies; the north south divide; climate change; depleting resources etc.

Information on location is clearly the primary service which the geospatial information (GI) industry can provide. It can provide answers to many pressing issues of developing world – site selection of facilities like power plants, waste disposal plants and healthcare facilities – areas where GI tools can facilitate optimum solutions to the planners. Going beyond, geospatial technology can be used in the entire lifecycle of infrastructure, including planning, building, operations and maintenance. Besides being able to provide location, geospatial professionals contribute an understanding of handling datasets, merging datasets and in particular, of accuracy. An infrastructure is frequently developed in a piecemeal fashion by different organisations using data from many sources; managing this as a whole requires detailed information at scales ranging from regional to neighbourhood level.

A key component in establishing and maintaining a sustainable infrastructure is good records. This is necessary for managing the infrastructure. As an example, consider the infrastructure for a city which might include details of buildings, inside and out, transport, and underground services: the data would have been compiled from many sources such as traditional surveying, photogrammetry, laser scanning and existing digital or hard copy records. It is important to understand the legacy of the data to assess its quality before the data is used for modelling to help planning efficient use of energy, understand and reduce air pollution, noise pollution etc.

Another issue is the role of government and national mapping organisations (NMOs). Governments may mandate authorities to manage ‘green facilities’ for the benefit of the society. In the United Kingdom, several directives require local authorities to take note of the green infrastructure concept in making their plans and decisions. NMOs can supply basic data for management of urban and rural infrastructure, but do not generally get directly involved.

Geospatial industry involvement
At the recent Hexagon user conference, the main theme revolved around building a smarter planet focusing on green infrastructure and green energy, demonstrating that a geospatial company has linked up these global issues with its business focus. Other companies such as ESRI, Autodesk and other GIS software companies are complementing positioning technology companies like Trimble, Topcon, and Leica which are strongly pursuing infrastructure as a major business segment.

Bentley1 has developed software for managing 3D Cities and emphasises on 3D modelling, quality control, management, 3D analysis and design as the essential components. Quality of course is a primary element of geospatial data for this type of application, as well as interoperability. Bentley recognises the terrain, buildings, transportation network, bodies of water, city furniture, electric/power lines, and vegetation objects as the components of an urban infrastructure.

Esri2 provides software for managing geospatial data and this has been used for such diverse applications and managing cities facilities. For example, Esri software has provided optimum location for building materials and visualisation software to communicate the status of energy and water usage to the residents of Masdar city in UAE.

Merrick & Co, through its products, demonstrates how geospatial techniques can contribute to every stage in the lifecycle of a power line project3, demonstrating efficiencies at each stage, and particularly in the ongoing operations and maintenance stage essential for sustainable energy supply.


Spatial data infrastructure
A prime example of a spatial data infra structure is INSPIRE in Europe. INSPIRE will enable the sharing of environmental spatial information among public sector organisations and facilitates better public access to spatial information across Europe. It will assist in policy-making across boundaries. The spatial information considered under the INSPIRE directive is extensive and includes a great variety of topical and technical themes. INSPIRE is linked to GMES (Global Monitoring of Environment and Security). INSPIRE and GMES share many commonalities such as their focus on environmental policy support, their system of systems nature, their use of geomatic and geographic information, their Europe, or worldwide, dimension, their reliance on international standards and the advanced spatial data infrastructures that are needed for their implementation.

An example of a service provided by GMES is ‘The Spatial Planning Service’5 which provides harmonised and highly accurate earth observation based information products and tools to describe, explain and forecast urban land use changes supporting spatial planning from regional to European scale. The Spatial Planning Service of GMES builds upon the applicability of core land cover/land use mapping data from the continental GMES Land Monitoring Core Service, which depict the extent, development and density of urban areas and their surrounding landscapes. Subsequently, the maps are integrated with ancillary geospatial and statistical data into geographical information procedures, toolsets and models. These derived information products open the way for analysing demographic developments and for analysis of changing land use and its impact on the environment. A key benefit is seen as support of spatial planning authorities with consistent and comparable EO based information products and tools to describe, explain and forecast urban land use changes and this indicates how the use of geospatial data is moving from observing and monitoring to the evaluation of policy options.

Another example is in Indonesia where the SDI serves many central and local government departments and the private sector. This is emphasised by the example of the Indonesian SDI which will serve not only BAKOSURTANAL (the national mapping agency) and the National Land Registry, but also the National Aeronautics and Aerospace Institute, government ministries including forestry, public works, transportation, agriculture, marine and fisheries and also the private sector and local governments which has more has 500 nodes participating. This was discussed further in the article on National Mapping Agencies6 in May 2011 of Geospatial World.

It might be argued that progress in Africa is hindered by the lack of a spatial data infrastructure, although this deficiency is recognised and being remedied by projects such as the African Reference Framework (AfREF) project which is designed to set up a continent wide reference system, making it easier for data to be exchanged between organisations in different countries.

Sustainable cities
A key theme in current development practice is the sustainable city and more specifically, the eco city. The idea is to make cities cleaner, greener and more energy efficient, and the role of geospatial information is central to this. The city of Masdar in Abu Dhabi, self proclaimed as the ‘world’s first carbon-neutral, zero-waste city’ is a prime example. In Masdar, it is recognised that GIS has a key role to play7 and a GIS team is responsible for managing the overall spatial information needs of the project. This includes the provision of basic geospatial information tools such as a base map and visualisation tools to enable all stakeholders to understand the environment.

Figure 2. Proposed Masterplan of Masdar City

Planners use GIS to determine the siting of key facilities like Masdar’s water treatment and sewage plants, material recycling centre, solar power plant, geothermal test site, solar panel test field and concrete batching plant – all amenities which need to be situated inside the city’s boundaries. GIS is seen to operate as a decision-making tool; informing the practitioners who work on the Masdar project. GIS is also being used to model some of Masdar’s key infrastructural features directly. Its involvement in simulating the city-wide Personal Rapid Transport System (PRTS) is one such example. (More information on Masdar on Page No. 40)

Another example comes from the USA. The City of Philadelphia has a plan to invest USD 2 billion over the next 25 years on green infrastructure to clean up the city’s water. According to the information available at PWD’s website8, GIS is already playing a major role in this ambitious initiative. The Department is using GIS to analyse and visualise information about its watersheds. GIS software enabled users to view individual or multiple physical features as a series of stacked, two-dimensional ‘layers’ that form accurate maps and diagrams. The capability of this software encompasses many other data analysis functions; for example, GIS can be used to trace sewer routes, find how much of a watershed area is made up of certain types of land uses, or determine which land parcels are located adjacent to creeks.

Figure 3. Major Philadelphia watersheds

There are many well known examples of the use of geospatial information to improve the quality of the environment, and to make activities more efficient. Other examples include the use of 3D city models (air and noise pollution) and emergency services (GNSS for efficient routing, location of vehicles and facilities and use of facilities). A less well known example is the mapping and description of trees which can be done by combining information from imagery and from laser scanning, together with contextual information.

Figure 4. IKONOS image with LiDAR point cloud showing position of trees.9

While showing where trees are, an assessment can be made on the overall impact which they might have on the immediate area in the form of roots affecting adjacent buildings; the impact of water run-off and the effect on lighting, all requiring information on the species, canopy extent and height. Insurance companies also find this information useful in assessing the risk to buildings and services. The location of smart energy meters in domestic properties can provide information of how energy is being used and help plan more efficient delivery.

Transport is another area where geospatial information is important. Using GNSS for routing is a long established technique which makes journeys shorter and saves fuel, but the application can be more sophisticated than this. Ola Rollen of Hexagon gives the example of using GI for the siting of bus stops, where the slope of the road is taken into account: more fuel is needed if a bus has to start on an upward slope, so it is more fuel efficient to site bus stops on downward slopes.

Many countries are building high speed rail networks and geomatics techniques are being used in the planning, construction and management of these networks. An important element of a railway system is safety and although GNSS can provide position, this has to be 100% reliable if used for signalling. For example, Figure 5 shows the track of a GPS receiver plotted on an aerial image as the number of satellites used for positioning changes. Current research is determining how complete reliability can be achieved by using available GNSS systems to overcome this problem.

Figure 5. The track of a GPS receiver plotted on an aerial image as the number of satellites used for positioning changes.10

Another interesting example comes from Portugal11. Ferbritas SA is a consulting engineering company specialising in transport. They use GIS within their project lifecycle and stress that “The requirements of the associated interventions are very technical in nature and involve multiple specialties and technologies, and the final result is only guaranteed if the various components of this interwoven puzzle are compatible and properly joined together.” GIS is an important tool in this process; they have also developed a Cadastre Information System “designed to meet the needs of the rail sector and beyond. It also is applicable to the activities of entities or organisations to which it is important to ensure the dynamic control of cadastral and real estate property.”

GI measuring techniques are used to measure the thickness of tarmac on road surfaces, ensuring that only the optimum amount of material is used. Similar techniques are used on the Monaco Formula 1 grand prix circuit to accurately define the exact topography of the track.

Another example from the USA is illustrated in the Transportation for the Nation (TFTN) strategic plan in which it has been recognised that redundancy in datasets cost taxpayers millions of dollars12. The generation of consistent, current, high quality road centre line data for the entire country would bring about significant efficiencies. As well as using existing datasets, the identified approach also envisions capitalising on the emergence of volunteered geographic information (crowd sourcing) to maintain quality and provide a user feedback mechanism. A completed comprehensive dataset will communicate knowledge of the US road network, thereby promoting innovation, commerce, informed public discourse, basic research and sharing within open communities of interest. Some pervasive applications include: on-board vehicle navigation, emergency vehicle dispatching and routing, census enumeration, postal and delivery services, disaster response and relief efforts, tax collection, mapping accidents, asset inventories, map directions on smartphones, and other location-based systems. In addition to the general uses of road centre lines outlined above, transportation professionals utilise road centre lines extensively for explicit transportation planning and management activities. These activities include highway safety involving issues like road geometry and guardrail placement, intelligent transportation system planning, congestion management and environmental issues such as wetlands and air quality along rights-of-way, and highway performance issues to gauge the health and usability of the transportation system.

On the face of it, the examples above seem to provide a win-win situation: the use of GI allows infrastructure projects to be more efficient and save money. The GI software companies and the instrument providers recognise this and target infrastructure managers with their products. Key issues are whether such large and diverse datasets can be managed and shared by different departments, in other words: can spatial data infrastructures cope with the demand put upon them. Potential issues arising from this include interoperability between software packages and standards to ensure smooth data transfer. It should be the geospatial community which ensures that their data can be used efficiently on the systems used by local authorities and government. Can NMOs and commercial mapping companies provide the data which can be used in complex systems? Can the data providers and software providers also act as system analysts and ensure that data and software are compatible across the board? Is this an opportunity for GI professionals to extend their expertise, and their influence beyond providing data?

The other side of the coin is that decision makers must be convinced that geospatial information is fit for purpose, and that money spent in developing comprehensive infrastructure management will pay off. May be it can in a new development such as Masdar, but can such a system be imposed on existing, multi-sector organisations? Another important tool to help decision makers and the public to understand information is to use visualisation tools developed by geospatial industry, but this too must go with intelligent presentation.

There is no doubt that geospatial information is essential to the development and management of infrastructure. A well planned and well managed system can be sustainable but there are necessary preconditions: all potential users should be aware of what is involved and what the benefits could be. The development of a wide selection of case studies to demonstrate the benefits in efficiency and cost effectiveness brought about by geospatial information would be beneficial. Many straight forward examples exist, ranging from the simple provision of a static position, through positioning for routing and the emergency services, to geospatial analysis of data for siting facilities. But it has been demonstrated that GI can provide more than this, involving the full lifecycle of a project, particularly in the maintenance of a facility. Knowledge of accuracy requirements and accuracy attained is vital, as is the presentation of information to decision makers and the public on the performance of a system.


  1. https://www.fig.net/pub/fig2010/papers/ts08b%5Cts08b_fredericque_lapierre_4703.pdf
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GIS_and_environmental_governance#Masdar_City
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GIS_and_environmental_governance#Masdar_City
  4. https://www.phillywatersheds.org/what_were_doing/maps
  5. Muller, J-P, Kim J-R, Kelvin J, 2004. Automated 3d Mapping Of Trees And Buildings And It’s Application To Risk Assessment Of Domestic Subsidence In The London Area. www.isprs.org/proceedings/XXXV/congress/comm2/papers/239.pdf
  6. Stolagiewicz, 2009. Contributions to the foundations of a safety case for the use of GNSS in railway environments. PhD Thesis, University College London.
  7. https://www.vector1media.com/article/features/20982-cadastre-information-system-for-rail-in-portugal.html
  8. TRANSPORTATION FOR THE NATION ,STRATEGIC PLAN, PRODUCED FOR, The US Department of Transportation, Geospatial Information Officer, March 2011