News analysis

Use of geographical information systems increases

Cliff Saran

Adoption of geographical information systems is rising. Remote management and analytics overlaid with geospatial data is being used to manage real-world networks.

According to Pew Research, 70% of people will use maps on smartphones based on their current location. But graphical information systems are not just more expensive versions of Google Maps.

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While consumerisation of IT is driving adoption of mapping, within the enterprise organisations are using specialist geographical information systems to build spatially aware applications.

From tracking weather systems to traffic on the road network, data from remote sensors needs to be overlaid with geo-spatial information.

Speaking to Computer Weekly during Esri UK’s annual conference in London, Richard Waite, managing director at Esri UK, said: "Smartphones have location awareness built in, but they do not have location apps."

More than 1,400 customers, industry partners and prospective customers attended the Esri conference in London earlier in June. The conference has grown from a European user event to UK specific.

To respond to the popularity of GIS technology, Waite said the company has focused on making the product easier to work with: "We used to provide an application for the desktop or a server-based product. Now we've transformed the software so it will now run on any device and any browser."

Compared to consumer-based location services, GIS is designed to link into enterprise systems. For instance, if there is a water leak, GIS could be used by a water company to allow an operator to see all the pipes in the ground, all the valves and they would be able to use software to send a work order through a back office system like SAP, to send a crew out to turn the valve off.

Waite said: "The GIS would also be able to tell you which houses are affected, and do not have any water."

Esri’s core product is ArcGIS. It is a supplier to the military, utilities and local government. The Metropolitan Police Service uses ESRI mapping components to provide support for national mapping within its command centre. But Esri is also growing its commercial business. Waite said supermarkets have opened up to the benefits of GIS to analyse store performance and understand this by looking at demographics.

The company has worked to provide more content. Esri globally provides it own maps but in the UK he said Esri supplements the global data with local information. Esri works with third-party data providers to serve up data through the ArcGIS products.

Some of these data services may be free, some will be available through the ArcGIS online subscription, while for other data services, users will need to pay a premium. "We provide online data services that have been optimsed ready for the user to consume to get the best value from it."

Running the games

TfL used ArcGIS in 2012 to support the London 2012 Olympics VIP games lane, which was used to prioritised traffic for VIPs travelling by car to the games. Alain Bristow, director of road space management for TfL, said: "For London 2012 we had games running in Stratford plus seven other event location around London." TfL borrowed the idea of a Games Playbook from American football to move VIPs around the London road network.

TfL split the games in to 15-minute segments over a three-month period and had 15 to 20 layers of information with hundreds of thousands of models describing how each junction on the London road network should operate as it passed through the games timetable. 

TfL used an enterprise class Gis based on the Esri ArcGIS platform to control and understand what was happening in the Games. The system provided the VIP games lane controllers with the ability to know what was going on in at any point in time in the London road network. This information could be shared with everyone and was based on one version of the truth, Bristow explained during a presentation at the Esri UK annual conference.

He said: "When we started the project we thought we would have 40 users. By the time the Games finished we had 400 users."

TfL has also developed a new traffic information centre to understand, which provides real time spatially aware information about the road network, which Bristow said can be shared with sat nav users.

Modelling Ash

The Met Office is another big user of Esri. Nick Morgan, team leader for data storage and access at the Met Office, said the organisation developed a Volcanic Ash system with help from Esri UK. 

The system takes grid data and converts it into a polygon data, which takes input from the weather experts at the Met Office to model the atmospheric distribution of volcanic ash, accidental chemical releases or even airborne animal diseases like Blue Tongue, which is spread by midges. 

It runs on a PostgreSQL ArcGIS server using an Adobe Flex front end and takes grid data and converts it into a polygon to represent the spatial distribution of the ash.

ArcGIS is also being used in the Met Office’s Hazard centre through a joint project with the British Geological Centre. Morgan said: "We are looking at the risk of high-sided vehicles being knocked over."

In the past it has been difficult to do the processing because the number crunching required to overlay GIS data would not have been fast enough for real-time decision support. But, Morgan said GIS has developed to the stage where it is now possible to provide real-time information. Such real-time information could prevent a major accident such as if a lorry traveling 50mph gets blown over.


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