All of us are becoming familiar with checking our journey times, routes and mileages on a website: in some countries we can check on a live map if the roads are blocked by accidents or road works, or how the weather will affect us. On the journey itself we might have an in-car navigator displaying in real time where we are.

These are just a few examples of how geographic information system (GIS) technology, one of the key software tools for the road engineer and planner, has developed apace.

“The single biggest message is that it is moving out of the limited focus of simple asset management and engineering functions and into many more end applications,” says Ralph Diment, European marketing director for one of the main GIS suppliers, Intergraph. “Its display and analytic tools are becoming part of many other applications.”

Tony McNeills, director for business applications at MapInfo, another major player, has the same view. “This is no longer a back office tool but one which is used by everyone, increasingly including the public, on websites displaying a whole host of information, as well as by engineers and highway managers on a much wider scale. It is an exciting area of development.”

“There is now not a single office or job type in the average US transportation department that cannot or should not be using GIS technology,” says Terry Bills at ESRI, one of the biggest of the system providers. “It finds a use in all areas, planning, environment, operations and maintenance, accidents, and design.”

In-car technology is now accepted for journey planning

When GIS was first developed it was very much a tool for the engineer and the planner, he says. It translated into electronic form the plans and maps that they used.

By clicking on the relevant points the data could be easily called up as required, providing details of almost anything, from property ownership alongside a road, to road condition to signage and information about the road pavement. The limit to its usefulness has been only in the range of information to which it was applied.

Gradually increasing powerful ways have developed to analyse the relationships between different data sets, often stored in dozens of different layers. That can happen visually simply by allowing the user to “see” what he has in front of him, and with complex routines and algorithms developed by GIS suppliers.

But the engineer was still the “guardian” of this information. “If other people wanted to use it they would come to him and ask specific questions,” says Bills. But it is no longer in the support office he says, but has become integrated into all processes. “You don’t have to be an expert to use these tools and access the increasing amounts of data that they tie into,” adds his UK colleague, technical director Andrew Duff.

One of the main driving forces for this has been the development of common standards and capacities to interchange data, using file formats and data formats that can be read by other types of software. Most of the GIS software developers, and those who make other applications, have worked together on common standards.

The open GIS consortium is one of the more meaningful of the sometimes less than effective data interchange bodies set up by the software industry, and most users say that the results have been quite realistic. Development of the XML markup language framework and the specific version of it used for map data, GML or geographic markup language, has also helped.

A MapInfo handheld unit: they are becoming more important now they can be equipped with GIS

For many years, geographic data was one of the main “silos” of data that others could not get at easily. “This even used to keep the engineers and the planners apart,” says Bills “because the civil engineers would be using CAD applications and the planners were working in GIS and they would be at each others throats. Now the data can shift back and forwards.” ESRI has extensions that will read in any CAD and even maintain the CAD hierarchy – or conversely can read the data back into CAD.

Part of this process has been the increasing tie-in to major relational database systems, the Oracles and MSQLs, which look after the huge mountains of data now stored around the world. Early on, GIS was itself a data storage system and still can be if users want it so, says Alan Rush, of ESRI. But Oracle and others have added spatial data capacities to their systems.

For large amounts of data many of the applications with GIS now use it tied into a main database system. Specialists in major maintenance monitoring and project control systems like Exor in the UK and rival Southbanks Systems, now owned by Mapinfo, build multiple function pavement and road management systems around core database and then use GIS to access, display and manipulate the data.

The advantage is that GIS can coordinate and tap into a mass of different data pools collected by agencies and local authorities over the years, without it all having to be migrated and moved over. “You would be surprised at some of the legacy data stores that people integrate into their systems,” says Bills.

For Graham Stickler, product director at Exor, the GIS has become more and more the interface tool for both developing the systems, and for the engineers and others who then use them.

“The GIS modules are much more integrated into the whole system and are able to concentrate on what they do well, which is to access the data easily, display it in an intuitive format and handle the specific types of analysis that you can do with it.

Suppliers like ESRI make this integration easier these days by supplying a specialist software “development network” deal for consultants and engineers. All the various ESRI packages can be licensed for development only for much lower cost than buying the programs; once a general application is ready and tested, the elements that are required are then bought for full use.

All this is allowing a wide range of new functions to appear. One major area is the use of handheld devices tied into GIS systems and GPS satellite positioners. These are used for data collection for example, automatically specifying position data. Scott Wilson in the UK has recently used this for collecting environmental data alongside a road in the north of the country.

“It can even be used by unskilled people such as local authority workers who can be equipped with a small handheld device; if they see something like a damaged lamppost for example, or graffiti on a retaining wall, they can take a picture tied to GIS information so that a balanced decision can be made on action,” says McNeills at MapInfo. “Handhelds are becoming more and more important now they can be equipped with GIS and this will be a major growth area”.

PUBLICATION: World Highways
DATED: 14th March 2006