Witnessing the Dawn of 3D GIS and Smart Cities – Part II

By Dr. Qassim Abdullah and Nadja Turek

“Place matters, particularly for local governments,” says Mr. Abhi Nemani, the chief data officer for Los Angeles, which is famed for its enterprise or hub GIS implementation. “Key services ranging from policing and fire prevention to building inspections and infrastructure repair all center around a place—a location, geography. GIS serves as a local government’s guide to navigate and understand a place, and what’s happening there.” So what will change when civil servants and citizens manage their cities in 3D? In part I of this article, we introduced the concept of the smart city and described the 3D GIS technologies and processing techniques that could enable rapid implementation. This smart city concept refers to the deployment of new knowledge-based technology, enhanced city-wide asset management, transparency to internal policies and processes, and where citizens engage with officials. Smart cities can only be achieved through combining competencies in GIS, data services, business intelligence and IT, with expertise in city business. As cities like Los Angeles become “smart,” let’s see what they gain.

Enabling Stewardship:

Good city management and thoughtful prioritization of investment is more important than ever. For years, the American Society of Civil Engineers has graded our country’s infrastructure at a D grade or worse, thanks to a lack of investment and repairs. As resources for buildings and infrastructure have dwindled, the engineering community has struggled to respond with effective advocacy. Visualizing infrastructure in 3D will help bring awareness to the critical yet hidden systems behind our walls and under our feet. If a city council can see its infrastructure network—maybe take a virtual 3D tour—and easily understand its state of (dis)repair and readily witness the number of citizens each branch and line supports, it becomes much easier to justify an expenditure or hold a compelling public discourse. Interest in asset management among government, campus and building managers has risen, mostly driven by a need to prioritize. But getting a handle on a city’s or campus’ vast holdings—its buildings, pipes, roads, meters, fleet, etc.—in a digital environment often seems like a massive, underfunded undertaking.

That’s where 3D scanning and rapid processing into a GIS enter. In many cases, 3D data exists for entire cities. Its bought and paid for, but not yet working hard for city managers. In Part I we discussed a number of advancements that will make creating a geospatially accurate 3D model of a city easier to create, starting with a 3D scan. At the Ohio State University, the third largest university campus in the U.S., asset managers created a spatial portal that combines information formerly locked in existing disparate information systems into a single user interface. Student amenities, such as building locations, blue emergency phones, bike racks, landscape data, disability parking and city bus routes are publicly viewable, while a credentialed user can access building information models (BIM). Facility managers can access utility line locations, road pavement conditions, building assessment data and building floor plans with associated space data. While an enterprise GIS is not new, the campus can now be navigated in numerous ways, including a 3D model (Figure 1 and 2). When we can accurately connect the dots between infrastructure and human welfare, new sources of income, investment and partnership will come to light.

Figure 1 and 2. OSU is pushing the edge of 3D GIS by integrating BIM models of their buildings, created in Revit, into its GIS, making it a 3D tool for campus management. CityEngine is used to visualize the campus in 3D.


Improved Responsiveness:

The much-trumpeted Internet of tThings is beginning to include control systems and sensors such as pumps, fans, switchgears, thermostats, lighting controls, fire alarms and security cameras. Historically, industrial control systems have been highly proprietary and single-purposed. Building managers could have a separate computer terminal in their office for each and every control systems in their building—HVAC, security and fire. And there were many (perhaps happy) building managers with no computer terminals to worry them, as none of their systems were controllable anyway! Maturing in parallel with 3D GIS is the integration of industrial control into asset management systems. The smartification (we can make up words, right?) of industrial control systems will give the city and building managers of the future one portal through which they can both view the location and operation of their assets with accuracy in 3D, and manipulate those systems remotely.

From the citizens’ perspective, what will enhanced responsiveness look like? Hopefully it is simple and individually controlled. Based on gobs of surveys[1] and experience, building users’ satisfaction with a built environment usually boils down to whether buildings help or hinder occupants’ productivity. According to an article synopsizing decades of studiesby the Usable Building Trust, the most important attribute among those polled is a comfortable, relatively predictable thermal environment. After that, users seek rapid response when things go wrong and “predictable default states which operate invisibly for the most part.” When occupants do need to make adjustments, they want simple and quick controls that work. A unified, simple, functional building management system viewable and operable in 3D is the almighty and elusive win-win for building manager and occupants. Many vendors are working toward this combination, with one example shown in Figure 3. One of Esri’s headquarters buildings in Redlands, CA is modeled in 3D with the temperature of each room monitored live in shades of red for the building manager and occupants.

Figure 3. One of Esri’s headquarters buildings in Redlands, Calif. is monitored in real time for occupant comfort, and offers some remote control functions for building managers.



Resiliency is the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality in the face of stress or disturbance.[1]Our infrastructure, buildings and supply lines must be able to absorb impacts—whether they are human-made acts of terror or error or natural disasters—and regain function quickly in order to be resilient. The 3D GIS can play a role in disaster preparedness, response, recovery and regeneration. It is already used to accurately characterize shorelines and watersheds, accomplish hydraulic modeling and design resilient flood and hurricane protection systems. During an event or attack, 3D GIS can also become a public notification tool, enabling escape route planning or emergency response. Fire fighters can use 3D GIS data to determine the length of hose or ladder height needed to respond to a fire in a particular building and dispatch the right engine quickly.  In the recovery phase, LiDAR flown immediately after a tornado (Figure 4 and 5) can quickly show the path of destruction. By comparing before and after imagery, city managers can quickly estimate the extent, amount and location of debris created and rapidly exercise an existing contract for debris management.


Figure 4 and 5. These images show before and after aerial images of a community affected by a tornado. Analysts identified the path and extent of destruction through change detection in the before and after 3D LiDAR and gave the city managers a quick but accurate estimate of the volume of debris created by the storm. The city could quickly execute debris removal contracts, while responsibly stewarding city funds.


Smart Cities Now:

The smart city concept is gaining momentum in the United States, Canada, Europe and India, where local and foreign investments are implementing massive models of the smart city governing style. Los Angeles is setting the gold standard in the U.S. The software pieces of the puzzle are on the table, but fitting them together seamlessly is the software integration challenge of the coming years. We can produce visually stunning 3D city models in software such as Esri’s City Engine, but first we have to create the model. We can acquire a LiDAR point cloud of a city (even a colorized one) and view that point cloud in many existing software packages such as Acute 3D Viewer (or TerraExplorer) and Quick Terrain Modeler, but we can’t easily do planning and design work with it. We can generate a digital surface model (DSM) of a city from the LiDAR, but the surfaces in that model do not have attributes. A wall doesn’t know it’s a wall; a street doesn’t know it’s a street—as it would in 3D modeling software. But these pieces are rapidly converging, and we’re having fun piecing the puzzle together. For cities, 3D imagery and data visualization enhances communication to constituents (voters, rate payers, leadership) and advocacy for projects and funding. Asset management via a building or city model can bring situational clarity, and if it is interactive, it can also improve controllability and response.


[1] “Building performance: what the users say” by A. Leaman, www.usablebuildings.co.uk. 2005
[2] The Resilient Design Institute, http://www.resilientdesign.org/

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