Powerful Benefits of Visualizing Municipal Infrastructure

Shawn Barnett
Shawn Barnett

Article by: Shawn Barnett | EVP Surveying and Geospatial Technology, England-Thims & Miller Inc. | Guest Columnist | The Municipal

When it comes to municipal infrastructure improvements, it is not unusual for public works departments to be under pressure to prioritize those projects most visible to the public and city councils. Leaders want residents to clearly see how their tax dollars are being spent, so rebuilding a sidewalk along a busy thoroughfare might take precedence over a more critical sewer repair located deep below the surface.

In a digital world, however, every physical asset of a city is visible with just a click on a screen. Supported by carefully gleaned data, projects can be identified and prioritized based on need and return on investment. And the public will clearly see how every dollar is being spent and how it is improving the community.

Geospatial technology is a visualization and planning tool that can provide a real-time picture of a city or county’s physical infrastructure — from parking spaces and street signs to electrical grids and water mains.

Besides marking each asset’s physical location, essential data such as age, condition and maintenance and repair history can be easily accessed by the city and the asset departmental owner — who owns it and has responsibility for it. Separate systems — water, utility, transportation, traffic, etc. — can be integrated to facilitate the coordination of multiple projects in a geographic area to minimize disruptions and maximize efficiency.

Also built into these geospatial systems are the very attributes upon which public agencies are judged — efficiency, productivity and accountability.

Making the move to digital

The days have mostly passed when senior leaders would resist technology, understandably fearing that it would infringe upon the legacy system organized in a file cabinet and indexed in their mind. While it is not at all unusual for a public works department to still rely heavily on a paper-based document, this is usually less a preference and more trepidation in taking on the daunting task of digitizing their operations. Equally daunting, it is presumed, is the thought of approaching the budget office or city council for the necessary financial outlay to fund such an undertaking.

Both concerns can be addressed by taking a more incremental approach to digital development and integration. Because geospatial solutions are scalable and can easily be built out over time, a municipality can employ an affordable strategy by focusing on its most pressing problem first. For example, a community faced with a combined sewer overflow consent decree can begin with a platform that will allow it to integrate hydraulic model data into a geospatial map of its sewer system to monitor rain events and identify problem areas. Once improvements have been made and that issue addressed, other municipal systems and assets can be added as budget and workforce become available.

Working smarter

One of the most significant advancements in technology in the past quarter century is the ability to economically store large volumes of data. Extracting value from that data is not as commodified. In order to make informed decisions, the right data must be collected and analyzed to achieve meaningful results that reflect real-life conditions and suggest optimal solutions.

Developing geospatial models, even at the most comprehensive level possible, will not, however, provide an immediate fix to maximize efficiencies of a public works department. Real-world workflows and chains of command need to be streamlined. Silos of information need to be consolidated to reap the benefits of data and remove redundancies.

Although software alone cannot do this, project teams provide this type of organizational input. It is particularly beneficial to collaborate with a project team with a background in both local public agencies and the types of civil engineering and municipal planning needed to execute capital improvement projects.

Once a geospatial system is in place and operations are aligned more holistically, an agency can begin to digitally map out their five-year capital improvement plan. Rather than starting with a list of projects, each project can be visualized geographically with all the relevant data readily accessible.

This is particularly beneficial in sequencing projects one after another or combining several efforts into a single focus. A routine manhole replacement that might be three years out can be sequenced to coincide with a larger intersection improvement project scheduled in year one if both fall within the same site limits.

This will lower construction costs and eliminate the need to create separate Maintenance of Traffic Plans for two different projects. These savings then might be directed toward less critical projects in the immediate area, such as streetscape enhancements.

City of Jacksonville 3D Rendering
A 3D rendition of a city block in the heart of the city of Jacksonville’s downtown. (Rendered in Esri’s City Engine)

In addition to facilitating a higher level of planning, a comprehensive digital solution will provide a centralized hub for every aspect of a project. Work orders, invoices, correspondence, and all other documentation related to a project will be accessible from the map view of the software. Progress can be tracked from concept and budgeting through construction and closeout.

Once everything is completed in the real world, a digital as-built will be delivered along with all the associated data. There will be no more paper records turning yellow in a file cabinet and essential institutional knowledge will not walk out the door when a key employee retires. Everything is recorded and will be instantly retrievable for generations to come.

The future is today

While a fear of technology may no longer be a major issue for public works departments, organizations that remain operating in an analog world are now facing an alternate problem. Young people entering the workforce grew up in a digital age. Many aspects of their lives involve their smartphones, and they expect to carry out many of their work duties that way as well.

Even workers who perform physical labor want to leverage technology to do their jobs more efficiently. Adapting to this new approach to work enhances the competitive advantage of a municipality.

OpenGov Asset Management
Here is a digital asset model of a downtown district created in Esri and rendered in OpenGov’s Cartegraph Asset Management software.

The future of civil infrastructure — in major metropolitans, suburban cities and rural towns — will include the development of digital twins, full 3D representations of a community’s entire physical environment. CIP development will be aided by high-level predictive modeling and precision forecasting. The integration of AI is already transforming the industry and will continue to do so in ways not yet imagined. Ultimately, this will all allow public works departments to do much more with every tax dollar invested, while improving the quality of life for the entire community.

The transformation into a digital world will not happen overnight. But it is a journey that every municipality aims to embark upon today by introducing geospatial modeling into their operations. The first steps can be taken slowly and will not require a significant investment of either budget or human resources. The key is developing technology designed especially for local agencies that will deliver the best-built environment to the community they serve so as to maximize the powerful benefits of visualizing municipal infrastructure.

Shawn Barnett is EVP of Surveying and Geospatial Technology with England-Thims & Miller Inc. He can be reached at BarnettS@etminc.com.

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