Big Data

How aerial photography integrated with GIS systems can help make cities smarter

It’s the integration with geospatial and other technologies that can be a challenge. Here are some ways to overcome the digital hurdles.

Image: Tostphoto/Shutterstock

Smart-city initiatives depend on sensors, cameras and handheld devices that collect and contextualize data on geographic information systems and other geospatial systems so planners and actors can make decisions on assets, resources and situational issues such as traffic management and so on. One key element in all of this data is aerial photography, which enhances geospatial referencing to particular issues and situations and provides a platform for 3D modeling.

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Using aerial and geospatial photography isn’t new to city planners and engineers, but what is new for some is integrating this data into traditional GIS systems that are still being used and navigating through all of the geospatial vendors and choices at a time when the COVID pandemic has constricted city budgets.

“Many vendors are vying for the attention of these governments,” said Josh Budinger, interim director public sector, North America, for Nearmap, which provides aerial photography and geospatial solutions. “Therefore, these governments must find the right technology that fits their needs and provides the most value. Also, as budgets tighten, many governments are facing ever-expanding technology costs. It therefore becomes a challenge to decide what fits the budget, but also what provides the most bang for the buck. They also have to factor in their current personnel and how well-suited that personnel is to adopting new technologies.”

The personnel challenge has been broadening the skills of resident GIS system specialists whose skills and natural preferences have been honed on older technology. With these employees, there is a tendency to stick with what has always worked before and to avoid venturing out into integrations with Internet of Things, aerial imagery and other forms of unstructured data. A second challenge is integration. If you pick and choose among vendors for different geospatial solutions, how do you know that all of these solutions will work together—or even integrate with your in-house GIS system?

In the not-too-distant past, and even today, there were and are large aerial imagery files that sit on separate servers. They are not integrated with GIS and other geospatial systems. In other cases, cities rely on cloud storage to store video imagery. Both methods are used to store and access geospatial imagery, but the need to integrate these visuals with factual data about assets, crises, etc., is now forcing an inflection point where vital imagery must be married with vital data and brought together in a central system like GIS or geospatial. For instance, wouldn’t it be helpful to know the locations where the most 911 calls were made from so you could strategically place your 911 response vehicles closer to these locations?

“Content providers need to develop strong relationships with core geospatial technologies

to develop more improved interactions,” Budinger said. “A lot of governments are now expecting increased connections between content providers and geospatial technology.”

The easiest way to achieve integration is through a common set of industry-standard APIs. This would at least allow users to import aerial imagery into their core systems. Once the content is directly available within the geospatial technology, data can accurately be represented in a clear way that tells a story.

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“When you combine geospatial technology with high-resolution, frequently updated aerial imagery, you can unlock the power of true geospatial awareness,” Budinger said. “A good analogy is the difference between playing old movies on your TV versus a BlueRay on the same TV. Adding high-resolution imagery to GIS tools is like adding the improved color and detail from the BlueRay. When you add high-resolution imagery that is up to date and frequently updated, you can get so much more out of the GIS tools at your disposal.”

Cities that are making the leap into GIS integrations are seeing results. Budinger noted the city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which used aerial imagery to complete two major civic projects. “In one project, by using aerial imagery, they were able to complete a major corridor  construction project much faster than in the past thanks to the up-to-date images available to them,” Budinger said. “In a second project, assessing the city’s landfill became a much more manageable task after employing aerial imagery to manage the space.”

What remains to be done now for many municipalities is: 

  1. Ensure that their GIS systems are running the latest software releases, which likely contain a library of APIs
  2. Review their RFPs to vendors to ensure that proposed solutions operate with standard APIs to geospatial and GIS systems
  3. Beef up training and retraining for GIS staffers who are hesitant to incorporate new uses into their GIS systems

The heartening news is that many cities are already doing this. Now they need to be joined by the rest. 

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