buildings and under streets.

"For the city of Sheboygan, they realized they needed to be able to create a fully integrated environment that would enable their first responders, who are inherently nontechnical, to navigate the inside and outside of all the buildings within their city," said Juliana Slye, Autodesk director of government. "To be honest with you, a firefighter is not going to open up a GIS application. They'll start pointing and clicking. They need something that is just really one or two snaps away from giving them all the information."

First, Sheboygan's GIS manager set up a small "pilot project area" by designing just a few buildings and inputting basic footprint data.

"Then they married that footprint data, which is much more of an engineering data, to things like digital personal mapping data and aerial photography," Slye said. "They began to build this really smart digital environment that allowed them to really provide all this precision information in a Web-based interface that any firefighter could quickly navigate."

The Autodesk software takes CAD drawings, blueprints, schematics and GIS data, blends it together and spits out a highly detailed, 3-D rendered environment. For this article, Autodesk provided a virtual tour of what its software is doing for military officials in Iraq. The tour centered on a street in Baghdad, complete with moving cars, pedestrians and structures. One particular building afforded both exterior and interior views. From inside the structure, you can look out the windows and determine where, for example, possible sniper shots might enter.

The software also allows officials to strip away all the structures if they wish, exposing the sewer and electrical infrastructure. In fact, nearly anything designed in CAD and placed on a map can be generated virtually. Autodesk and others are creating virtual worlds that are practical and incorporate real-world data that can be layered just like traditional GIS. Only now, the end result is more than the sum of its parts. Most of the data rendered in these virtual structures - the plumbing, the walls, the number of steel girders, the thickness of the drywall in the building - already exists in digital format in the state offices. It's up to agency officials to make the decision to take advantage of it.

"We call it 'democratizing' the design data, breaking it out of the engineering department, and putting it in the hands of the business leader," Slye said. "One of the things we've seen is a really strong synergy now between the nontechnical decision-makers inside of government agencies and the engineering department getting closer together, and closer alignment between what's being created and what's really needed."

Google Earth, Autodesk and a host of other platforms offer possibilities limited only by the imagination. But do these applications threaten the demise of traditional GIS?


Old-School Renewed?
It might seem like these new, user-friendly manifestations of GIS data would spell the end for ESRI, CARIS and other traditional GIS solutions providers. But according to those using new-school applications, the opposite is true.

At deCarta, a company specializing in providing geospatial data and imagery to Google, Ask, Rand McNally, Zillow and others, Business Development Vice President Mike Agron said the new GIS opens the door for traditional GIS applications by creating new opportunities to use the data they create.

"The promise of GIS is huge - the promise of location-based information, the promise of location intelligence," Agron said. "I think the broader implications are that location is only going to become more and more important in our decision-making process. It's only going to become more pervasive in everything we do. The likes of the Web, and the power of the Web, are going to make that show."

Web-based GIS platforms signal a revolution

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.