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The Many Benefits of 3-D Maps

Columbia County, Ga., is getting much more than traffic accident data out of 3-D technology.

by / June 19, 2012
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Three-dimensional mapping technology is helping improve data accuracy and citizen services in Columbia County, Ga.

The county purchased eight panoramic high-resolution 3-D photos of its entire roadway system, encompassing 1,100 linear miles and approximately 2,500 streets. County staff combined the images with existing GIS data to form virtual maps that can be used for planning projects, code enforcement issues and emergency situations.

The 3-D images were created using an elaborate camera system and software package called the Mars Collection System. The suite was developed by earthmine, a mobile mapping technology provider located in Berkeley, Calif.

Think of Google Street View, but with the added bonus of measuring the height and depth of structures along the streets.

In August, the company drove out to Columbia County and photographed every road within the county’s borders. Eight photos were created, spanning the entirety of the county’s street coverage. Each pixel in the images contains latitude, longitude and elevation data.

When combined with GIS data, the 3-D maps give county employees an entirely virtual representation of street infrastructure that planners and other county staff are able to manipulate.

“A building frontage, the shoulder of a roadway to see if there is enough of a curve to allow for water runoff — we can look at all of those different things now,” said Mary Howard, GIS manager with Columbia County. “The ability to measure on the photography is what really gives it value.”

The 3-D GIS project has taken the county some time to bring online. Howard said Columbia County received the maps back from earthmine in about three weeks, but the sheer amount of data and limited staffing resulted in a slower rollout. The 3-D imagery is more than 2 TB and contained in more than 20 million file folders.

Training on the system takes no more than five minutes, Howard said. Those just looking at the 3-D maps use a simple “viewer version” of earthmine’s program. Advanced users can use the 3-D renderings in AutoCAD as a backdrop for development design plans, while GIS users can also import the maps into geospatial programs like Esri’s ArcMap.

Public Safety Applications

Columbia County’s 311 services have access to the system, as does the county tax assessor, property acquisition and sign departments, and county commissioners. But some emergency responders, such as firefighters and ambulance personnel — that latter of which are private contractors — are still on the waiting list to use the technology. They’ve only seen it work in the county’s office.

The county sheriff’s office, which is an internal agency of the county, does have some officers trained on the system who are currently using it.

“Police can map where wrecks are in intersections to measure how far out on the road something happened,” Howard said. Emergency services personnel, she added, are interested in measuring the slopes of peoples’ driveways to pinpoint which ones ambulances can drive into without damaging the back of the vehicles.

The county’s engineering, construction and maintenance division also is realizing some benefits from the 3-D technology in its internal planning processes. For example, engineers devising a plan for road work can access the 3-D map and make smarter decisions on how to improve that location.

Using the maps, potholes can be discovered, along with clues that may help workers detect if a roadway is in danger of collapsing. The technology also provides a snapshot of pre-existing conditions of a roadway or area, which may be useful if a complaint or issue is brought forth by a resident.

In addition, the 3-D maps also can be accessed in the field through a laptop. A user needs access to the county’s network, but as long as the connection is made through wireless VPN, the earthmine 3-D program works just like it does back at the office.

Looking Ahead

Despite the maps’ usefulness, to really paint an adequate picture of the county roadway system, the 3-D renderings will have to be updated as changes occur to streets and property. But cost could be a factor. The initial 3-D maps cost Columbia County $75,000.

Earthmine was only going to map the county’s urban areas, but went ahead and mapped the entire roadway system for the county anyway. Howard didn’t know how much an update to all the 3-D maps would cost. But she said the tentative plan is to have them redone every two years.

In the meantime, plans are in the works to implement a new online mapping function that has various map “channels” in it so that everyone — county residents included — can view the 3-D maps.

But it’s the county employees who will be working with the technology that Howard was most excited about.

“In addition to [the 3-D maps] giving us a 100 percent inventory of our county roadways, we now have all these end-users that become GIS users and help us keep our data updated,” she said.


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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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