Innovative GIS applications help public infrastructure agencies do more with less

Jeff Siegel, Director of Technology Solutions Center, HNTB Corporation,
An employee-owned infrastructure solutions firm serving public and private owners and contractors
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From approving lane closures to improving customer satisfaction, DOTs, transit agencies and others are inventing new, valuable ways to use this platform

Public-sector agencies that work with constrained resources naturally try to stretch their dollars by finding new ways to work more effectively and efficiently. As public agencies lean more on information technology for strategic benefits and operational efficiencies, geographic information systems are playing an increasingly important role.

A foundational enterprise technology for public agencies, GIS and related geospatial technologies have evolved from basic location-awareness tools to mission-critical and creative cost- and time-saving applications.  

The following are case studies of recent innovations:

1. Processing Permits and Lane Closure Requests with Speed and Confidence

As a part of operating and maintaining one of the nation’s heaviest traveled toll facilities, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority coordinates more than 800 lane closure requests a week. To help keep traffic flowing and to best serve the traveling public, the NJTA applies logical business rules to vet the potential safety and traffic operation implications of each request. For example, the NJTA will not approve a request if the proposed closure is within 3 miles of an existing closure or work zone.

 Because GIS has matured into such an accessible, flexible platform, we can expect more GIS-based solutions in the future. In fact, the innovative applications are boundless 

Historically, to make that determination, staff would have to manually and meticulously review each request, combing through pages of spreadsheets to check for conflicts. This process took a tremendous amount of time and human resources – and even with that, conflicts were sometimes missed.

For faster, highly accurate reviews, the NJTA decided to convert its existing spreadsheet-based system of collecting, managing and communicating lane closure requests to a web-based system powered by GIS. Now, when the NJTA receives a lane closure request, a geo-processing engine in the solution automatically checks for conflicts. In just minutes, the NJTA manager receives a recommendation from the system to accept or deny the request, depending on the results of the query.

The new system provides more timely responses and approvals to the NJTA’s contractors and limits the NJTA’s liability for approving work zone activity without having the proper permits in place.

2. Transforming Public Outreach into a Strategic Asset

When the Iowa Department of Transportation sought to more efficiently manage its statewide public involvement and outreach efforts and better leverage the data borne from those efforts, the DOT created the Public Involvement Management Application.

PIMA combines elements of GIS, social media, internal business processes and other enterprise systems. The new application invites collaboration among decision makers, so they can better plan, communicate, measure and respond to stakeholder questions and concerns. For example, users can:

• Capture, categorize, evaluate and respond to public comments

• Geographically visualize stakeholder input to understand the sources, categories and demographics of the feedback

• Monitor when and how stakeholder concerns are addressed and how satisfied they are with the resolution

• Better allocate and coordinate public involvement staff and resources in a timely, cost-effective manner

• Evaluate and document stakeholder engagement in ways that let the DOT set and manage performance measures

With PIMA, public engagement will be transformed into an asset that can be managed in ways that improve how stakeholders interact with the DOT. And, by extension, the DOT is in a stronger position to take on complex or difficult projects, knowing it has citizen support.

3. Efficiently Operating and Managing Wastewater Reclamation Facilities

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District is building on to its enterprise GIS vision with LiDAR (a surveying technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser light) and building information modeling to improve access to and retrieval of as-built conditions of its wastewater reclamation facilities.

The resulting dynamic 3-D virtual geospatial model will help the District track and create spatial awareness of all plant assets and facilities. Users will have the ability to view, understand, question, interpret and visualize data in ways that were difficult or time-consuming before. From safety and employee orientation/training to creating documentation and having a well-maintained operational database, the combination of LiDAR, BIM and GIS will make it easier to manage and use the collected information.

The application of this technology also is beneficial in facility planning. Models of proposed upgrades and capital improvements can be quickly shared and are simple to understand, providing a much easier and more efficient way to answer questions, propose new scenarios and plan capital projects.

4. Generating Transit Rail Track and Busway Charts on Demand

When the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority needed to update its inventory of assets and record drawings of its corridors, it turned to GIS and related geospatial technologies to execute the project with greater efficiency and effectiveness. 

Using a specially fabricated all-terrain vehicle equipped with high-resolution mobile LiDAR sensors and digital cameras, specialists drove along the MBTA’s transit lines and electrified bus tunnels to capture current and highly precise existing rail and route conditions. This processed 3-D geospatial database, combined with engineering logic, created a new application of GIS that will dynamically generate chart schematics that represent the scanned transit rail track and bus routes and provide an accurate data source for the MBTA’s enterprise asset management efforts.

By leveraging the power of GIS, the MBTA will replace the need for extensive records research, intense field reconnaissance and significant computer-aided design and drafting work with a more efficient, dynamic approach.

Endless Applications

Information technologies, such as GIS, help public agencies overcome the funding and political challenges inherent in addressing our nation’s infrastructure needs. With these applications, public agencies are effectively applying and stretching every available resource. Because GIS has matured into such an accessible, flexible platform, we can expect more GIS-based solutions in the future. In fact, the innovative applications are boundless.

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