Building a Better World in GeoWeb 2008, Part 2

28 Jul, 2008 By: Kenneth Wong

The search for wisdom in digital cityscapes.

Kimon Onuma, FAIA, president and founder of Onuma, is an architect who's figured out a way to use interactive maps as platforms for planning and executing architectural projects ("The Summer of BIM," Tech Trends, April 1, 2008). He uses Google Earth as one of the visualization platforms for his collaborative design exercises, called BIMstorms. On Wednesday, July 24, Onuma met Google chief technology advocate Michael Jones in person at the GeoWeb conference (July 21-25, Vancouver, BC).

"I think the next technology merger in the industry will be CAD and GIS," Jones told Onuma. "That's the future of city planning, definitely in government approval processes."

Their exchange lasted a mere five minutes. But the handshake between CAD and GIS continued, in sessions like "Integrating Information Worlds through CityGML" by Ordnance Survey's Carsten Roensdorf; "The Convergence of CAD, CAE, BIM, and GIS," by Bentley Systems' Alain Lapierre; and "3D City Models and Their Role in the GeoWeb," by Google's Mike Springer.

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Google's chief technology advocate Michael Jones believes maps can change the geopolitical future of the world. He takes pride in Google's involvement to raise awareness of the crisis in Darfur through Google Earth. (Click the image for a larger version)

Digital Utopia Founded on Open Source Code
As Onuma has shown with his BIMstorms, no insurmountable technical hurdle prevents people from importing BIM models into a GIS environment. Onuma uses IFC (Industry Foundation Class) format as the go-between to pass data back and forth between different AEC programs, such as Revit and ArchiCAD. To display the structures in geospatial applications like Google Earth, he uses KML (Keyhole Markup Language), an XML-based schema pioneered by Keyhole, now part of Google.

"We went with IFC because I strongly believe open standards are going to facilitate this integration of CAD and GIS," said Onuma. For the same reason, he relies on the Open Geospatial Consortium's (OGC) CityGML."

Mapping BIM objects to CityGML classes is grunt work, but not impossible, Onuma observed. But the greater challenge, he thinks, is balancing the level of details in the urban planning model versus the users' needs.

"BIM-CAD-GIS integration is about interoperability," observed Geoff Zeiss, a director of technology at Autodesk. "Open source has a critical role to play in that."

He points out that, in addition to IFC, widely accepted open standards like MultiSpeak from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and those from OGC and ISO can facilitate the exchange of geometry and metadata.

Locked Up in Old Traditions
Zeiss, who hosted a panel discussion on emerging national geospatial standards at the conference, remarked, "You're probably not going to see uber models, but you'll see lots of domain models," for example, cityscapes, which show the exteriors of buildings and streets; interior models, which show the inside structure of buildings; and 3D visualization of utility and power networks.

Much of the data required to build an accurate infrastructure model, Zeiss points out, is locked away in municipal government's archives as paper drawings. That's because, currently, the review and approval process relies on manual signatures.

"In some jurisdictions, authorities have passed laws to make electronic signatures legal," Zeiss explained. "In my view, we have to first make electronic signatures legal, then the cities have to start encouraging people to submit their plans and proposals electronically."

Onuma acknowledges that the new collaborative workflow he champions might raise some legal issues architects have not anticipated before. "The way the contracts are written, for instance, may have to be changed," he said.

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The cityscape shown here was used by Autodesk customer Parsons Brinckerhoff to show the local authorities two alternative proposals for a new commuter route (courtesy of Parsons Brinckerhoff and Autodesk). (Click the image for a larger version)

If You Build It, Will They Come?
Bill Gail, Microsoft's director of strategic development, Virtual Earth Business Unit, observed the current method — where "you create a visually appealing environment, but don't pay attention to the geometric rigor" — can only go so far. "In the long run, you'll find that you can't do the next thing you want to do," he noted. "One of the things we're doing in Virtual Earth is to create a geometrically rigorous framework in the models."

In October 2007, Microsoft teamed up with its long-time partner Dassault Systemes to release Virtual Earth-3DVia, a free online application for publishing 3D objects created in 3DVia to Microsoft Virtual Earth. The move helped Virtual Earth catch up with Google Earth, which has a similar feature that allows users to import 3D models created in the freely distributed Google SketchUp into Google Earth.

So when and where would the next geospatial revolution take place? According to Gail, it is close at hand — that is, as close as your handheld device. In which case, your teenage daughter or son might hold the key, not just because they're rushing out to buy the newest iPod and iPhone but because they insist on sharing.

The Culture of Sharing
ESRI Canada's founder and president Alex Miller observed, "It's not that the local governments don't want to share this utility information. It's not protectiveness that prevents them from sharing. It's just that the data is collected for a specific purpose, it's good enough for that, but probably not good enough to be released to the entire public."

But he foresees a dramatic shift with the anticipated arrival of the next generation — "the iPod generation," as he calls it. "I think it'll be difficult for governments to keep the data to themselves," he noted. "First of all, the public would expect to see it on the Web. People don't go down to City Hall to find what they need anymore; they go to the Web."

In some corners of the geospatial world, people have been toying with the notion of a Geopedia, based on the Wikipedia model that lets everyone contribute their geographic knowledge to develop an ultimate geospatial database. In Miller's view, that's not feasible, at least not at the moment.

"The technology to upload text and photos [to Wikipedia] is pretty standardized," he observed. "But it takes a fair amount of training to collect geographic data. They need to understand the type of data needed, the projections they're collecting on, the local coordinate systems, the limitation of the devices, and their accuracy level. There have always been amateur writers, but there's never been amateur mappers."

Perhaps Geopedia is a premature consideration at the present. Nevertheless, "the future is incredibly bright," Microsoft's Gail observed. "We have a convergence of social trends and technologies that allows us to do many things we weren't able to do before."

For more on GeoWeb, read Part one of this report, published on July 24, 2008.