There’s a shift occurring in the world of infrastructure construction. It’s a subtle shift, but one backed by stronger currents that are propelling the industry forward. The shift could be described in a number of ways, but we like to think of it as the movement away from “digital as-builts” - the collection of digital information concerning project construction - to the idea of “digital as-is” - a more real-time reflection construction data. This transition is backed by an increasing focus and reliance on GIS-backed location data that can be captured during construction and fed into a variety of systems. In this article, we’ll focus on the specific role GIS data plays in supporting infrastructure asset maintenance.
A Quick Refresher on GIS
GIS - Geographic Information System - is not new technology, but one that is relatively new to construction. The high-level definition, via the U.S. Geological Survey group, is a computer system that analyzes and displays geographically referenced information. Use cases for GIS can range from agricultural planning to weather forecasting. In construction, GIS is used to identify and locate built assets and associated items to support collaboration, data sharing, spatial analysis, site selection, and as we’ll discuss in more detail, infrastructure asset management.
Understanding Infrastructure Asset Management
Infrastructure asset management involves the “systematic and coordinated activities and practices through which an organization optimally and sustainably manages its assets and asset systems, their associated performance, risks and expenditures over their life cycles.”
Simply put, it’s a process collecting information to help make sure the things we build last as long as possible in good working order. For example, it might involve information on how a certain type of asphalt holds up to wear over time, or how different materials will respond to extreme weather.
If you’ve seen any of the U.S. Infrastructure Report Cards (currently boasting a C- grade. Of course, Cs get degrees - they also get catastrophic failures), you know why good asset management practices are increasingly important in conversations around national infrastructure. But effective asset management is often limited by access to quality data, data silos, and inaccurate asset inventories due to manual data entry. GIS can act as a panacea to these asset management process woes.
The Role of GIS in Infrastructure Asset Management
For anyone interested in diving deep into the role of GIS in infrastructure asset management, we recommend checking out this whitepaper from Esri, which outlines the role of GIS in extreme detail, and this Infotech whitepaper on construction data visualization. We’ll summarize the high-level information from each of those resources in this article. According to infrastructure asset management practices that date back to the 1990s, there are seven steps to an effective asset management strategy:
Complete an asset inventory.
Complete an inventory of programs.
Determine levels of service.
Define roles and responsibilities.
Identify and calculate risk.
Extrapolate a forecast.
Adjust the budget accordingly.
While GIS-enabled construction data is essential throughout this asset management process, it’s easy to see the role it plays in completing an asset inventory. It also highlights the importance of cross-departmental collaboration, because that inventory-building process needs to begin in the construction and inspection phase.
Inspectors who are charged with ensuring that a project is moving forward according to specifications can be outfitted with devices that support GIS data capture, ranging from LiDAR on their phones to GNSS rovers. Asset management may not be an inspector or construction project manager’s priority, but precise and accurate data capture can be folded into their existing process without putting additional weight on their shoulders or adding tasks to their day. That valuable data - the “digital as-is” data - can be shared with other departments who are responsible for asset management, operations, maintenance, and forecasting.
How that data is organized falls to each organization’s definition of asset management, but here’s an example from Esri about how the terms translate across systems and philosophies:
Material = ‘Cast Iron’
As you can see, different assets can be mapped to broad datasets in a GIS database, then narrowed down to specific details. So if an organization wanted to identify where all of the cast iron water mains were in their district, they could simply select that attribute in a GIS data visualization platform and mark them for replacement. An aside - as someone who has personally dealt with the issues associated with cast iron piping, I wish someone would give my girlfriend’s landlord access to a GIS database for his rental properties.
Once this initial data is captured via GIS-supported tools, there are a variety of ways it can be leveraged for asset management:
Forecast maintenance costs by identifying items with GIS as well as accurate travel costs
Use data from the construction process like hazard identification to help calculate risk and assess conditions
Determine degradation timelines by leveraging materials data from construction
The Benefits of Using GIS in Asset Management
As you can probably tell, there are manifold benefits to incorporating the use of GIS data and technology into your asset management process. These benefits include:
Improving decision-making supported by data visualization and analysis
Optimizing maintenance strategies and resource allocation from a better understanding of travel costs and asset conditions
Saving costs through enhanced predictive analytics of required maintenance and projected downtime
Maintaining detailed records of asset attributes for regulatory compliance
Leveraging GIS data to inform long-term planning and sustainability
GIS data capture also supports the asset management technologies of the future, like digital twins. If these benefits seem like too much theory, here’s an example of GIS-powered administration in action:
The City of Muscatine leveraged an integration between their construction project management platform and Esri to manage a DOT-funded revitalization effort. They were able to capture and record data, including temporary road and business closures, and share it to an Esri dashboard to inform both project stakeholders and the public. They’re able to share data like geographic area, expected completion date, remaining working days, and the total budgeted amount. Not only does this increase transparency, it provides a backbone of high-quality data for future asset management efforts.
Getting Started with GIS & Adoption Challenges
It’s one thing to familiarize yourself with the benefits and use cases of GIS in asset management - it’s another thing entirely to invest, or convince management to invest, in the technology and systems required to use it effectively. The lack of GIS adoption is often due to a lack of ownership over the data. GIS data capture needs to start during the construction and inspection phases to be truly effective, but construction and project management teams may understandably prioritize successful project completion over capturing a bunch of data that will be used by another department in the future.
Different areas of a business need to understand the holistic value of GIS and work collaboratively to implement it across business areas. For construction teams, there’s great value in using GIS, even during the project management phase, to share data with project stakeholders and identify potential issues before they arise. Similarly, GIS and asset management departments need to collaborate with construction to ensure that “digital as-is” data is captured accurately and shared with relevant parties throughout the asset management, maintenance, and operations process.
As a provider of construction administration and inspection solutions, we’ve worked with Esri to integrate our Appia platform (which records project progress, including items, materials, equipment, personnel, funds, etc.) with ArcGIS Field Maps and Esri dashboards. This seamless integration enables the capture of GIS-supported item data during the inspection process. It allows organizations to bridge the gaps in departmental workflows by moving seamlessly between construction administration and geospatial data.