How GIS systems can fight the climate crisis

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Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey famously starred in a Superbowl LVI commercial asking us to focus our technology on bettering Earth rather than escaping to other worlds: “So while others look to the Metaverse and Mars, let’s stay here and restore ours.” He has a point.

Today, we’re all on the front lines of climate change with unprecedented drought conditions, destructive wildfire “seasons,” more frequent and brutal winter storms, and other severe departures from “normal” conditions. California is drying, New England is flooding, and Texas is freezing. What remains is the infrastructure necessary to adapt to changing ecosystems. Communities across the country face new problems that need to be solved. And there are amazing, unsung technologies to help us meet those challenges. 

I am fortunate to be part of a team at a public utility (San Jose Water) using one of those technologies: geographic information systems (GIS). Every day we work to evolve water safety and public resource stewardship for over a million people in the heart of Silicon Valley. We hope that someday our blueprints will be integrated across the country.

GIS technology is helping us to modernize operations as well as monitor and manage the large infrastructure web of San Jose Water’s underground piping. This large system of data collection and analysis tools advances conservation, agility, and maintenance capabilities in a myriad of ways.

GIS thinking helps bring data to life because it unlocks spatial context, giving us the power to locate and understand the conditions around our infrastructure and how they all interact. It’s a unique realm in which data scientists can pursue sustainable solutions alongside the technological ones they’re already driving. 

For example, our GIS collects spatial data through 8,000 acoustic sensors in fire hydrants that listen for leaks within the system. It’s a way for us to locate and fix issues we couldn’t “see” otherwise. For context, “the average family can waste 180 gallons per week, or 9,400 gallons of water annually, from household leaks,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — losses that can quickly become a huge amount of wasted water for a utility with one million customers. Since its initial GIS adoption in 2008, our advanced leak detection program has helped our organization triage and steadily replace 24 miles of underground piping per year for proactive leak prevention, and in 2021 we saved an estimated 346 million gallons of water.

GIS past and present

The ​​first computerized GIS was developed in 1963 and used by the Canadian government to map natural resources for a national land-use management program. The Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics was founded soon after in 1965 and became a research center for GIS and computer map-making software. 

The Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc., also known as Esri, started as a land-use consulting firm in 1969. This GIS institute applied computer mapping, visualization, and spatial analysis to help geographers, land-use planners, and natural resource managers. In the 1980s, Esri transitioned into a software company and became the de facto industry standard for GIS. Many other GIS innovators have since sprung up across the globe. 

GIS technology is now used in a broad spectrum of applications, ranging from sustainable energy transitions to better farming practices and even disaster response

This advanced technology has propelled a number of traditionally analog industries — like water utilities — into the digital era. Crudely drawn paper maps used to be the only form of mapping, leaving teams to estimate infrastructure maintenance locations based on age or topographical disruption. Leaks or ruptures were much harder to find or prevent. Today, GIS mapping allows engineers and field crews to visualize underground systems unambiguously. We can locate leaks and anomalies with an accuracy of one centimeter to address them with minimal invasion. 

GIS’s spatial data elevates familiar visualization software, such as Tableau and Power BI. The ability to place information relative to space and location catapults a scientist’s ability to convey meaning. GIS allows users to interact with the data and explore circumstances. At my workplace, field crews can see the map of our underground assets as well as the make of various pipes, materials, installation date, or size of the water main. GIS also runs network traces to identify which valves or customers would be impacted in the event of a leak or shutoff in different areas across the system. We even track how many turns are needed to open or close a valve.

Our GIS used to be managed internally; now it’s being reconstructed onto Esri’s cloud. Further digitizing our assets eases an IT burden and allows us to scale dynamically. With cloud-powered GIS, the flow of real-time data ensures even fewer disruptions to customers and water traffic. This kind of digital situational awareness also mitigates potential devastation from large breakages or piping failures — critical in a drought- and earthquake-prone region like ours. 

Climate change and the future

GIS is helping our conservation efforts on the West Coast, but it was also crucial when SJWTX experienced the Texas Freeze of February 2021. Using our system, emergency crews in central Texas were able to quickly locate and repair frozen and burst pipes with precision imaging. 

Future GIS innovations may include the integration of augmented reality (AR) for visualizing whole geographic plains or interactive data-driven maintenance plans with high-accuracy GPS on a phone or tablet.

As we continue to face the repercussions of climate change, GIS will be a critical tool to provide real-time data in emergencies. Agencies could deploy necessary services during natural disasters by using drones to map wildfires and hot spots or drain floodwaters to protect human lives and show where water needs to be directed.

Integrating GIS with IoT for granular community-based data collection will evolve. For instance, as more houses install air quality sensors, that data could be shared and used by city planners, public health agencies, and businesses to target air filter supply or distribution of N-95 masks during wildfire season. Amazing possibilities lie ahead.

GIS isn’t a singular field of study but rather a method of critical thinking, and technical skills vary depending on industry and application. Esri offers online courses on a range of GIS-related topics from cartographic design to spatial analytics. The creative side of GIS, such as cartographic map production, requires understanding color theory, graphic editing software, and instinctual design sense. Other GIS specialists work with cybersecurity, statistical and spatial analytics, and automation frameworks with tools such as Python. There are also a lot of open-source projects and software similar to GIS that is available to anyone to create, view, edit, or analyze spatial data. GIS is an exciting data science specialty and career focus that is constantly evolving and increasingly in demand. The fields of city planning and development, epidemiology, public utilities, and more are integrating GIS technology to catapult resource management and public infrastructure into the future. 

Even without Matthew McConaughey’s encouragement, we all have a responsibility to contribute to a better future for our planet and our communities. Practicing environmental stewardship and upgrading infrastructure is important, but there are countless other ways to make a positive difference with data — especially when it comes to managing and safeguarding natural resources. GIS technology fortifies all of these efforts. Continued innovation and investment in developing this incredibly productive technology is great for everyone on #TeamEarth. 

Totran Mai is GIS Supervisor at San Jose Water. She has worked at San Jose Water for 14 years, creating cartographic products and GIS systems and deploying and administering enterprise-scale databases.

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