3D #GIS and #BIM – benefits and complexities

This article asks for three questions to be answered; the first part asks whether the government should be creating and managing a 3-D digital survey of the built environment, the second part asks what uses could be derived from it and third part asks who will benefit from this.

Recently Geographic Information Systems have been used “to read and analyse map data”, this has been recorded as 2D information over the last ten years (Ordnance Survey, 2015).  However, government departments currently record geographic data as layers that could include 3 data and the complexities of topography with geographic information systems (GIS).  As technology has changed new benefits are proposed to be taken advantage off with the advent of 3-D mapping, this can record information such as point height information remote sensors and realistic models. The opportunities that could be gained from this are 3-D models of entire towns which relate directly to the real world.

Government survey responsibility
Soubra (cited from Brandon & Kocaturk, 2008) discusses that “urban growth rate is expected to be high in the future, particularly in developing countries as the urbanisation level in developed countries tends to stabilise at a rate of 75%” (Brandon & Kocaturk, 2008, p. 133). This would suggest that intelligent data on urban growth will be essential, Soubra goes on to say that an advancement in technology is needed to link “City planning issues and sustainability related issues on both urban and building levels” (2008, p. 143). The opportunity for local governments is therefore to plan and manage ahead with intelligent data based upon existing and proposed changes in demographics which will affect many different areas, some of which are described later in this journal.

Ellul and Haklay (2006) have described that “habitual use of 2D systems is an “inhibiting factor” to developing GIS as well as a lack of understanding for the applications for 3D GIS. They link also to the need to develop analysis tools which require further investigation to ensure that interrogation of GIS information is possible. Currently government departments use very basic 2D systems to record simple usage and ownership that is limited and Ellul and Haklay argue that 3-D modelling technology should be considered to create “multi-layered buildings” (2006, p. 163). However, a reason for the limited use smart data is that existing systems may not be able to integrate with 3D data, meaning that investment is required and this funding is not available as the technology is still developing and relatively expensive. An alternative approach has been investigated with an example of a government department producing and using GIS information has been explored by Batty et al. (2000) in New York and Tokyo. In order to pay for this transition they found that there are four areas that may sponsor the production of a 3-D model, these include: Government departments, services providers such as utilities and telecommunications, commercial construction firms, and academic departments (p. 12). This means that the way forward may be collaborative to assist the government to afford this. A question still remains as to how this is managed, the interoperability of the models and storage as all of these have time, resource and costs associated.

ARUP (2014) have found in their report Future Cities: UK Capabilities for Open Innovation that city governments are looking at new ways of providing services and city systems optimisation and the UK government should be setting standards and practices in urban design, digital technology and open data, which provide the possibility of creating autonomy for local communities. Their focus was on six key areas; a multidisciplinary approach, project delivery, urban planning and reinvention, digital creativity, urban data visualisation and modelling, human centred design and standard setting. They go on to discuss that the UK should be at the forefront of this strategy and show that the UK is well placed to offer their skills to a global market (ARUP 2014, p. 3). In order to deliver these services ARUP suggest that public private collaborations should be used for their progression and take advantage of local interest partnerships, a regional growth fund, and a growing places fund to implement private to public and third sector body collaboration. This appears a useful approach and would provide a spread of the possible costs and the benefits.

In more recent studies Nouvel et al. (2014) found that investment costs and the time needed to create models was decreasing, with technology such as Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) being developed (Nouvel et al. 2014, p.83). This has an impact on government departments, who may not be able to afford this technology now, to benefit their forward planning processes. Nouvel et al. also found that uses of the model and data for city planning included environment and energy studies, flood risk simulation and solar analysis were opportunities for the future. They also state that the information supplied was from a government department however the quality of this was variable. They go on to conclude that they view is that local authorities, energy suppliers, housing companies and private owners should be working together for long-term energy strategy which would suggest that responsibility to create this information may not rest with one organisation in itself. With the shrinking of the state, under the current government in the UK, opportunities for government departments to create and manage a 3-D digital survey become more challenging and therefore the private sector will inevitably have to support this (2014, p. 89).

2. Uses
Batty et al. (2000) distinguish that there are two types of visualisation uses related to design these are ‘backward visualisation’ and ‘forward visualisation’. Backward visualisation uses visual images and tools to help professionals in the design stage and forward to visualisation supports a nonprofessional or public user to understand the information on show (Visualising the City, 2000). Therefore, in regard to usage there could be a split between the professional use and the nonprofessional representation of the analysed information.

To date much of the use of this 3D GIS modelling has been for community planning and community consultation as part of the design review process. In the UK market at the time Batty et al. (2000) found there were six efforts to build 3-D models of London however none of these were sponsored by government departments. Similarly four general areas have been identified by Shiode (2001, p. 1) these include; planning and design, infrastructure, commercial and marketing, and promotion and learning for cities. In this study Batty et al. (2000) found that the uses of GIS in the initial stages of design can help understand the context as geometry can have data or attributes that can be investigated and reviewed (Visualising the City, 2000, p,2). They also found that most forms of GIS are used for popular rather than professional audiences but anticipate that this will change over time.

Uses of 3D GIS information include emergency services and planning telecommunications, architecture, facilities management, marketing and economic development, property analysis, tourism and entertainment, E-commerce environment education and learning and city portals (Visualising the City, 2000, pp. 4-5). This number of uses could offer a wide range of opportunities for government departments and local authorities to take advantage of in the future.

Further to this an interesting usage concept is proposed by Nouvel et al. (2014) who suggest a bidirectional collection of information concerning buildings. This is a heaved by receiving customised calculated energy-saving potentials from refurbishments which can be measured and linked to energy supply companies who may then feed this information back into systems such as district heating systems and integrate with open analysis of urban heat intensity. They argue that there is an incentive to provide information to cloud 3D GIS to improve data quality of a city model that is higher in accuracy and realism (2014, p. 89).

3. What are the benefits?
Wu, He and Gong (2010, p. 291) confirm that there is an ability to “increase the quality and quantity of interaction between planners and the public” which shows a clear benefit to the users of this information. They argue that 3-D visualisation over the Internet creates a possibility to share in urban planning information which allows public participation, ensuring that users can move around by rotating, changing scales from the whole earth view to a single building view. Wu, He and Gong (2010, p. 294) have more interaction models:

1. Virtual environment interaction model – a virtual urban planning tool
2. Urban planning interaction model – urban design comparison modelling
3. Public participation model – end user communication on proposals
4. Auxiliary analysis interaction model – analysis tools such as sunlight analysis

This approach corresponds with Chen and Knapp (2006, p. 275) that public participation can assist governments to create better planning options for the public. This proposes that the public participation will bring a greater sense of responsibility to modern society and also contribute to sustainable city development.

It appears that there are many benefits to greater information built into and associated with 3D GIS models. This includes the public, government departments, utility and telecommunications companies and communities to name a few. The challenge appears to be in the interoperable models, coordinated information, well-funded and collaborative way that this may be undertaken considering the constraints on public finance. However, it could be argued that by failing to act and foresee complex changes in the urban environment that these costs will be dwarfed by not planning ahead suitability to manage population growth and the complexities this will bring to urban areas.


ARUP, (2014). Future Cities: UK capabilities for urban innovation. London: Future Cities Catapult 2014.

Brandon, P. and Kocaturk, T. (2008). Virtual futures for design, construction & procurement. Oxford: Blackwell Pub.

Chen, Y. and Knapp, S. (2006). VEPS- Virtual environmental planning system.  First steps towards a web-based 3D-planning and participation tool. In: CORP 2006 & Geomultimedia06. Salford: University of Salford.

Ordnance Survey (2015). What is GIS data? [online] Ordnancesurvey.co.uk. Available at: https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/support/understanding-gis/what-is-gis-data.html [Accessed 6 Dec. 2015].

Ellul, C. and Haklay, M. (2006). Requirements for Topology in 3D GIS. Transactions in GIS, 10(2), pp.157-175.

Nouvel, R., Zirak, M., Dastageeri, H., Coors, V. and Eicker, U. (2014). Urban energy analysis based on 3D city model for national scale applications. In: Fifth German-Austrian IBPSA Conference. Aachen: BauSIM 2014.

Shiode, N. (2001). 3D urban models: recent developments in the digital modelling of urban environments in three-dimensions. GeoJournal, 52(3), pp.263-269.

Visualizing the City: Communication urban design to planners and decision-makers. (2000). CASA, [online] 26. Available at: http://www.casa.ucl.ac.uk/visualcities.pdf [Accessed 3 Dec. 2015].

Wu, H., He, Z. and Gong, J. (2010). A virtual globe-based 3D visualization and interactive framework for public participation in urban planning processes. Computers, Environment and Urban Systems, 34(4), pp.291-298.


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