Smart Cities and Geospatial Technology: Using GIS and GPS to Improve Our World

Interconnected technologies are now an inescapable part of life, from smartphones to smart cities. To me, a “smart city” is really a community that leverages vital information and communication technologies to positively impact the community, preserve the environment, and improve health. I believe a city can be defined as “smart” when investments in human and social capital and traditional infrastructure fuel sustainable economic development. Sustainability is the key for all such initiatives, and technology will play a crucial role in transforming the cities of tomorrow.

One of the key tools being used to create smart cities is geospatial technology, which affects almost every aspect of life, from navigating an unfamiliar neighborhood to locating the world’s most wanted terrorist. The U.S. could not have found Osama bin Laden without using spatial mapping and GPS technology. The world is so interconnected today, and everything is based on spatial relationships. Geospatial technology has become one of the essential core tools around the globe.

Geospatial technology, commonly known as geomatics, refers to technology used for visualization, measurement, monitoring, and analysis of features or phenomena that occur on the earth. Geospatial technology includes three different technologies that are all related to mapping features on the surface of the earth: global positioning systems (GPS), geographical information systems (GIS), and remote sensing. I would like to take a closer look at GPS and GIS, specifically, and how they are transforming the world we live in.

The Rise of GPS Technology

GPS is a satellite-based navigation system, a network of two dozen orbital spacecraft that was put in place between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s by the U.S. Department of Defense to pinpoint precise locations.

GPS technology is now being used extensively by various industries in everyday life, including:

  • Emergency management.
  • Financial services.
  • Security and law enforcement.
  • Shipping and rail transport.
  • Social media.
  • Surveying and mapping.
  • Telecommunication, transportation, and aviation.
  • Utilities (electric, gas, and water).

Today, GPS-enabled systems include navigation systems in your car and on your smartphones to locate restaurants and other places of interest near you. GPS is also used to track aircrafts in the air. Law enforcement uses GPS to locate addresses for police or fire response, for disaster management, and for 911 systems to respond with help.

Drones are the latest platform to use GPS systems for various purposes—from mapping to package delivery. You perhaps know that Amazon delivered its first customer package by commercial drone back in December 2016. And now, Dubai has staged the first public test of drone taxis in September 2017!

Grocery retailers use GPS-equipped shopping carts to track consumers’ movements inside supermarkets to understand their shopping habits. Farmers use GPS tracking to determine which areas of land need to be fertilized. GPS now touches so many parts of our daily lives and will continue to have new and fascinating uses in making our cities smarter.

GIS, Big Data, and Urbanization

According to the United Nations, 54 percent of the world’s population lives in cities. The global population is headed to an estimated 10 billion in 2050, and more than 6 billion of those people will live in urban areas. While megacities like Tokyo, Delhi, and Mexico City will continue to expand, the most rapid growth is expected to come from relatively small cities of 500,000 or fewer inhabitants. That means not only more people, but more cities creating more challenges.

These challenges can be as basic as providing water, sanitation, food, and housing. Beyond these essential requirements, preventing environmental degradation, scaling transportation networks, and maintaining the livability of cities are challenges that become more pressing as the extent and density of cities increase.

The best way to answer these challenges lies in information derived from analyzing lots of data—or “big data,” as we call it—and the tools to integrate, visualize, and communicate the information generated from that data.

GIS lets us visualize, analyze, and interpret data to understand relationships, patterns, and trends. GIS provides a framework for making sense of not only the structured data maintained by government organizations but also the massive amounts of streaming data being captured by the billions of sensors every second that make up big data generated by the “Internet of Things.”

GIS applies what Esri refers to as The Science of WhereTM to challenges that cities face now and the even more formidable challenges they will face in the future. GIS is a tool that renders big data into meaningful information, so it really adds the “smartness” to smart communities. Free use of open data sources helps improve operations; enhance resilience; improve government efficiency, health care, and law enforcement; and promote innovation in business and science.

For example, the Commonwealth of Virginia has developed a GIS-based tool called “SMART SCALE” that helps transportation officials invest tax dollars in the right projects that meet the state’s most critical transportation needs. This tool evaluates accessibility by calculating how long it takes to walk, bike, or drive to and from public transportation stations; how reliable public transit is; and wait and transfer times.

The Northern Virginia Solar Map, completed in 2016, uses GIS technology to let property owners evaluate the benefits and impacts of placing solar cells on their roofs. (In fact, I just installed a solar energy system on my roof that will generate about 95 percent of my annual power needs and will result in about 30 to 40 percent savings in my electric bill.)

In the global health field, cartographic maps help unlock the mysteries behind the cause and spread of diseases such as cholera, yellow fever, and Ebola. GIS is an important tool for studying both chronic conditions and disease epidemics.

GIS is also crucial to the space program. In anticipation of future missions to Mars, GIS techniques are now being applied to previously collected elevation data from Mars to model the terrain to aid rovers and eventually humans.

Innovators continue to find new, valuable ways to leverage GIS technology. A group of students from the University of Southern California recently used open data from the Los Angeles GeoHub to build an app that better explains crime in the city over the past 10 years. ITWORX, a big data analytics tool, integrates its solutions with the Esri ArcGIS platform for users in telecommunications, retail, banking, and other industries to analyze big data to see trends and make decisions more quickly.

geographIT, a division of EBA Engineering, Inc., helped develop an early warning system that uses real-time water quality monitoring to alert officials of pollution caused by spills, accidents, and floods. geographIT also developed Philadelphia’s situational awareness portal, which offers real-time streaming information from multiple city systems and external data feeds displayed on interactive web maps and applications, 24 hours a day, from anywhere on employee cellphones or tablets.

The uses of geospatial technology seem to grow daily! The ultimate goal is to help cities and communities implement technology to achieve a more livable, workable, and sustainable world. From high-rises to industrial buildings, schools to state-of-the-art hospitals, transit stations to highways, airports to toll systems, and bike lanes to parks, we need self-reporting infrastructure and spatial systems for a truly integrated smart city where people can live, work, and play.

Rizwan Siddiqi, PE, is President & CEO of EBA Engineering, Inc. He can be reached at 240.547.1125 or


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Rizwan Siddiqi