How GIS systems can fight the climate crisis

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Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey famously starred in a Superbowl LVI commercial in which he asked us to focus our technology on improving the Earth instead of escaping to other worlds: “So while others go to the Metaverse and Mars look, let’s stay here and fix ours.” He has a point.

Today, we are all on the front lines of climate change with unprecedented droughts, devastating wildfire seasons, more frequent and brutal winter storms and other severe deviations from normal conditions. California is to dryNew England is floodand Texas is to freeze† What remains is the infrastructure needed to adapt to changing ecosystems. Communities across the country face new problems that need to be resolved. And there are amazing, unsung technologies to help us meet those challenges.

I’m lucky enough to be part of a team at a public utility company (San Jose Water) that uses one of those technologies: Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Every day, we work to develop water security and public resource management for more than a million people in the heart of Silicon Valley. We hope that one day our blueprints will be integrated across the country.

GIS technology helps us modernize our operations and monitor and manage the vast infrastructure web of San Jose Water’s underground pipelines. This large system of data collection and analysis tools advances conservation, agility and maintenance capabilities in countless ways.

GIS thinking helps bring data to life because it unlocks spatial context, allowing us to locate and understand the conditions surrounding our infrastructure and how they all interact. It is a unique domain in which data scientists can pursue sustainable solutions in addition to the technological solutions they already use.

For example, our GIS collects spatial data via 8,000 acoustic sensors in fire hydrants that listen for leaks in the system. It’s a way for us to locate and solve problems that we wouldn’t “see” otherwise. For context, “the average family can waste 180 gallons a week, or 9,400 gallons of water a year, from household leaks,” according to the US Environmental Protection Agency — losses that can quickly become a huge amount of wasted water for a utility company with a million customers. Since first GIS adoption in 2008, our advanced leak detection program has helped our organization sort and steadily replace 24 miles of underground pipes per year for proactive leak prevention, and by 2021 we have 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 shortly 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 in 1969 as a land use consultancy. This GIS institute applied computer mapping, visualization and spatial analysis to assist 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. Since then, many other GIS innovators have emerged around the world.

GIS technology is now used in a wide spectrum of applications ranging from: sustainable energy transitions improve farming practices even disaster relief

This advanced technology has propelled a number of traditionally analog industries, such as water utilities, into the digital age. In the past, roughly drawn paper maps were the only form of maps, forcing teams to estimate infrastructure maintenance locations based on age or topographical disturbance. Leaks or breaks were much more difficult to find or prevent. Today, GIS mapping allows engineers and field workers to visualize subsurface systems unambiguously. We can locate leaks and anomalies with an accuracy of one centimeter to address them with minimal invasion.

The spatial data from GIS elevate well-known visualization software, such as Tableau and Power BI. The ability to place information related to space and location catapults a scientist’s ability to convey meaning. GIS allows users to interact with the data and investigate circumstances. At my workplace, field crews can see the map of our underground assets, as well as the brand of various pipes, materials, date of installation or size of the water pipe. GIS also performs network traces to identify which valves or customers would be affected in the event of a leak or shutdown in different parts of the system. We even keep track of how many revolutions it takes to open or close a valve.

Our GIS used to be managed internally; now it is being reconstructed on Esri’s cloud. Further digitizing our assets will lighten an IT burden and enable us to scale dynamically. With cloud-powered GIS, the flow of real-time data ensures even less disruption for customers and water traffic. This kind of digital situational awareness also mitigates potential devastation from major fractures or pipe 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 pivotal when SJWTX experienced the February 2021 Texas Freeze. Using our system, emergency services in central Texas were able to quickly locate and repair frozen and burst pipes with accurate imaging.

Future GIS innovations may include the integration of augmented reality (AR) for visualizing entire geographic expanses or interactive data-driven maintenance plans with highly accurate GPS on a phone or tablet.

As we continue to experience the impacts of climate change, GIS will be a critical tool to provide real-time data in emergency situations. Agencies could deploy necessary services during natural disasters by using drones to map wildfires and hot spots or divert floods to protect human lives and show where water needs to go.

The integration of GIS with IoT for granular, community-based data collection will evolve. For example, as more homes 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 is not a single field, but rather a method of critical thinking, and technical skills vary depending on the industry and application. Esri offers online courses on a range of GIS-related topics, from cartographic design to spatial analysis. The creative side of GIS, such as the production of cartographic maps, requires an understanding of color theory, graphic editing software and instinctive design sense. Other GIS specialists work with cybersecurity, statistical and spatial analysis and automation frameworks with tools such as Python. There are also many open source projects and software similar to GIS that are available to anyone to create, view, edit, or analyze spatial data. GIS is an exciting data science specialty and a career focus that is constantly evolving and increasingly in demand. The areas of urban planning and development, epidemiology, public utilities, and more integrate 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. It’s important to adopt environmental stewardship and upgrade infrastructure, but there are countless other ways to make a positive difference with data, especially when it comes to managing and protecting natural resources. GIS technology amplifies 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 WaterShe spent 14 years at San Jose Water, creating cartography products and GIS systems, and implementing and managing enterprise-level databases.

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