by Melissa Harris, Chair, Australia and New Zealand Land Information Council (ANZLIC)

It may not be the first thing you think about on site, but geospatial data and technology (information or tools about land or location) are playing a critical role in the delivery of our infrastructure programs.

Industry insights

Geospatial intelligence underpins all decisions that involve putting the right project or asset in the right place, as well as critical insights through the entire lifecycle of a project.

Geospatial technology includes our country’s global navigation satellite system (GNSS) and continuously operating reference station (CORS) infrastructure, which is used by construction and earth moving equipment to dig tunnels and roads and build bridges with incredible precision.

All infrastructure is designed and delivered to a single height standard across Australia using geospatial data based on mean sea levels, known as the Australian Height Datum. This ensures consistency in heights and reduces cost and risk for new structures.

In each state, property boundaries can be determined because of the millions of plans of subdivision that form our authoritative mapbase, called the cadastre, which is the basis upon which all property boundaries can be determined, and land can be confidently bought, sold and valued.

Underrated location based services

Things we take for granted, such as street names and numbers, are geospatial datasets and the basis for so much service delivery and wayfinding from one place to another.

Geolocated aerial imagery is used across the entire lifecycle of infrastructure delivery including planning, design and even remote site supervision enabling teams to collaborate on projects, without leaving the office.

Infrastructure programs are driving economic recovery in Australia and around the world, and geospatial technology is powering them. Humans have always relied on maps and charts to navigate from one place to another.

Over time this has evolved to become a complex foundational web of critical datasets and services that now underpin almost everything we do, and seamlessly provide location-based information to almost every person in Australia every day.

However, many people are unaware of how essential geospatial information is in our daily lives. Google recently announced that there are one billion users every month on Google Maps.

Location-based services are now so ubiquitous that the underpinning technology, data and expertise that produce these services is almost taken for granted. Even our basic human rights have been fundamentally linked to geospatial information and achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Support during COVID-19

Fortunately, the digital revolution and government investment at all levels in the modernisation of geospatial data and technology, as well as critical land services, is driving huge efficiencies and innovation and providing critical support for the Australian economy.

It’s no coincidence that the Australian property market has been able to function so seamlessly over the past two years. This is the result of years of investment in digital transformation by successive governments at all levels to support secure land registries in Australia, and their transition towards electronic conveyancing.

In Victoria, over 90 per cent of the one million property transactions carried out in 2021 were fully automated and conducted in near real time from a vast distributed network of remote working locations.

As a result, the buying and selling of land continued throughout the pandemic, providing essential support for the construction industry, major infrastructure projects and the community more generally.

The power of geospatial

States are investing significant funds into digitising their cadastre and providing enhanced information about land in a digital format.

This is increasing the usefulness and accuracy, making it easier and quicker to update, and opening the door for new innovation like digital twins. Of course, the cadastre is constantly changing as a result of new subdivisions, which are now also moving towards fully digital processing.

Plans of subdivision can now comprise thousands of lines of computer code that can be visualised as a physical plan, through a mobile phone using augmented reality, or used to support automated assessment and processing.

This has the potential to save huge amounts of time and money for government, as well as development industry customers and stakeholders. Countries like Australia and New Zealand have always recognised the power of geospatial.

This is evidenced by long-standing intergovernmental collaboration over decades through forums such as the Australia and New Zealand Land Information Council (ANZLIC) and the Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying and Mapping (ICSM).

Uplifted 3D utilities data is being created as part of infrastructure projects. Image credit: Victorian State Government.

In Australia’s federated government system, our long-term commitment to collaboration across the jurisdictions has helped us achieve geospatial excellence that has withstood the test of time.

Along with New Zealand, we are leading the world in the creation of high-quality, reliable, standardised geospatial datasets, along with the provision of tools and value-added services to leverage the value of these powerful datasets.

Supporting enhanced decision making

Access to high quality and high precision geospatial information saves time and money through the entire lifecycle of projects, from planning and design through to delivery, asset handover and operation.

Increasingly, geospatial technology using collaboration platforms such as digital twins utilise real world representations and 3D datasets providing access to vast amounts of complex integrated data and insights in ways that would have previously been too difficult, costly and time consuming.

This supports enhanced decision making, automated business processes, connected digital ecosystems with real time sensors, satellite services and modelling future scenarios that can measure impacts over time.

Cloud computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence are bringing capabilities that were previously impractical and unaffordable, to within reach. Machine learning techniques can do in weeks what used to take years, greatly reducing the cost of maintaining important datasets and breathing new life into our digital assets.

Increasingly, governments are focusing on accessing new value from their existing digital assets. For example, utility mapping is a fundamental part of any infrastructure project. Uncertainty about utility location accounts for a significant proportion of program risk, so projects go to extreme lengths to precisely locate and digitally model underground utilities before commencing a project.

The points have been classified as buildings in orange, vegetation in green, ground surface in brown. Image credit: Victorian State Government.

This work is vital for effective project delivery and creates incredibly valuable data. Now, instead of becoming digital landfill at the end of a project, the data is increasingly being stored and recycled for a whole new generation of future users to benefit from.

National policy strategies

The demand for robust, reliable, connected digital workspaces that support remote working and distributed program delivery is also driving national policy decisions.

The 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan is one such example, and requires a digital-by-default approach to infrastructure projects and collaboration around the development of digital twins for the built environment.

The $40.2 million Digital Atlas of Australia, funded through the Federal Government’s $1.2 billion Digital Economy Strategy, is another example. It is being developed to provide greater access to authoritative national datasets on Australia’s geography, people, economy, employment, infrastructure, health, land and the environment.

The Federal Government’s $250 million Positioning Australia program will deliver satellite-based augmentation services that will greatly improve positioning accuracy all over Australia and New Zealand, benefitting not just the construction and infrastructure sectors, but also agriculture, aviation and autonomous vehicles to name just a few.

These strategies and policies show that geospatial capability will continue to evolve as a major enabler for the design, delivery and operation of infrastructure. Australia can harness the benefits of geospatial technology and help fuel the digital revolution, but there’s more work to do to get there.

Our success will depend on even greater collaboration between industry, academia and government at all levels. Governments need to continue to break down data silos and join the data between major activities. We need to work in closer partnership across sectors to build an ecosystem of interconnected digital twins.

And critically, we must secure a pipeline of future talent to tackle a major skills shortage. It’s immensely valuable work that’s increasingly at the cutting edge of digital innovation, and we need to be telling this story better to attract the next generation of talent.

Planning our future with 3D and machine-learning datasets in a digital twin environment. Images show new 3D untextured buildings data with LiDAR high vegetation points displaying as green foliage.

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