Saturday, June 16, 2012

Why Apple Maps Doesn't Matter

It's official: Apple is challenging Google's so far uncontested flagship product Google Maps. The move was foreshadowed long ago by its acquisitions of Poly9, Placebase, and C3 Technologies. Ever since the blogosphere has been growing hot meticulously comparing features of Apple Maps side-by-side with Google Maps and arguing over future development potential. A few of the best 'street view' articles are listed at the bottom.

We want to take a step back again and look at the issue from a 'flyover' perspective and answer a big question raised by F. Manjoo from Does Apple Maps matter?
"Is Google worried that Apple’s defection will substantially reduce its user base, and, consequently, the advertising revenue it gains through maps? Does the search company fear that it could lose its place as the online mapping leader, a position that has long been one of its competitive advantages? Is it concerned that Apple might build a better, more useful maps app?" 
  Our answer is: IT doesn't matter! Here is why:

Friday, June 15, 2012

Prepare for the Apocalypse!

All this talk about zombies in the US has got me thinking.  Are we really ready for a zombie apocalypse?  On October 26, 2007, the city of Austin, TX, released a report that sought to, "determine the sites of zombie resurrection, prepare for the movement of zombies and the subsequent zombie transformations and multiplications, and to determine areas of extreme concern."  To accomplish this, they used GIS, of course!

Where the zombies will come from...

To accomplish such an awesome report, the city states that:
  • Cemeteries were selected from the Land Use 2003 data set.
  • Zombie movement buffers were created by calculating zombie speed & distance from cemeteries.
  • Population density was determined by dissolving Census 2000 block groups into Census 2000 tracts. The population density was then calculated for each tract.
  • Areas Of Extreme Concern (see map below) were located by intersecting 1 hour cemetery buffers and the top 5 most populous tracts in the city.

Are you in an area of danger?

While these maps are Austin-specific, you can extrapolate their thought process, buy your own local map, and start making some gruesome discoveries about how much longer shorter you might have left to live once "brainzzzzzz" become the menú del día.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

GIS in Warfare Agent Detection (Part II)

The theory sounds great: Whenever a building permit is issued, part of the due diligence on part of the building contractor is to figure out, if the grounds first must be searched for unexploded ordnances (UXOs). A central authority maintains and updates a state-of-the-art GIS to classify regions as potentially dangerous. The GIS also specifies a 'bomb horizon', a maximum depth in which aerial bombs are expected to be buried depending on the soil conditions. In other words, suspect sites are defined in 3-dimensional space.

Companies specializing in locating UXOs surveys employ a variety of technologies to scan suspect areas. The most convenient and least costly above-surface screening methods, however, are only able to reliably detect warfare agents that are buried a few meters under the surface. Bomb horizons often reach into depths of more than 15 - 20 m necessitating the use of more intrusive scanning methods. The most common technique is to drill a vertical hole with a small diameter of, say, 10 cm and insert a magnetometer, which "takes real time readings of the amplitude of the Earth’s magnetic field. Buried ferrous items [...] are manifested as anomalies in the data that are invaluable for locating buried metal objects such as tanks, drums, pipes or bombs." (see full article)

Magnetometer plot indicating a UXO or ferrous item at 3 m depth (source:

Here comes the chicken-and-egg problem: Do you first drill the hole and then scan it or do you scan first and then drill step-by-step each time reinserting the magnetometer? The latter practice allows you to only drill into grounds that have previously been surveyed and "signed free" by a field expert. In practice, however, this is a very time-consuming and costly process. Therefore, it is common practice for companies to drill the hole first, thereby risking that their drilling tools directly and unknowingly penetrate potential UXOs, and then insert their magnetometers in order to scan the surrounding building ground! In fact, since my company (Neidhardt Grundbau GmbH) is a leading provider of geotechnical engineering services, I have witnessed this practice many times first hand. 

German government authorities have long turned a blind eye toward the warfare agent detection methods employed in the private industry. 

The problem exacerbates when the circumstances become even trickier: In the rapid rebuilding efforts post WW2, buildings, tunnels, and bridges were erected without regard for the potential hazards buried underneath. Building projects in urban areas often require the intrusion of neighboring building grounds to install pipes, drill ground anchors, etc. Especially ground anchors, often measuring 30+ m in length, can reach far underneath adjacent building structures that literally sit on a ticking bomb. Traditional survey methods fail under these circumstances as magnetometric readings become too distorted by surrounding "noise", i.e. ferrous foundation plates. Until now, government has largely ignored the threat giving permission to building companies to carry out their tasks in spite of the apparent threat because no solution yet existed.

A new proprietary GIS technology that is supposed to circumvent this problem has for the first time been successfully tested on a site in Hamburg, Germany, last year. A GIS based detection device is introduced into the bore hole as the drilling tools perforate the building ground allowing for real-time uninterrupted scanning and drilling at the same time. The precise GPS coordinates are then automatically transferred to a warfare agent specialist on the site, who monitors the resulting readings and prompts for a production halt whenever a potential hazard is being discovered. The data is then fed to local authorities in order to update the governmental warfare agent mapping database.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

One of my favorite websites is  FlightMemory is a website that allows you to input every flight you've taken, then it maps out your flights and creates a list of interesting statistics about your time in the air.  It's a simple yet addictive way to see how your flights look on a world map.

When you log into FlightMemory, you get to view a map of all the trips taken yesterday by the website's community.  For example, here are all the flights taken by users yesterday, Tuesday, June 5, 2012:

All FlightMemory users' data for June 5, 2012 (source:

I was so excited when I first joined the website that I painstakingly entered all my flights in my life that I could remember into the database.  I even took out my old passports to double check dates of our family vacations.  It took forever, but I'm glad that I took the time to get my information correct so I could have the most accurate statistics about my life at 36,000 feet.

My USA map (source:

Some of the great average statistics FlightMemory gives me are:

Flight Distances
In Miles - 349,908
In Kilometer - 563,122
Earth Circumnavigation - 14.05x
Distance to the Moon - 1.465x
Distance to the Sun - 0.0038x

Flight Time 
Hours - 799:38
Days - 33.3
Weeks - 4.8

Total - 330

My World Map (source:

FlightMemory also ranks the top ten airports, airlines, and airplanes I've flown in/out/on:

My Top Three Airports
DFW Dallas/Fort Worth -  144 flights (21.8% of my flights)
BNA Nashville -  140 flights (21.2% of my flights)
ORD Chicago - 50 flights (7.6% of my flights)

My Top Three Airlines
American Airlines - 169 flights (51.2% of my flights)
Air Canada - 35 flights (10.6% of my flights)
American Eagle Airlines - 26 flights (7.9% of my flights)

My Top Three Aircraft
McDonnell Douglas-80 - 109 flights (33.0% of my flights)
Boeing 737 - 58 flights (17.6% of my flights)
Canadair 200 - 27 flights (8.2% of my flights)

In addition, FlightMemory gives crew members an easy way to track all their flights.  Every flight a pilot flies must be logged in a book by hand.  However, FlightMemory allows users to say whether the flight they took was for pleasure, business, or as a crew member - therefore eliminating the need for the pen and paper!

See more about my personal flying at

Sign up for your own account at

Monday, June 4, 2012

Living on Mars!

Well not quite yet, but looking for a place to spend the rest of your life (on earth) has never been easier. Are you retiring? Or are you a young couple looking for a suitable place for your kids to grow? Whatever your aspirations, you can use GIS software to find the ideal place.

Commercial real estate agencies and realtors are using GIS for mapping and analyzing state and local housing and community development data to determine where investments are being made. As GIS has evolved, it has been heavily used in government and science for land use planning, infrastructure management, and environmental research. In recent years commercial real estate companies are able to site-select locations, target and allocate resources, and review neighborhood statistics such as the locations of businesses or crime.

Regional and urban planning is one of the most common types of GIS applications. Planners use GIS to study roads and traffic patterns, education and other public facilities locations, utilities infrastructure and waterways, and zoning and housing areas. Combining this data with mapping data helps them analyze needs and plan for future development. In the commercial sector, business planners can use demographic data, business location data, zoning data, and transportation and utility data to determine the best location for a planned new business.

Because GIS techniques are very useful tools for regional planning, it helps in determining future growth of any metropolitan area. GIS has the ability to combine existing data and can overlay one type of data over another. And the most powerful contribution is that GIS can be used to display data for both presentation and analysis as well.

GIS allows you to better understand your community by assembling, organizing and providing tools to analyze its geographic data. In the long run, it is about knowing where something is, what is at, on, in, or around the location you choose to live.

Friday, June 1, 2012

When GIS Fails, Part 2

On February 25, 2009, Turkish Airlines flight 1951 from Istanbul to Amsterdam crashed just short of runway 18R while on final approach.  There were 128 passengers onboard the Boeing 737-800, the world's best selling aircraft.  Nine people died in the crash - including all three pilots and also three Boeing engineers.  Investigators were puzzled - passengers and witnesses said the plane dropped out of the sky.  Why did this happen?

The Boeing 737's fuselage cracked and the engines separated from the wings (Source: flyaway

The cause of the accident was determined to be a faulty radio altimeter on the captain's side of the flight deck (in total, the aircraft has three altimeters).  A radio altimeter is "an instrument that determines elevation, usually from mean sea level, by measuring the amount of time an electromagnetic pulse takes to travel from an aircraft to the ground and back again." [1]  The Boeing 737-800 has four external antennas to assist the altimeter readings - two that send out the signal and two that read the signal back.

At about 8,000 feet above the earth while descending, the captain's altimeter began to show a reading of -8 feet.  The pilots were obviously aware that this altimeter's reading was incorrect and ignored the warning horns that started going off in the cockpit to put down their landing gear.  So if the pilots were aware of the fault, why did they still crash?

There are two automated systems on airplanes that greatly assist pilots - one is the well known autopilot, that controls the yoke, and the other is the lesser known autothrottle, that controls the engines.  The autothrottle's altitude information is supplied by the captain's side altimeter.  Since this reading was showing the plane to already be on the ground, the autothrottle brought the engines power to idle.  Following the instructions of their air traffic controller, the pilots (captain, first officer, and a third pilot assisting the training of the new first officer) were at a stage in their descent where they would have needed the engines to be near idle.  This is not typical of most descents, but it is typical at busy Amsterdam, where ATC tries to bring the airplanes in faster by requiring a quicker/steeper descent.  Because of this unique approach, the pilots did not realize that the autothrottle had actually kept the engines permanently at idle.  With the loss of engine thrust, the airplane kept losing speed and at 460 feet above the ground, it stalled.  The pilots were unable to recover the throttles in time and the Boeing dropped from the sky into a muddy field.

Above is the episode from the show Mayday that discusses Turkish Airlines flight 1951.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

GIS in Warfare Agent Detection (Part I)

True story: I was running my first project site as a young site manager for my family-owned business ( in Warsaw, Poland, when a strange sight caught my attention. A corpulent Polish machine operator (120kg+) had just decided to abandon his 45-ton excavator and was hastening  toward his supervisor's site office. Puzzled but amused by the extraordinary athletic effort by a man otherwise known for his "efficiency" at work, the reason for his sudden change in temperament was relayed to me by our Polish client: a 250 lbs relict from WWII had just surfaced. Even more disturbing to me was the resolution that was taken by our Polish colleagues: a different machine operator appeared in a matter of ca. 45 min, elegantly hoisting the explosive with his machine and dumping it onto the next sand pile, from where it was trucked off along with the other excess ground material.

On German territory, such matters are taken quite seriously. In fact, the discovery of a 1.8 ton wartime bomb in the Rhine riverbed in November 2011 triggered the immediate evacuation of ca. 45,000 people of the city Koblenz. Still today, more than 65 years after WWII, an average of 15 wartime explosives, most of them dormant aerial bombs, are discovered in Germany per day! The danger is still imminent. Accidental discovery in the course of construction works killed a roadside worker near Frankfurt in 2006 (USA Today).

A 1.8 ton RAF bomb dropped by the Royal Air Force between 1943 and 1945 was successfully defused by specialists (Source: BBC)

Thanks to detailed aerial photo documentation of bomb dropping sites before and after air raids by the Allied Forces, a vast number of dormant warfare agents could be spotted and defused by German disposal teams. This is made possible by the use of modern GIS software that allows the overlay of different photographic images (see example). However, due to the density of bombings identifying unexploded bombs in the midst of explosion craters caused by successful hits in urban areas was not always feasible (see Spiegel Online article for more info). Moreover, with many of the main dropping sites (e.g. Hamburg, Dresden) being located along waterways, analysis of aerial photographs could not spot hidden explosives in riverbeds or harbour basins.

The German government uses these aerial maps of bomb dropping sites to classify potentially dangerous regions where inactive warfare agents are still likely to be hidden. Consequently, if a new building permit is issued for a property that lies in a suspected area, the building ground has to be screened and signed free by field experts. Once an area has been scanned the results are reported to the supervising government agency in order to update its GIS database, in essence turning 'red' or potentially dangerous sites into 'green' or 'safe to build' areas.

Traffic Along the Flyway

Thousands of species of birds partake in their yearly migration, be it for weather, food, or mating. Birds may migrate short or long distances; some birds only change altitude. The path along which birds migrate is called a flyway.

In the US, there are four flyways - Atlantic (along the east coast), Mississippi (following the longest river in the US), Central (east of the Rockies), and Pacific (along the west coast).  "As a matter of fact, in the region of Panama, parts of all four flyways merge into one." [1]

Flyways over the US (Source:

Their journey is remarkable. For example, the bird with the longest non-stop migration flight of any species is the Bar-tailed Godwit. This bird has been known to fly 11,000 km from Alaska to New Zealand. Their uninterrupted journey is fueled by stored body fat. [2]

While migration is a natural instinct in birds, many species have been threatened during their migrations by humans by hunting and building structures that interfere with their breeding grounds and flyways.

To better understand our feathered friends, a website called has been busy mapping bird migratory patterns. You can even view flyways by particular species viewing what they call STEM (Spatio-Temporal Exploratory Model) maps.

Friday, May 25, 2012


During the last years many countries have been faced with different threats, such as terrorist attacks and huge natural disasters. Government may not prevent these events from occurring but they have been using GIS to minimize causalities and control difficult scenarios.

After a 25-mile thunderstorm that stalled FT. Collins, Colorado, the Cities GIS department quickly reacted by mapping the damages caused by this undesirable event. These maps where used both by the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to facilitate their jobs. The Red Cross used the maps to allocate homeless people and building with standing water to avoid a health crisis. The FEMA used these maps to send their first relief teams to site ASAP. 

It is very important for emergency management personal to have fast, accurate and clear information when there has been a natural disaster; man made emergencies, epidemics, riots, or even terrorists attacks. Before introducing GIS, agencies relied on their manager’s intuition and experience. There was no time to analysis information. The GIS framework that is now used allows agencies and governments to coordinate and acquire essential information to minimize casualties and undesired events. GIS maps complex information making it instantly comprehensive, thing that cannot be done with text. Wireless technologies and GIS applications have also helped response teams be more efficient in their response.

Governments cannot control devastating situations but they can leverage on GIS to prevent disasters from occurring.  “An emergency that that overwhelms the ability of local resources to deal with it is termed a disaster."[1]

Not only does GIS allow an efficient response but can also prevent certain undesired events to occur. Take for example, “mapping and analyzing the relations of faults to existing infrastructure highlights areas vulnerable to earthquakes. These areas become the focus of mitigation efforts.”[1] GIS can also reduce secondary damages in natural disasters such as fires, gas leaks and water contamination that can create health issues.

Larimer County (29 different districts, cities, towns and communities), located in the north of Colorado, well known for its entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park receives over 3 million visitors per year. This had led the county to have the Larimer County GIS center (LCGIS), which stores a variety of important spatial enabled data including important locations such as shelters, schools, fire department, police department, public facilities and others.

Due to the fact of the difficulties they used to have to report to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the LCGIS decided to create a special Emergency Response web application (Larimer Interactive Geographic Emergency Responder, {LIGER}) which would allow them to have “instant collaboration, visualize population and infrastructure vulnerabilities and visualize and manage the allocation of resources with their associated hazards.” After having come up with this new application emergency managers have quickly benefited by being able to update and manage resources as needed in any type of hazardous situation. This allows them to give fast and reliable information to the FEMA.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Mapping the Market to Create Healthy Banks

How we can use mapping the market to create healthy banks.[1]

In the midst of today’s financial turmoil, soundness of banking becomes an issue not just to people in the industry but to the public. As you probably noticed in our previous posts, Geographic Information Technology (GIS) can be applied to any business. Here I found a quite interesting case of a financial data provider that helps banks to come up with the best strategic decision using the information collected through GIS software.

SNL financial, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, provides its clients with up-to-date visual information that enables banks to do some scenario-based simulations by changing attributes that affect their strategic decisions in a speedy but easy and intuitive manner. “SNL collects, standardizes and disseminates specialized information for the banking, financial services, insurance, real estate, and energy industries through its web portal SNL Interactive or SNLi, which uses GIS software called ArcGIS to view and analyze information on a map."[2]

The following is a summary of the article, but for the full details of the story, please click here.

SNLi Mapping

With this GIS applied technology, clients can view various types of data, including street information and aerial images, and create new data, such as adding new market areas and incorporating demographic information and business data. For example, SNL’s clients can quickly visualize their branch locations against the locations of competitors to evaluate growth opportunity through M&As, pictured below.

Visualizing branch locations

Branch Analytics

Branch Analytics allows customers to quickly perform in-depth market studies, integrating bank branch deposit and demographic data. It is a powerful GIS analytics on web that helps banks to find the best solution to maintain a healthy balance sheet. With data on changes in market deposit concentration, service subscribers can easily model what-if scenarios such as what would happen if they opened new branches, offered different services, or closed underperforming sites. Branch Analytics also makes it easier for bankers to create a report and a map for presentations. And the maps update and reflect on changes in information.

Despite proclaimed accuracy of its data and success in the US, “public good” nature of their service may limit its wider use in the future. Individual financial institutions have a strong incentive to use the data SNL provides, but on the other hand, they are unwilling to share information that contribute to accuracy of SNL data but may be used against their own interests, which eventually leads to overall inaccuracy of the data. In a market where externality is strong, a public rather than private entity serves better, I think.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Never lose your pet again!

For only $0.55 a day, you can keep constant tabs on your pet with a GPS collar.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


A lot of people can never get used to the probability of going blind. Yes, indeed it can be very scary. Like you, many people are more afraid of going blind, and unfortunately many more are born blind or virtually impaired.


In most parts of the world it is very difficult for a virtually impaired person to get around outside, and that is why you do not see many of them. Many at times, the virtually impaired rely on committing previously threaded on directions to memory, rely on strangers for help, and navigate the dangerously crowded streets and sidewalks with a cane.

That fear is OVER! The technology that helps drivers get where they are going is now doing the same for the virtually impaired. The many available products like the trekker assist people with visual impairments to navigate the global environment commonly rely upon the Global Positioning System (GPS) and the Geographic Information System (GIS).

How GIS works is, with spatial information it is often presented in the form of maps that viewers actively explore to learn about an area. People who cannot see cannot share the benefits of such a visual representation, and have traditionally relied on audio descriptions, tactile maps, guidance from others, and even trial and error when learning the layout of a region.(1)

GIS is a powerful tool to help record, analyze and map spatial data, which as a visual technology provides spatial analysis and maps for the visually impaired and blind.

A GIS map not only of every road, but also of every manhole cover, storm drain, road sign, telephone or power pole, fire hydrant, walkway, sidewalk crack, and much more. Think of how useful it would be to a blind traveler to know that not only is a telephone pole just ahead on the right, but there could be a large crack in the sidewalk that may not have been repaired yet. (2)

What brings together existing geographical information system (GIS) resources with currently available computer-controlled embossing technologies to yield a revolutionary tool with significant implications for education, orientation, and mobility of blind and visually impaired travelers is what is called the TMAP.

Well, TMAP is Tactile Map Automated Production that uses free GIS data and off-the-shelf embossing technology to allow blind people to download and emboss customized tactile street maps of any location in the US. (3)

These specialize maps are mapped out by a science called cartography and is used in developing color-blind friendly maps.


To read more on cartography and the power of mapping, click here to understand in depth the spatial phenomenon on mapping.

Friday, May 4, 2012

GIS Applications in Energy Industries

The unstoppable demand as well as the continuous site discoveries has made it extremely necessary for the energy corporations to have an effective reliable mapping system for the energy and mining sources around the planet. Such mapping help the energy enterprises manage different aspects of their business such as logistics, energy saving, planning, engineering, etc., to achieve higher process efficiencies.

GIS in Oil & Gas industry

Role of GIS in petroleum industry

For oil companies, it is necessary to count on reliable exploration systems to discover new oil sources ahead of competitors. In these days, among the main systems types used are GIS based systems.

GIS systems advantage arises form their ability to relate information captured by different collection methods, such as satellite imagery, aerial photo mosaics, surface geological studies, etc., to actual locations on interactive maps, which helps to perform further analyses to evaluate further potential [1].

Petroleum companies nowadays have the advantage of access to such technology, which enables them to manage the main aspect of their industry including, leases, facilities, pipelines, etc. They are also able to effectively integrate such a management system with the various technical analyses held across the whole enterprise.

Natural Gas pipelines

Apart from the GIS role in exploration of the potential sources of oil and gas, it now plays important roles in other processes down the line. For example; a current popular application is the design and management of the Natural Gas pipelines.

As the population counts rise, the cities become larger everyday. This makes the process of implementing the infrastructures even more complicated. One of the main infrastructure parts is the natural gas pipeline [2]. Now, GIS systems are used to design, plan, implement the new gas pipelines. Afterwards, the GIS systems are used to manage the pipelines including maintenance planning, logistical planning, emergency preparedness, etc. [3]

Disaster Management

The oil and gas industry is very sensitive to the changes in production rates around the world since the price can change due to the slightest decrease in the supply and consequently affect the entire global economy.

This is why there was a need to establish reliable disaster management systems that can help reduce the losses in case of disasters.

In response to that need, GIS based systems were developed to help the oil and gas corporations to asses the risks of natural disasters such as hurricanes, or other disasters such as oil spills [1]. Such systems help the companies and governments to build their plans to overcome the crises and minimize the losses.

The figure below shows the oil production in relationship to the path of the Hurricane Katrina [1].

Oil production in relationship to the path of Hurricane Katrina

GIS in renewable energy

In response to the high rates of consumption of conventional energy resources such as oil and gas as well as continuous rise in global awareness towards the environmental protection initiatives, the need for alternative renewable energy resources emerged.

GIS systems have proven to be very useful to the renewable energy industry since it helps locate and utilize the renewable energy resources’ sites.

The main use of GIS in this particular field is to predict, to high levels of accuracy, the potential areas for high wind energy sources and the best sites for placing the wind farms and their optimum distribution. Even after installation GIS systems help manage and maintain the wind energy networks.

GIS systems can also use the above-mentioned predictions to analyze the cost effectiveness of wind farms, which saves the investor companies a huge amount of work and money to actually perform the analysis on site. [1]
Similarly to the case of wind energy, GIS can be used to map the possible investments in solar energy units. Solar energy is the most popular and of the most wasted energy forms in the world and if utilized could be a strong competitor to fossil fuels.

The GIS based systems can help experts predict the solar radiation and required design aspects to build the cells and plant them in the right positions as well as also identifying the most efficient sites for solar cells’ investments. [1]

GIS can also be utilized in industries that include other forms of renewable energy such as biomass energy or geothermal energy.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

GIS in Geotechnical Engineering

Do you care about what happens underneath your home? No, this is not meant as a metaphor; "underneath" is meant quite literally in the spatial context. Your house is most likely built on top of something. Soil? Rock? A pile of dirt? Who cares??

Well, if your house suddenly disappears in the throat of a sudden sinkhole, you should care (see image below)! This scare scenario that actually became reality in Guatemala, where a 350 ft sinkhole not only swallowed a house but also killed several people, may be extreme. Possible causes for this phenomenon include washouts due to rainfall, ground vibrations due to construction work, sudden weather changes, or local mining activity, just to name a few. Seldom do they reach such large dimensions as depicted below. Much more common are smaller dents that can cause buildings to settle just enough to leave some visible cracks in the facade behind.

Approx. 100 m deep sinkhole in Guatemala: The world's largest sinkholes  

Is this problem avoidable? In many cases, it is. A common mistake in the planning phase of a building project is to "save" money by neglecting to conduct adequate geological surveys. For this purpose, test boreholes are drilled in the planning stage on the project site and the results are analyzed to compile detailed bore profiles depicting the type of soils and their geotechnical parameters. The results of such surveys are crucial in determining, if additional measures have to be taken in order to stabilize the building over the long haul. Such site investigations are generally not even very costly in relation to the cost of the total building project.

But is there a way to save money on such site investigations? Well, if there are four neighbors around you and at least two of them had geological surveys done at some point, wouldn't it those data be of some value to you? The idea is old. If someone could just collect all the data from soil investigations conducted in a geographic region and make it accessible to homeowners, building companies, architects, governments, engineering consultants, etc., a lot of money could be saved on performing redundant soil investigations.

In many countries, bore profiles are produced solely on a project basis and the information is not shared with a larger institution in order to compile a systematic database that can be used for future purposes. Singapore is cited as one example where government has accomplished the task to build up a very detailed web-based 3D geotechnical information system, a specific application of Geographical Information Systems (GIS). It allows users to locate, view and download borehole logs as well as their cross sections. Users are charged a small fee for obtaining these information. (see Development of a Web-GIS Based Geotechnical Information System).

Therefore, one obvious business application lies in the compilation of a user-friendly GIS database for geotechnical information. Governments, geotechnical institutes and building enterprises would be prime users of such information. One problem in doing so consists not only of the collection of the data but also in bringing it into the right format. One proposal therefore calls for an open-source database application, into which all potential stakeholders can add their information.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

When GIS Fails.

On July 1, 2002, a Bashkirian Airlines Tupolev Tu-154M crashed into a DHL Boeing 757 in mid-air over Germany. The collision killed all 71 passengers onboard both aircraft, including 45 schoolchildren onboard the Tupolev. The accident was cited as a failure because of Swiss Air Traffic Control (although the aircraft was flying over Germany, it was under Swiss control) and because both flights failed to properly adhere to the instructions from their onboard Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems - an application of GIS.

CGI rendering moments before the collision (Source:

What the heck is TCAS?

Every commercial airplane in the United States is required to have a Traffic Collision Avoidance System, or TCAS, unit installed onboard. While Air Traffic Control (ATC) maintains the responsibility to safely control airspace, pilots are also able to see nearby airplanes thanks to TCAS. The TCAS system is composed of three parts. First, there is a TCAS computer installed in the aircraft’s avionics network. Second, there are four antennas on the outside of the aircraft - two on the top, two on the bottom. Third, there are two displays in the flight deck. (“TCAS”

“The TCAS system builds a three dimensional map of aircraft in the airspace, incorporating their range (garnered from the interrogation and response round trip time), altitude (as reported by the interrogated aircraft), and bearing (by the directional antenna from the response). Then, by extrapolating current range and altitude difference to anticipated future values, it determines if a potential collision threat exists.” (“TCAS” Should the two flights come too close, the two TCAS systems will communicate with each other so that each aircraft is given the appropriate avoidance instructions (for example, one is told to descend while the other is told to climb).

So, who has the final say - ATC or TCAS? ATC is unaware of the direction that TCAS has instructed the pilot to move in order to avoid collision. For this reason, the pilots are required to listen to the instructions from TCAS versus ATC. Keep this important fact in mind as I reveal more information about how the Überlingen crash was able to happen.

TCAS Display (Source:

How did TCAS fail that fateful night?

The first factor in the crash was the failure of Swiss ATC to properly respond to the fact that both planes were flying at 36,000 feet on a collision course. That night, some of the ATC radar systems were working slower due to being upgraded and while two controllers were technically on duty, only one was awake. Peter Nielsen, the lone controller, was too preoccupied with another flight to properly address the imminent disaster. With only less than a minute before impact, Nielsen told the Tupolev to descend 1,000 feet to avoid the Boeing. Following Nielsen's orders, the Tupolev began to descend. He gave no instructions to the Boeing. (“2002 Überlingen mid-air collision”

Viewing this crash from a mechanical standpoint, TCAS did not fail; it was installed and working properly on both airplanes. The fatal problem occurred when TCAS gave its instructions after Nielsen did - it told the Boeing to descend and the Tupolev to climb, contradicting Nielsen's orders. Ignoring TCAS, the Tupolev continued descending. Following TCAS to some degree, the Boeing began to descend - however not as fast as TCAS had instructed. (“2002 Überlingen mid-air collision” The result was catastrophic.

Collision Aftermath

The mid-air collision shook the aviation safety community. As a result, TCAS and ATC systems were upgraded and improved. Pilots were given clearer instructions to always follow TCAS over ATC. Controller Peter Nielsen took time off work due to traumatic stress. In 2004, he was murdered by Vitaly Kaloyev, whose wife and children perished onboard the Tupolev.

To read more about TCAS, this and other air disasters, and other ways GIS has improved aviation safety, check out "Why Planes Crash and How Technology is Keeping us Safe" written by real airline pilot (versus me, the wannabe).