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Open Environments and Digital Twins

The GIS world has no idea how hard it is to work with data in the digital twin/BIM world. Most GIS formats are open, or at works readable to import into a closed system. But in the digital twin/BIM space, there is too many close data sets that makes it so hard to work with the data. The loops one must go through to import a Revit model are legendary and mostly are how you get your data into IFC without giving up all the intelligence. At Cityzenith, we were able to work with tons of open formats, but dealing with Revit and other closed formats was very difficult to the point it required a team in India to handle the conversions.

All the above is maddening because if there is one thing a digital twin should do, is be able to talk with as many other systems as possible. IoT messages, GIS datasets, APIs galore and good old fashioned CAD systems. That’s why open source data formats are best, those that are understood and can be extended in any way someone needs. One of the biggest formats that we worked with was glTF. It is widely supported these days but it really isn’t a great format for BIM models or other digital twin layers because it is more of a visual format than a data storage model. Think of it similar to a JPEG, great for final products, but you don’t want to work with it for your production data.

IFC, which I mentioned before, is basically a open BIM standard. IFC is actually a great format for BIM, but companies such as Autodesk don’t do a great job supporting it, it becomes more of interchange file, except where governments require it’s use. I also dislike the format because it is unwieldy, but it does a great job of interoperability and is well supported by many platforms.

IFC and GLTF are great, but they harken back to older format structures. They don’t take advantage of modern cloud based systems. I’ve been looking at DTDL (Digital Twins Definition Language) from Microsoft. What I do like about DLDT is that it is based on JSON-LD so many of those IoT services you are already working with take advantage of it. Microsoft’s Digital Twin platform was slow to take off but many companies, including Bentley Systems, are leveraging it to help their customers get a cloud based open platform which is what they all want. Plus you can use services such as Azure Functions (very underrated service IMO) to work with your data once it is in there.

Azure Digital Twins
Azure Digital Twins

The magic of digital twins is when you can connect messaging (IoT) services to your digital models. That’s the holy grail, have the real world connected to the digital world. Sadly, most BIM and digital twin systems aren’t open enough and require custom conversion work or custom coding to enable even simple integration with SAP, Salesforce or MAXIMO. That’s why these newer formats, based mostly on JSON, seem to fit the bill and we will see exponential growth in their use.

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Open Data Has Changed Everything

At Cityzenith we provide open data to all our customers for their decision making. Cities make it so easy to get this data and use it. But there is so much here than open city data. Our partners from General Electric to Mapbox all use open data one way or another to help us all get our jobs done.

Today though we don’t use TIGER data anymore, at least directly. We use OpenStreetMap data which is more complete and accurate than TIGER ever was. We use Mapbox for our basemaps (aerial, street, traffic, etc) and they’re all built with OSM data. But what is so very different than what GDT and others is companies like Mapbox help build OSM in return for using the data. That means when Cityzenith uses building heights in San Francisco for modeling that we can take advantage of the community and fill in the blanks where needed.

Mapbox Traffic in Cityzenith

That’s the big difference between then and now. You can have literally the same look and feel as Mapbox without having to pay a dime if you want. That’s the big game changer, open access to open data means that we’re all working on the same basemap and making improvements to that map. We can get all emotional with words like democratization but it has changed how we work with data. Power is no longer controlled by large companies (the reason why GDT was purchased by TeleAtlas which was acquired by TomTom). But we never have to worry about that because the map is controlled by everyone.

As we move to AR and VR mapping, we’ve got the data in place to make all we need for these virtual environments. That’s why we see such innovation in our space, the freedom to create without fear of not having access to the same data as everyone else.

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Open Data…

This should be the mantra of any open data website: