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don_dale_tn.jpgWith the continuing convergence of spatial technologies for greater intelligence, one company in particular stands out. Safe Software has long been in the business of moving data with their spatial ETL (extract, transform and load) platform FME. Vector1 Media editor Matt Ball had a conversation with Dale Lutz and Don Murray, co-presidents of Safe Software, about the fusion of spatial data and the promise of 3D.

murray_don.jpgV1: When we look at a process-centric approach to the application of spatial tools, the CAD/GIS divide still looms large. How long have you been involved in addressing CAD/GIS hurdles.

Don: Safe Software has been involved in moving mapping data between GIS and CAD systems since 1994. The first four data formats Safe supported were DWG, DGN, Shape and MapInfo files. This is especially important to many cities and engineering companies as they design their cadastral fabric with CAD packages. What they’re really doing is mapping respectively their parcels and infrastructure in CAD and FME supports this important task.

V1: I’d like to understand the workflows that FME facilitates for someone working in both CAD and GIS, say for a city GIS manager.
Dale: A very common scenario relates to utility companies that are installing an enterprise GIS, but have an army of CAD technicians that do the data collection. FME facilitates spatial data conversion by leveraging the meanings that those CAD technicians put into the data when it was collected. The connectivity may have been implied by things being adjacent to each other or the type of transformer might be implied by the symbol that was chosen to represent it. FME not only enables the information to flow from the CAD environment but also transforms it so that it is immediately useful in the GIS system. This is the highest value use of FME for organizations with CAD and GIS data requirements. Quite often that data is being put to use in higher-end GIS.

Don: We’ve had customers with FRAMME systems where thousands of DGN files are linked to a database. When they load that data into GIS using FME, we bring all the tiles together to build a seamless database. With this they are able to more easily do advanced analysis such as connectivity tracing, which is important for determining things like what customers they can deliver DSL services to.

Typically organizations continue to run the CAD system to get the benefit of both the new and the existing systems.  FME supports this directly by enabling data to move easily between both CAD and GIS. Using the scenario above for example the company could use the FME to retile the data to support the existing system.

V1: What scale of organizations are we talking about with that scenario?

Don: We’re talking about both small cities or utility companies all the way to nationwide utilities.

Dale: Your original question related to municipalities and there is another common scenario that is much less grandiose and quite a bit simpler. I know our tools are used right here in our local area (British Columbia) to facilitate exchange between different departments.

Don: In this case, the CAD data is often linear. What this means is that the parcels are defined by their bounding lines in CAD. The GIS system wants to deal with polygon parcels. Again, with FME the data is able to flow between these two different representations. With this both the CAD and GIS users see the data the way that they need to see it.  This is the power of FME’s transformation capabilities.

Each city is probably different, and we’ve had different users within the same city that draw things differently, but of course it all looks the same. FME is the perfect tool to move the data into a GIS thematic arrangement and then back again to a CAD friendly representation.

V1: So parsing the files and putting them back together is a main strength of FME.

Dale: When people think about FME, they think only about geometry, but it can also do transformations on attribution. FME also does vector and raster data now with the 2007 release. You can have single workflows that combine data from both vector and raster in one data flow.

We illustrate this with a data flow that gets people really excited. You can mosaic a bunch of raster files, do a NAD shift and then you retile it out in a custom tile. When I was at our user conference, a user told me that the process would take three hours with another product and we’re able to do this on the fly as we’re presenting.

V1: Are there any other new data types that you’re looking at?
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Don: With FME 2008, you’ll be able to pull three different data types together (vector, raster and 3D). Up until recently we’ve been talking about 2.5 D or 2D with the Zed, but the Zed isn’t part of the actual data package, it’s just been carried along. With FME 2008, we’re working to support 3D as in Building Information Models where the data set is the entire design of the building, with piping, electrical, etc.

If you’re a city or an engineering firm, you will be able to fuse all your data together to get a much better picture of what’s happening. You can get the digital elevation model for example, which is a raster format, combine it with the vector data and finally the 3D building information and then move that into your destination system for visualization, analysis, or storage.  FME has always been a configurable data pipe and that is the role that it will continue to play just with more types of data.

Our initial 3D focus is on the IFC format, 3D PDF, CityGML, and the spatial databases (Oracle and Enterprise Geodatabase). Another format that comes to mind is Autodesk’s Revit product. We haven’t done that yet, but it’s on our list.

City GML is huge in Europe, specifically for sustainable development. In Europe they’re doing noise mapping with large models to understand noise pollution. They are doing a lot of mapping to make their cities much more livable.

V1: What would be the viewing environment for the fused information?

We’re not in the viewing or analysis space. We are the data movers. For us it’s all about the data, but the big viewing environments that come to mind are ArcScene, Google Earth, and even Acrobat Reader 8 with its 3D capability. Since FME supports PDF, you can see the 3D model, move it around, and manipulate it. We’ll also target the Autodesk DWF format.

Dale: One of things that’s quite interesting with FME now that we will be able to integrate both raster and 3D data. For example, with our early builds of FME 2008, we can read a LIDAR raster that is bouncing off of buildings, so it’s building data with elevation, read a 2D building footprint and then combine the two so that we extrude the building footprint into a 3D object and output it to a 3D format or database.

V1: Curvefitter is a newer function within FME that you’ve added with the 2007 release that helps compress the file size. Does that function also help compress 3D data?

Don: As you know CAD files typically have arcs in them. In the past FME has basically vectorized those arcs by replacing them with a series of points. We focus on mapping data, and historically the mapping tools haven’t been able to support true arcs. With the newest versions of ESRI GIS products they support arcs. So now with the latest version of FME, you can put the arcs back into the data.

Dale: It’s possible that an extrude of a curved object with FME and Curvefitter might help reduce file size or increase realism. We haven’t done that yet, but it’s an interesting area to explore.

V1: The complexity of 3D models must prove to be hard transformation problems.

Don: Some of the first files that we received were a 3D DWG file of a guitar and the Starship Enterprise. Up to now we haven’t been able to work with these files. Now that we have this fusion capability, I’m really excited to take a look at that 3D guitar and move it into a 3D PDF or other formats. It’s a problem that has been haunting us for years.

V1: So the new fusion capability will open up quite a few new areas for your products. As mainstream GIS media, Jeff Thurston and I became somewhat frustrated with the low-level of spatial analysis that is taking place and the lack of intelligence in 3D models. Will this new capability help to add intelligence to 3D models?

Don: The way we generally approach new things, is first we have to read and write the data. Because we’re an ETL (extract, transform and load) engine, initially we have to worry about the extract and load function to get started, but then the emphasis shifts as we talk to users about the way that the data needs to be in their destination system.  It is up to us to transform the data so that they user of the destination system can immediately use the data to perform the analysis, viewing, and editing that they need to do. We’ll certainly be adding transformers as time goes on, just like we’re doing with raster.

With Safe Software, it really comes down to building tools so that people can extract intelligence for their business. Business intelligence such as if you’re a developer and you’re going to build a tower, it would be nice to identify what that’s going to do to the livability of a neighborhood.

V1: It sounds as if you’re an enabler of the integrated planning approach, combining multi-disciplinary viewpoints into one system.

Don: There are a number of benefits from this fused data in the infrastructure area. Using our FME platform, you can move the data into analysis software and then you can do interesting analysis.  For example, you may want to run wind analysis or noise analysis to see the effect the building has on livability.  With our technology users will be able to more easily build 3D models and then do very interesting analysis.

V1: To my knowledge there’s no other similar effort to the one that you’re working on.

Dale: There are some tools around that do 3D translation, such as between CAD and PDF or between different high-end CAD packages. Folks that are building cars or 3D motors would have been using these tools in years past. But we’re coming at this from more of the geo side, and we bring an understanding of the data model, attributes and related information that people may need to supplement, rearrange or use to add value to the data on the way through to the destination system.

We’re in the ETL market, so our tool identifies the end points of the data transformation. We look at both the format and the structure of the data that is needed to do the analysis by the destination system. City GML is a good example, because the output is a 3D model for a whole town that then gets fed into analysis tools such as noise analysis.

One way to get data into that environment is FME. We’ll then identify a number of additional end points that have a key technology, and we’ll build an FME pipe that can place data into that environment from many sources. What makes our tool very complementary to software vendors is that we enable new types of data to be moved into their systems.  With the next release of FME we will support over 200 different formats. We will enable and open up a whole new world of data whether it be vector, raster or 3D so other vendors tools have access to the data they need to shine.

V1: How do the tools fit into integrating data on multiple scales, say for zooming in a 3D environment?

Don: FME offers generalization capabilities. From the building level you might want to zoom into different levels of detail or zoom out for a much bigger picture. We’ve done this sort of work for some web applications to go from country level down to a more local level.

Scale is one thing, showing only items that would appear at a certain level of detail, but more with FME we’re helping people filter things to show them just what they want to see. Generalization deals with filtering, say for people wanting to see buildings of only a certain height.

Dale: At the FOSS4G Conference in Victoria, there were some interesting meetings around the idea of 3D regionation. It’s kind of like applying what people used to do with raster pyramids. You pre-compute some very course rasters so that as you zoom in and out you just flip between the images that you’re pulling from. There’s talk of doing similar things for 3D, so that it is faster to display and navigate very complex and big models. I could see us playing a role there, just as we’re now able to play a role on the vector side with our KML writing and the raster side with pyramiding.

V1: Are there any major clients that are driving your work in 3D or are you just working on interesting problems to solve?

Don: The Open Geospatial Consortium has a big Building Information Modeling (BIM) working group. City GML is part of that. People are talking about serving BIM over WFS. And of course Oracle Spatial just added BIM to it. They’re very interested.

As we go around and talk to people, everyone is really excited with 3D now. Whether they’re excited because they really know what they want to do with it is hard to say. In Germany they really have an express need for 3D, and I have a feeling that other people will follow.

Dale: The traditional FME audience isn’t a 3D audience. But in the traveling that I’ve done to Australia and to Europe, in any FME audience that I speak to, there are two or three out of 100 that say they’re working in 3D and could use our new capabilities already.

While we feel that we’re on the leading edge of this, there are people out there looking for solutions and gathering models that want to be able to handle them in a flexible way. In some of the Norwegian states, for example, they’ve had a plan in place where every proposed building must have a complete model submitted with it. That was an early customer area where they told us they wanted to read IFC into ArcGIS.

While we are to some degree doing R&D based on our read of the tea leaves, I do think there are already cases out there where people have need for this sort of technology.

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