2019-12-06 00:00:00

The utility of real-time data in GIS




         A vast amount of data is created every day from sensors and devices: GPS devices on vehicles, objects, and people; sensors monitoring the environment; live video feeds; speed sensors in roadways; social media feeds; and more, all connected through the Internet. What this Internet of Things means is that we have an emerging source of valuable data. It’s called “real-time” data. Only recently has the technology emerged to enable this real-time data to be incorporated into GIS applications.

         The real-time GIS capabilities of the ArcGIS platform have transformed how information is utilized during any given situation. Real-time dashboards fed by the IOT provide actionable views into the daily operations of organizations, empowering decision-makers and stakeholders with the latest information they need to drive current and future ideas and strategies. Dashboards answer questions such as: What’s happening right now? Where is it happening? Who is affected? What assets are available? Where are my people?


The National Weather Service publishes a series of real-time data feeds that can be readily consumed in ArcGIS and used to drive custom applications.



The FlightAware MiseryMap is a real-time visualization of the state of US flight delays and cancellations.

Some applications of real-time dashboards

  • Local governments use real-time information to manage operations such as tracking and monitoring snowplows and trash trucks.
  • Utilities monitor public services including water, wastewater, and electricity for consumers.
  • Transportation departments track buses and trains and monitor traffic flows, road conditions, and incidents.
  • Airport authorities and aviation agencies track and monitor air traffic worldwide.
  • Oil and gas companies monitor equipment in the field, tanker cars, and field crews.
  • Law enforcement agencies monitor crime as it happens, as well as incoming 911 calls.
  • Companies use real-time social media feeds such as Twitter to gauge feedback and monitor social sentiment about particular issues.
  • Local governments use real-time information to manage operations such as tracking and monitoring snowplows and trash trucks.

ArcGIS is used to monitor FedEx flight operations on a typical night at the Memphis International Airport.

How real is real time?

         Real-time data is as current as the data source that is updating it, whether that data is being updated every second, minute, hour, or daily. What is real time to one organization might not be real time to another, depending on the type of scenario being monitored.

         Real time is a concept that typically refers to the awareness of events at the same rate or at the same time as they unfold (without significant delay). It’s often confused with frequency, or the intervals between events, which is essentially how often the event is updated. The update interval, or frequency, relates to the term “temporal resolution,” which can vary from one application to another.

         For example, most aircraft monitoring systems provide two updates every second, whereas it may take every hour to provide a weather update. For monitoring their networks, energy utilities use systems, also known as SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), that sample data about voltage, flow, pressure, and more from analog devices at very high frequencies (e.g., 50 hertz). This can result in high resource requirements for network bandwidth, system memory, and storage volume.

         The data that fueled geographic applications in the past was created to represent the state of something g at a specific point in time: data captured for what has happened, or what is happening, or what will happen. Although this GIS data is valuable for countless GIS applications and analyses, today the current snapshot of what is happening now falls out of sync very quickly with the real world, in many cases becoming outdated almost as soon as it is created.

What is real-time GIS?

         Real-time GIS can be characterized as a continuous stream of events flowing from IoT sensors or data feeds. Each event represents the latest measured state, including position, temperature, concentration, pressure, voltage, water level, altitude, speed, distance, and directional information flowing from a sensor.Maps provide the most basic frameworks for viewing, monitoring, and responding to
real-time data feeds.

This national water map for the United States integrates weather feeds and storm warnings, along with real-time and historical stream gauges and weather forecasts. The map, updated several times daily, also includes a national water forecast predicting stream flows for 2.7 million river reaches for up to 10 days out.


Aspects of a real-time GIS

Acquire real-time data

         A utility organization may want to visually represent the live status of its network with information that is captured by sensors in the field. Although the sensors on the network are not physically moving, their status and the information they send changes rapidly. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is being used in a wide variety of environments to keep track of items of interest. Warehouses and logistics companies use RFID to track and monitor inventory levels. Hospitals use it to track equipment to make sure it has gone through proper cleansing procedures before being used.

         A wide range of real-time data is accessible today. Connectors exist for many common devices and sensors enabling easy integration between the IoT and your GIS.