7 Ways GIS is Transforming Civil Engineering

Civil engineering has come a long way. From ancient aquifers to locating natural gas deposits via satellite, the oldest branch of engineering in the world has literally left the planet.  One technology that empowers modern civil engineers is geographic information systems (GIS). GIS enables engineers to capture and analyze spatial data. The data can then be presented in layered visualizations using digital geographic maps.

GIS in civil engineering is providing valuable insights that were unprecedented. According to GeoBuiz, the GIS and spatial analytics market is on track to reach $88.3 billion (USD) by 2020 — a CAGR of 12.4% since 2017. A significant sector of this market is devoted to engineering.

The explosive growth of GIS technology means powerful new tools for engineers and scientists and exciting opportunities for investors and stakeholders.

Let’s see why GIS appeals to this ancient industry.

The Importance of GIS in Civil Engineering

GIS is transforming, disrupting, and expanding the ways engineers serve society. It provides layers of data on top of geographic maps that can help engineers and others make better-informed decisions.

Imagine, if you will, a simple 2D map of a city. Now imagine selecting layers of data that can overlay the base map, and provide geographically significant information. The layers may represent rush hour traffic flow, underground water tables, or population density at 7 a.m. You can turn on as many layers as you want to get the information you need. Oh, and those water tables? You can see them in 3D. And if you want to see the traffic density every hour on the hour, GIS can easily provide a dynamic view that shows traffic changes throughout the day.  

We will see more-advanced examples of GIS applications in civil engineering in a moment. But let’s now look at the technology behind GIS data collection.

GIS and Remote Sensing

The data GIS uses to create maps can come from a virtually unlimited number of sources. Spreadsheets to satellites, IoT to information databases, GIS can take any source of relevant data and make an interactive map out of it. One of the most far-out sources of data for GIS is data obtained by remote sensing.

Remote sensing is nothing more than collecting data from a distance. Drones, aircraft, and satellites can all carry sensors that can make maps using various sectors of the electromagnetic spectrum. LiDAR is but one example. Some remote sensors are passive and make use of reflected sunlight, while others project various wavelengths of electromagnetic energy at the target and analyze the reflected signals.Remote sensing also provides a detailed analysis of remote locations that may be otherwise inaccessible.

This basic understanding will be helpful as we explore GIS applications.

7 GIS Applications in Civil Engineering

1. Structural Engineering

Structural Engineering

Bridges, levees, and earthquake-hardened buildings are all important to societies around the world.

GIS enables civil engineers to bring a wealth of material data and regional historical data into the design process. This makes structural analysis one of the most popular uses of GIS. By incorporating 3D GIS maps with traditional design strategies, designs can benefit from past failures.

GIS mapping provides numerous advantages over tabular data. Interactive overlays and 3D models help engineers “see” problems before the first ton of concrete is poured.

2. Transportation

Roundabout Schematics

Transportation infrastructures have always been the bread and butter of civil engineering firms.

With GIS tools, traffic flow trends can be viewed in conjunction with population changes on the same map at the same time. Additional map layers, such as those showing the optimum routes for future bridges, can be added at any time.The advantage of GIS to transportation engineering is that it allows a virtually unlimited amount of data to be superimposed over the study area.

GIS applications are also robust. GIS software easily accommodates highly-dynamic traffic data or rapidly-changing flood levels.

3. Terrain Mapping and Analysis

Terrain Mapping Example

GIS technology excels at converting terabytes of data into highly detailed, color-enhanced 3D maps. With data provided by satellite sensors and aircraft, soil properties, underground features, and hidden geological features can be mapped.

GIS enables engineers to identify optimum locations for future developments and to make detailed analyses without setting foot on the location.

4. Watershed Analysis

Watershed Analysis

Few things are as important to civil engineers as protecting our water supplies. Chemical pollution, radiation leaks, and even earth changes can threaten the lakes, streams, and rivers that supply the water we drink. Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) are an important part of watershed analysis. DEMs provide basic elevation and slope data, but they are not designed for easy visual analysis.

Software applications can convert DEM tables into color-enhanced relief maps, but GIS can do more.

GIS can provide graphical and numerical representation of water flow rates, direction, depth, and accumulation — on the same map at the same time. Used in conjunction with terrain analysis and pollution data, engineers can help protect the natural water sources that we all depend on.

5. Environmental Engineering & Impact Studies

Environmental engineering is not limited to protecting water resources. Rather, it is a complex science that relies on data from physical, geological, biological, and even social sciences.Civil engineers develop the structures and systems that grow and sustain societies. At the same time, they must be ever-conscious of the impact their work can have on the environment.

GIS data helps them do both.

With sufficient data sources, GIS software can provide as many superimposed map layers as necessary to help engineers perform impact studies. Historical data, future development plans, industrial concerns, and other data can be combined in analysis maps. By presenting a simultaneous view of the factors that can affect the environment, engineers can make decisions that have the least impact.

6. Wastewater and Stormwater Management

Wastewater and stormwater present never-ending challenges for engineers. Design deficiencies in the systems that drain wastewater and storm runoff can create a myriad of problems. Flooded streets, flooded basements, and raw sewage in places it ought not be have all happened.

GIS applications can integrate with hydraulic and hydrologic modeling data to provide a detailed analysis of water utility systems.

GIS combines data from customer information systems, water flow at various nodes, and historical data to predict water demand. Another application is combining terrain analysis with flooding reports to plan drainage modifications. It can all be seen using 3D mapping, with graphical and numerical data layers available at the click of a button.

7. Disaster Management

Civil engineers don’t just build things. They also provide municipalities with specialized expertise in times of natural disaster.

For example, engineers build levees in advance of a hurricane, and they provide quick structural analysis following an earthquake.

Helping engineers to help with disaster relief is one of the most important applications of GIS systems.

Using real-time remote sensing data, GIS can help engineers assess damage and plan effective responses. Mapping software helps engineers compare historical data with post-disaster data to make an informed analysis of the situation.

GIS mapping can help engineers make decisions in minutes. Making the same decisions using tabular data can take hours. When lives are at stake, GIS becomes a virtual lifesaver.

GIS Software Used in Civil Engineering

The uses for GIS software in civil engineering are growing by the day.
Transforming data into useable GIS mapping visualizations requires powerful software solutions. Here are four of the top software GIS packages for civil engineering:


ArcGIS offers powerful geo-based data analytics capabilities for a wide range of fields, including civil engineering. This cloud-based platform includes a host of features tailored for serving utilities and infrastructure design, planning, and management.

Global Mapper

For 25 years, Global Mapper has served the civil engineering industry with an increasing array of GIS features.
Global Mapper offers LiDAR processing, data importing and exporting in a wide variety of formats, terrain analysis, and a long list of advanced capabilities.

AutoCad Map 3D

Even GIS has not replaced AutoCad as an engineer’s best friend. AutoCad Map 3D provides all the standard CAD features, along with a powerful GIS toolset.


The Maptitude software application provides advanced mapping capabilities for GIS users, including engineers. Converting aggregated data into 3D maps is easy using the Create-A-Map Wizard.


Geographic information systems have long-since proven their value to civil engineers. Even so, the market demand for innovative GIS solutions is outpacing available solutions.

Creative startups and their technology partners will find 2019 the perfect time to move into this hot market. Those that can develop the next generation of GIS solutions will get their market share.

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