How Pittsburgh Businesses Are Revolutionizing Geospatial Technology

Emily Constantine Mercurio
December 4, 2019

In 1803, Merriweather Lewis began the famous Lewis and Clark expedition on the shores of the Allegheny River, from what would eventually become downtown Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle. To record data along this monumental journey, he and his team used the most advanced, state-of-the-art geospatial technologies of their time; an octant to observe the stars, a chronometer to record accurate time, a surveyor’s compass to determine bearing and direction, a pole chain for measuring distance, and elk skin journals for recording notes. Even though their tools sound like something out of a steampunk novel, their mapping methods covered all the necessary principles of mapping that are still in use today: a coordinate system, distance and bearing, survey points, metadata, and attribute information.

Fast forward a few hundred years and Pittsburgh is again at the epicenter of a mapping revolution. Emerging technologies born from the creative minds of spatial thinkers are changing the way people engage with location-based information. Pittsburgh is quickly becoming a globally recognized center of innovation for geospatial technology; the tools, products, and services launching from here are once again changing the world.  

Pittsburgh is quickly becoming a globally recognized center of innovation for geospatial technology; the tools, products, and services launching from here are once again changing the world.  

As a co-founder of a Pittsburgh geospatial tech company, I have spent a significant amount of time researching and meeting with other area companies working in this technology space. Our team has been involved in the mapping and geospatial industry since the mid 1990's and have witnessed several technological paradigm shifts over the past 25 years. We can confidently say that what's happening in Pittsburgh is special.

One major driver of the mapping boom in Pittsburgh is via the collective efforts of companies like Aurora, Argo AI, Aptiv, Uber ATG, and Locomation who are creating geospatially aware data, hardware, software, and artificial intelligence used for developing and testing autonomous vehicle technologies. Not only are these companies attracting best-in-class scientists and engineers from around the globe, they are fueled by injections of local talent from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.

Aside from these autonomous vehicle heavy-hitters, smaller businesses are also doing very big things. Innovative, mission-centric, and geospatially-aware companies in Pittsburgh are creating modern methods to harness the ancient power of maps. What follows is a quick tour of the many other impressive tech businesses leveraging geospatial technologies in Pittsburgh. Please note that this isn't an exhaustive list, and if I left anyone out, please introduce yourself in the comments! Also, if there are exciting geospatial projects happening in Pittsburgh's public and government sectors, please share!

Innovative, mission-centric, and geospatially-aware companies in Pittsburgh are creating modern methods to harness the ancient power of maps.

Let’s begin with companies that are creating new tools and data systems that improve the way we map and characterize the built environment:

  • AllVision is integrating high definition (HD) mapping systems, image data, and advanced analytical methods to provide new insights at the street level and help cities actualize the value of their assets.
  • CivicMapper provides geospatial data, analyses, and applications to decision makers on the front lines of climate, infrastructure, and transportation issues.
  • eHoldings provides integrative mapping and geospatial services to organizations focused on wastewater utilities and lead service line replacement projects.
  • Geospatial Corporation is renowned for providing subsurface mapping of pipelines and other critical infrastructure.
  • Identified Technologies provides drone mapping solutions for construction and job sites via an approachable and customer-centric data delivery system.
  • Kaarta creates several types of LiDAR-based mobile mapping units that can be mounted on vehicles or easily carried by people to generate highly detailed and 3D digital twins of the built environment.
  • Maven Machines is using geospatially enabled mobile and cloud technologies to modernize routing, stop efficiency, safety, compliance, and asset utilization for freight transport and trucking.
  • PathVu is creating new technologies to map sidewalks and improve the accessibility and walkability for all pedestrians of all abilities.
  • Precision Laser and Instrumentation sells state-of-the-art surveying, GPS, and field safety products to support geospatial data development work across numerous markets.
  • RealX Ventures, Inc. is using GIS technologies to build an online marketplace to connect sellers of property rights with buyers of those rights.
  • RedZone Robotics uses robots to map wastewater systems and provides communities with mission-critical infrastructure data via a spatially-enabled user interface.
  • RoadBotics is disrupting road inspection paradigms by using vehicle-mounted high definition (HD) mapping systems and artificial intelligence to identify and characterize pavement competency.
  • Sanborn, a global geospatial services company, has a very active Pittsburgh office, and provides innovative, best-value, spatial solutions that help guide and support the decisions confronting governments, businesses and organizations in the U.S. and around the world.
  • T3 Global Strategies provides engineers and construction professionals with high quality spatial data services captured by multiple collection methodologies, including manned and unmanned aerial systems, surveying, and 3D laser scanning.
  • The Thrasher Group has dedicated Geospatial, Surveying, and Mapping business units that specialize in GIS, terrestrial and airborne LiDAR, and full-service aerial mapping projects including drone data collection services. They also maintain a database of historical imagery.
  • With offices across the US and including Pittsburgh, Woolpert provides highly innovative and robust architecture, engineering, and geospatial services for complex projects in the natural and built environments.

Additionally, several businesses are using maps as a medium for communicating location-based analytics and for visualizing unique customer data:

  • The Anglr fishing app and tracker leverage the power of geospatial technology to help anglers map, track, and record data of their catches and expeditions.
  • Data science and analytical insights company Blastpoint uses the power of map-based visualizations to help clients identify markets, reveal growth areas, and gain business intelligence.
  • Meter Feeder provides small and mid-sized municipalities with low-cost solutions for implementing parking payment and enforcement programs. Meter Feeder's map-enabled app makes it easy for people to park, and the company also creates geo-aware technologies that will make parking simpler for autonomous vehicles.
  • SimTable has recently opened a Pittsburgh office at the Energy Innovation Center to provide geospatial-based dynamic and real-time incident simulation for emergency management.
  • Viable Industries leverages map-based collection, maintenance, and visualization technologies to help clients understand the depth, complexity, and value of their data investments.

In true Pittsburgh fashion, we also have several non-profits that have been major innovators in the use of maps to implement their mission.

  • 3 Rivers Wet Weather supports 82 Allegheny County municipalities and the City of Pittsburgh in addressing the region’s wet weather overflow problem. Using the 3RWW Sewer Atlas, the Flush-It app was created to show the path waste takes from any address within ALCOSAN's service area to the sewage treatment plant.
  • 412 Food Rescue is using map-based technologies to power their Food Rescue Hero app, enabling volunteers to save millions of pounds of fresh food and redistribute it to those in need.
  • Allegheny Land Trust is using geospatial technologies and story maps to monitor and protect the region’s most pristine green spaces.
  • Carnegie Museum of Natural History has long used mapping technologies to support education, conservation, and scientific programs across the museum system.
  • PGH Map Lab, a new project sponsored by New Sun Rising, is a social enterprise that empowers non-traditional geospatial tech users to make data-driven decisions through the use of maps, apps, and spatial-based storytelling tools.
  • Pittsburghers for Public Transit released a web map-based survey tool to engage the public and gather feedback on how public transportation is used in Pittsburgh's eastern suburbs.

While I have mostly focused on small Pittsburgh businesses and organizations leading the geospatial revolution, it’s equally important to recognize the numerous big businesses that have long provided mapping and geospatial development to the region by maintaining a strong local presence here. For example, companies like BAE Systems and Bentley Systems are creating geospatial intelligence solutions and spatially enabled tools for engineers and planners. Other major engineering companies like AECOM, Arcadis, Michael Baker International, HDR, Mott MacDonald, Rettew, JMT, Tetra Tech, HRG, Jacobs, CEC, and several others have provided GIS and mapping solutions for decades, and continue to create value added geospatial services to meet the unique needs of their municipal and B2B client base.

Finally, the many energy companies in the Pittsburgh region have brought new kinds of mapping expertise to our city through oil and gas exploration and production activities. Thanks to the shale gas boom, the work of geologists and GIS professionals at these E&P companies has led to the creation of some of the most detailed and precise parcel, pipeline, and geologic maps ever created in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. There is no doubt that geoscientists and mapping professionals working in energy have valuable skills that are easily transferable to the emerging geospatial market.

Perhaps it is this innate complexity that inspires innovation here. As we move forward from our "Steel City" past, we are galvanized to create new tools that can help build a brighter future.

Any other city in the US would be hard-pressed to find so many varied types of geospatial innovators within one area code. It’s just one of many reasons that makes the 412 so special. Geographically, Pittsburgh is a complex city, full of twisting roads, steep hillsides, idiosyncratic neighborhoods, and a troubled industrial history. Perhaps it is this innate complexity that inspires innovation here. As we move forward from our "Steel City" past, we are galvanized to create new tools that can help build a brighter future. Like Lewis and Clark, we too are embarking from Pittsburgh with exceptional geospatial technology, confident that our journey will once again change the world.

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Civic Mapper helps clients across a variety of sectors effectively use geospatial data and technology. Our professional and academic experience helps bridge the gap between technology and real-world solutions.  Get in touch to learn about what we can do for you.

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