What is 3D GIS?

What is 3D GIS?

We have all been familiar with 2D GIS system but the concept of 3D GIS just came into practice recently. Yet 3D GIS has shown its efficiency as a powerful tool for visualizing as well as performing analysis of spatial information.

The world is three-dimensional world so all the time and effort we spend to map it in two dimensions takes its toll at some point. That is the moment when 3D GIS comes in. 3D GIS is doing pretty well at elevating the role of standard map by incorporating dimension z into mapping.

This way, users are engaged with data from a whole new level. They can have access to much more in-depth collection of data: width, height, depth, capacity, etc. and not just location of the object.

The use of 3D GIS

In urban planning

3D GIS draws out for city planners the best way to grow urban areas. 3D GIS software can support city planners to visualize what their proposed changes will look like in real-life. In addition, it also provides spatial information (GIS 3D geology and GIS 3D spatial data) such as aerial photos, energy performance, noise and traffic, terrain situation, lidar elevation, etc. This helps architects and planning engineers to collaborate better to reach consensus and thus, better outcomes are more attainable.


3D GIS software can support city planners to visualize what their proposed changes will look like in real-life
3D GIS software can support city planners to visualize what their proposed changes will look like in real-life


To illustrate this, we will take an example of how 3D GIS helps in urban planning.

3D city model allows users to view much more detailed information compared to 2D view. Various layers are displayed on the 3D city model. Users are able to view aerial photo image on the digital terrain model, 3D buildings as well as land use zoning areas around. Users also have the option to select a building in the 3D view and view all of its information such as building height, land zone around the building, block capacity of the area (how many buildings will actually fit in that area).

The cherry on top is that 3D GIS allows users to simulate proposed building plans, specifically, 3D simulated building shape will be overlaid on the existing buildings. This method helps users to compare and evaluate relationships between the planned buildings and existing buildings from different viewpoints. After that, users can view and publish 3D models on web browsers by using tool like Cesium.

In Disaster response and prevention

In the case of natural disaster happening, 3D GIS can help in terms of providing visualization of guiding effort, update of geographic data in the areas of concern, etc.

Example of how 3D GIS helps with tackling wildfire

Let’s take an example of how 3D GIS helps in a wildfire accident. In such situation, detailed map visualized with 3D GIS data could be ultimately helpful in terms of providing geospatial information for planning and implementing disaster response. During a fire, detailed 3D maps will provide invaluable information such as:

  • The types of terrain, trees and forest in the area along with priorities to protect them
  • Available routes for evacuation
  • Priorities for protecting structures (buildings, houses, …)
  • Current weather condition
  • Where and how to tackle the fire the best way

3D GIS data not only helps with handling the situation during the fire, 3D mapping software is also helpful in restoring the affected area efficiently. It helps architects, engineers and planners visualize how the restoration areas would look like, the weather condition and terrain situation to better plan the work of rebuilding houses, construction plan of roads and walking paths, replanting trees/ vegetation, etc.

Example of how 3D GIS helps with tackling flood

We will take another example of how 3D GIS Visualization supports in flood risk assessment and planning. 3D GIS visualization will actually help to analyze what various flood threats may look like by combining high resolution 3D city model along with aerial imagery, tree models and then adding storm surge or flood layers. These simulations are as close to predictions as possible.

The 3D GIS visualization process starts with good LiDAR-based elevation data and high-resolution aerial imagery. These 3D GIS datasets form the base of the 3D visualization scene. The accuracy and resolution of the elevation data will decide how other layers overlay onto the terrain and influence depth, or other flood-related measurements.

The next important piece is adding 3D building models. 3D buildings can be generated at varying details. After the 3D buildings are included, 3D trees and other elements can be included for enhanced realism. At this step, the 3D GIS visualization is ready for flood risk overlays such as sea level rise, storm surge, tide waves, flooding. 3D data even helps to simulate real-life flood related measurements such as flood level, possible damage level caused by flood. Note that all models: power lines, streets, trees, buildings are placed matching with their real-life locations to assure it is as realistic as possible.

As a result, sustainability planners, emergency managers, business owners and other decision makers are able to virtually view potential flood impacts. Storm surge models, climate change scenarios and other flood risk data-sets are overlaid with buildings, elevated bridges and roads, in order to evaluate levels of possible damage and destruction, thus, leading to better decision making when planning precautions for natural disasters.


Illustration of flood risk assessment and planning through 3D GIS data
Illustration of flood risk assessment and planning through 3D GIS data



Briefly about BIM

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a technology that generates digital representations of facilities and relevant processes. BIM offers users the ability to review structures right at the beginning of the construction planning phase.

Problem with translated data

3D developers often have problem with translating data back and forth between software systems that recognize only their own data sets. The moment the data is translated, its richness and value is lost. When a project stakeholder needs data from an earlier phase of the process, planners, architects and engineers are obliged to re-create that information manually, resulting in unnecessary work.

The perk of GIS and BIM integration

Integrating GIS and BIM helps build smarter and safer buidlings, roads, and transportation
Integrating GIS and BIM helps build smarter and safer buildings, roads, and transportation


The integration of GIS and BIM has lighted the way in the 3D world. GIS information operates at city, regional, and country scale. It is essential for the stage of planning and operating roads, bridges, airports, rail networks, and other infrastructure in relation with their surroundings. Meanwhile, BIM information is key foundation for the design and construction of those structures at an object level, such as designing and building a specific shape or structure (building, wall, door, etc.). By adding GIS, you are adding a layer of geospatial context to BIM. It literally means you are managing the BIM model in the context of a larger and smarter landscape where buildings will be connected to land, utilities, roads and other infrastructure.

The combination of BIM and GIS helps to move information seamlessly, thus, data redundancy can be avoided. Plus, with GIS and BIM information stored in the cloud, users will be able to manage data in all kinds of environment in any part of the world, yet reuse information in other contexts without having to continuously convert data.

At BHSoft, we have all the necessary skillsets for BIM and GIS (2D & 3D). See some of our significant projects in our portfolio at this link