Baseform’s background is in urban water infrastructure analytics and systems modelling, on the one hand, and on streamlined, efficient web and 3D software development, on the other. Baseform deploys GIS technology, in the first instance to acquire the georeferenced utility/ city data that describe the water infrastructures, their physical context and timeline of operational events. The current client portfolio includes 15 metro areas in Europe, Israel and the Americas, and is growing fast and 3D and map visualization are used extensively. 3D Visualization World interviewed Sergio T Coelho is the CEO and a co-founder of Baseform to learn more about the company.
3DVW: Could you tell us a bit about how you became involved in work related to 3D and visualization? What caused your interest in this area, particularly in terms of water?
SC: Baseform’s background is in urban water infrastructure analytics and systems modelling, on the one hand, and on streamlined, efficient web and 3D software development, on the other. We set off with a vision to establish a cloud-based subscription software that democratizes the access to data and analysis results across the organization (utility, city departments) and its ecosystem. This called for an ability to express results by means other than traditionally cryptic spreadsheets or hard-to-read data-filled maps.
Our analyses and metrics strive to provide simple means to understand the city, its dwellers – at the buildings where they live and work – and the infrastructure that serves them. 3D is the most immediately readable medium for the built landscape, allowing even non-technical observers (such as many decision makers) to grasp the meaning of the analytics we produce, and through them read and assess the city, the people, the infrastructure and their behaviors.
3DVW: Let’s begin at the beginning. Please describe what Baseform is and the products – services that the company provides.
SC: Baseform makes software for urban water infrastructures. Having began full-blown commercial operations in 2015, our current client portfolio includes 15 metro areas in Europe, Israel and the Americas, and is growing fast. Making better use of the data the utilities and cities already collect daily, we provide a SaaS-based software targeted at increasing the effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability of utilities and cities, their infrastructure and the service(s) it provides. This is done through cross-platform data source combination and best-in-class analytics for key processes, from everyday operations to engineering diagnosis and to short- and long-term prioritization and planning.
Examples of efficiency processes where we provide measurable ROI are the management of water and energy losses in water supply, or the reduction of sewer overflows and infiltration/inflow in wastewater/stormwater management. Sustainability processes include a comprehensive, structured support to infrastructure asset management, an expertise fast becoming crucial in utility and city planning. In most urban areas around the world, the built infrastructure has accumulated untenable levels of deferred maintenance, with large fractions of their assets approaching the end of their service lives. The need to manage large CIP budgets to redress the issue is omnipresent, and we believe our software helps significantly in maximizing value from those expenditures.
In technology terms, Baseform is an online environment where a portfolio of process-focused apps (19 at present) are made available to a managed, unlimited universe of users inside the organization. 3D and map visualization are used throughout. Each app excels at a single utility process, such as identifying abnormal events in network telemetry, scouring asset condition/failure records against potential causal patterns, or analyzing the infrastructural value of the network. Rather than enduring the steep learning curve required by legacy technical software, utility staff can be quickly productive in the process(es) they know best. All apps share the same data space and can be further leveraged through association with one another.
The system is available from day one. It does not replace existing software in the organization; rather it strives to leverage their data and results – none of the migration dramas involved in switching enterprise software are present. Both real-time and slow-changing data sources are added as we move along (from e.g. live network telemetry to asset inventory, infrastructure shapefiles, billing or maintenance records, zoning, maps), with uploads automated whenever possible via simple schedulers installed at the original data’s location, though manual uploads are always available. Data is unlimited: the more sources, the better.
The software is provided alongside permanent IT, data and engineering supervision, automatic updates and periodic training. Quarterly expert-validated analytics reports are provided and individually discussed with the utility. The subscription is a flat (monthly, quarterly or yearly) flat fee, with no setup, consulting, licensing or other costs. Pricing is independent from number of users or data volumes, and depends primarily on the extension of monitored infrastructure.
3DVW: Is it correct to say that Baseform deploys geographic information system (GIS) technology? Does visualization through maps provide advantages?
SC: Baseform deploys GIS technology, in the first instance to acquire the georeferenced utility/ city data that describe the water infrastructures, their physical context and timeline of operational events. A good part of the analyses provided by Baseform apps depend on targeted geoanalyses on those data. Visualization through maps is central to the engineering language, and it is the best way to relate key metrics to the landscape that surrounds us.
3DVW: Can you explain just how difficult it is for cities and communities to contend with all the data about water infrastructure that they have? How do your products help to reduce the confusion, pain and difficulty for making decisions?
SC: Utilities and city management contexts suffer from traditional fragmented software solutions to their management processes, and are often caught in multiple enterprise software straightjackets. The software products available on the market – billing, inventory, SCADA/telemetry, maintenance – are good at their respective roles; but they scatter data, processes and sources of information away from the key decisions; daily operation is an attention-sapper; operational decisions, planning efficiency and long-term corporate objectives have little chance of effectively aligning. There are often conflicting data repositories of the same physical objects (e.g., pipe network GIS, accounting inventories, and engineering models). “Integration” of those sources often means little more than a larger, bespoke straightjacket. Conversely, “business intelligence” promises greater latitude in data sources but often lacks specific focus on actionable, decision-supporting results.
At Baseform we have deep domain knowledge of the science behind the specific metrics to support each crucial decision; we also know it is not irrelevant how the calculations are done, and with what data. So we try to make is easy to grab relevant data sources, but provide carefully selected, defendable, repeatable, technically correct analytics to support the right decisional processes. Our technology plays an important role in its lightweight, easily deployable nature and absence of data drama.
Being accessible from any platform with access to the web, from personal computers to tablets and smartphones irrespective of operating system helps. We see it as an alignment environment, where the same data and results space is shareable by the largest possible number of users in the organization and with a tendency to align around visible, stated objectives and decisions.
An interesting angle is that we are not asking the utilities to generate more data or buy exotic sensors; rather, we propose to extract more value and information from the existing data. If there are data needs, say for example a deficit of asset failure records, it is easier to put a price on their usefulness or specify exactly what data needs to be collected, in view of a specific decisional need, once the system is under way.
3DVW: We understand that Baseform has been involved in many projects around the world. Could you share some of details about 2-3 of these projects that highlight your participation?
SC: Coming from applied R&D (both academic and industry-driven), the software was exposed from early on to wide peer scrutiny, and helped win relevant international awards. This led to exploratory roll-out in several locations worldwide, from Australia to the US and several countries in Europe. This allowed us to refine our offer to be useful to the challenges faced by utilities worldwide, while learning outstanding practice from all of them and acknowledging regional specificities that enrich the overall product. We aim to be useful and relevant worldwide.
A case in point was an USEPA/WERF sponsored project to validate the software and asset management methodology in a US utility. Not only the software and the planning methods were proven useful and adequate to the context, including the data landscape, but the utility focus on ROI in their data-related investments allowed for significant refinements in some of the analytics provided, benefitting many other utilities we have worked with since.
More recently, and already in full blown commercial exploitation, some of our clients have presented us with specific circumstances that have both tested our technology and enabled it to shine. A client utility group in South America has its infrastructure spread over a large territory, and its 100 plus users have spontaneously developed a way to use our built-in system of network event notifications to generate an internal repository of maintenance actions. That country’s unusual management of daylight saving time periods during the year has spurred us to make the time syncing of our live data acquisition significantly more robust and elegant.
3DVW: I understand that you are also involved in work with 3D spatial time dynamics – what is that all about?
SC: Water usage, both supply-side (network) and demand-side (point-of-consumption) gives us not just a spatial description of human intensity at each moment, but also, and above all, detailed temporal behavior. What we get from our analytics and data source combination is a continuum of 3D depiction along time: past, from historical records, to present (real-time) to future (predictive). This creates a very physical visualization of the urban metabolism – people in the city, and the time-varying states of the infrastructure delivering the service – that is actionable for all sorts of short- to long-term planning, retrospective analyses and real-time contingency response.
3DVW: Many of our readers work on the simulation side of 3D and visualization. Can you explain how Baseform is involved in simulation please.
SC: Some of our team members have a strong background in engineering modelling of the physical water infrastructures — developing and using mathematical models to calculate detailed hydraulics and water quality dynamic states that simulate the system’s behavior in any time interval. These essentially depict either recorded reality or hypothetical scenarios, and help experts understand and improve the systems and their operation.
In our present 3D technology, this is combined with the ability to visually simulate time-dependent behaviors over the urban landscape. On the one hand, the behavior of human activity and its intensity across the city over time. On the other hand, the behavior of the infrastructure, benefitting from the above-mentioned mathematics. We are still learning how to take best advantage from our native 3D dynamics to achieve the ultimate goal of democratizing the usage of specialized analytics’ results, such as making it easier to non-experts to understand e.g. the hydraulics of water systems or how service demand across town varies in any given time lapse.
3DVW: While Baseform speaks to the questions of water, is it also involved in wastewater? Can you share some of the work that you are doing in this area?
SC: We cover all urban water infrastructures: drinking water, wastewater (sanitary sewer) and stormwater. We can also address other urban networked infrastructures such as district heating/cooling, and to a certain extent, gas.
Most of our portfolio of apps applies to wastewater and stormwater systems. Our real-time monitoring analytics afford actionable metrics related to network efficiency, such as precise estimates of the excess volumes created by undesired infiltration & inflow, and their correlation with rainfall in each system sector. These excess flows end up either in the treatment plant, vastly increasing treatment costs and energy waste, or spilt to the environment in overflows (CSOs), carrying with them undesired pollution and its physical and legal consequences. The ability to predict them and find out where in the network they originate is worth significant savings in capital investment and maintenance prioritization.
Another of our key analytics in this area is infrastructural reliability and failure risk. We analyze failure records and CCTV inspection records to mine for potential explanatory variables, predict failure probabilities and estimate the infrastructural assets’ useful lives. This combines favorably with the excess flow analysis to further refine the prioritization of infrastructural planning.
3DVW: How important are 3D and visualization to the work where Baseform is involved?
SC: 3D and visualization are central to the way we see our ability to provide value. Our recent partnership with Cybercity 3D to use their detailed, precisely modelled 3D buildings is a powerful and unique visual advantage in creating a more credible and immersive 3D environment.
The 3D advantage is taken to the full: the ability to calculate volumes precisely gives us an edge in mapping out census data, social data and location-based analytics to the physical world, to a level that is both innovative and represents a leap forward in this type of work.
3DVW: It seems that asset management and predictive capabilities are becoming more important in city infrastructure. Is that a fair statement in your observation and could you explain why?
SC: As mentioned in question #2, infrastructure asset management is fast becoming a central concern in managing the future sustainability of urban public infrastructures and the services they provide. The useful life of water infrastructure pipes may range from over a century to less than a couple of decades. Cities need to re-invest accordingly. Not doing so is like not paying a bank loan – it builds up. In the US alone, the current deferred investment gap is estimated to surpass $60bn. Many major cities, with infrastructures built many decades ago, experience issues such as water shortages, leakage, tariff increases, water quality hazards.
A number of our analytics apps address system reliability and risk, by analyzing and predicting asset probability of failure and consequence of failure. These are crucial estimates that allow the city to extract as much service life as possible from its assets within the allowed service risk range, and at the same time afford better estimates of predicted performance associated with planning options.
On the other hand, cities are not static landscapes. Cities are people and we at Baseform see them move and change throughout the day, week, season, year, across each urban area. Predicting their behavior and how the city evolves is key to constantly adapt the infrastructure to the real needs over time, as opposed to a fixed masterplan often a decade or two old.
When the cities invest millions, sometimes billions of taxpayers dollars, euros or yens, it is worth deploying the best analytics to make sure those expenditures are in the right pipes and address the right evolution paths.
Sergio T Coelho is the CEO and a co-founder of Baseform. He has 25 years' experience in applied R&D in urban water systems, developing methods and models for demand analysis, hydraulic & water quality simulation, performance assessment, and infrastructure planning. He benefits from a wide network of European and US R&D peers, and has extensive experience in rolling out solutions to utilities, at home and internationally.