BY JASON BREWINGTON, SCHNEIDER ELECTRIC
The explosion in the use of mobile devices and subsequent blurring of the line between personal and business use have some utilities examining ways to leverage this trend to their advantage, particularly for field crews.
Although utilities usually aren’t the first to come to mind when one thinks of emerging technologies, new solutions cannot be ignored as the demand for faster communications and customer response times continues to grow.
A geographic information system (GIS) is one of the most important utility tools: It provides a map of all assets, along with real-time updates on statuses and conditions. But this information isn’t useful if it can be accessed only by an office worker on a computer. It also must be available to field crews working on the day-to-day network operations or responding to an outage event.
The speed at which data for the GIS is gathered can mean the difference between a disjointed field crew with incomplete orders and information and an optimized team that is moving deliberately from one project to the next.
Although expanding GIS is critical, many utilities try to avoid the expansion and cost of adding more information technology (IT) resources. Next-generation GIS tools for field teams address both of these issues and improve network performance and the bottom line.
GIS in the field
Data collection traditionally has been slow and time-consuming for field crews, thanks to spotty network connections or the number of steps required to communicate to the home office.
To optimize the efforts of its field team, a utility should provide workers with the same GIS system upon which the rest of the enterprise depends; in other words, a single, spatially aware source that can talk to other systems in real time and provide data synchronization that is fast, transparent and that users can take to the field.
This ensures everyone is working from the most up-to-date version of reality and can communicate with the home office regarding additional projects, unexpected challenges and the status of assets.
A GIS system that can sit in the hand of a field-worker can maximize his or her time out on the job because he or she can receive new work orders without returning to the dispatch office.
For example, the office can use this data exchange to send a worker additional tasks after the first task is completed.
Rather than going out and simply completing one task, the worker can do several more, even as they arise.
Or, if an outage is detected, crews already in the area can be dispatched to address the problem and improve customer relations with faster response times.
To the cloud
As utilities need to add modern software, they also are attempting to decrease their IT burden.
It has been difficult to connect infrastructure, the enterprise data platform and application software because of continuously increasing user needs and changing data requirements.
To extend GIS capabilities cost-effectively, more utilities are turning to the cloud because it provides the infrastructure and services a utility needs to operate without the burden of maintaining the resources.
Instead of owning, managing and training staff on the computing hardware, systems and software of the traditional IT model, a subscription to a cloud service leases out any or all of those elements to aggregate current and complete infrastructure data and make that data available across utility processes.
The lack of servers, software and IT maintenance teams means that an investment in a cloud-based service results in faster, greater return on investment and streamlines valuable IT resources.
A field-worker with a cloud-based technology gains huge flexibility and security that standard software cannot provide.
With a mobile device that can communicate with the cloud-based solution just as an office-based PC would, the worker can record field data on a device without having to continually maintain software updates.
The device could be damaged, could lose power or could be destroyed, but all of the information would be saved; the worker simply would get another device and continue working where he or she left off.
Solutions in the cloud are critical in emergency situations, when crews need to scale up quickly.
For example, in the event of a natural disaster, 300 field crew members could be added the next day with little concern about overtaxing servers and IT staff.
Because the network interactions are through the cloud, the additional users don’t affect the utility’s network and can avoid negative impacts to regular operations.
If wireless service is down or coverage is spotty, the user still can operate the system on his or her own device, then upload the results and completed tasks when they are back online.
The cloud can take an existing GIS and quickly expand it.
Some cloud-based solutions have graduated beyond the basic offerings to allow crews to collaborate on field projects with mapping functionalities and online data management.
Further, communications between disparate systems are improving, and field crews have more options for sharing information among mobile clients, desktop and Web clients, and integrated systems-especially with a cloud-based GIS that can run on multiple platforms and can be configured easily for changing business rules or regulations.
The end result is a faster flow of vital information from the field.
To reduce IT costs further and increase readiness in the event of a widespread outage, some utilities are encouraging employees to BYOD, “bring your own device.”
This takes advantage of the culture trend of using personal mobile devices for business use and vice versa, and it also can help drive down costs for a utility by reducing the need to purchase devices and by expanding work force productivity.
A BYOD policy is particularly helpful when paired with a cloud-based GIS that can work on many platforms and operating systems, including Windows, iOS and Android.
This broadens the pool of workers who can rely on their own devices for work-devices they use in their everyday lives and already find intuitive.
For example, consider a natural disaster scenario again: The added field crews can begin work almost immediately without device training because they can download and use the cloud-based software quickly on the mobile devices they use every day.
As mentioned, the cloud can accommodate as many new users as needed.
By harnessing personal devices, utilities can save on time-intensive device training and procurement.
The workers simply download the software as they would a regular app onto their devices, log in to authenticate their permission and access level to data and services.
Any consideration of cloud-based software or the BYOD approach should ensure the prospective provider aligns its security standards with those of the utility industry.
A user should be required to sign on any time he or she accesses the system and authenticate his or her login as if he or she were sitting at an office computer.
The software also should allow for different security levels to access different subsets of data, depending on the user’s work responsibilities.
A contractor or student intern would not necessarily have the same access to data as permanent employees.
Field crews are on the utility’s front lines from ensuring infrastructure is operating efficiently to being the face of the utility during a customer interaction.
Providing crews with the same tools that increase office productivity and that streamline real-time data communications will mark a turn in the industry and set new standards for responsiveness and service.
Jason Brewington is director of product management for enterprise GIS at Schneider Electric, where he works with developers, customers, executives and the markets he serves to help his colleagues build the best utility geospatial solutions available. He graduated with degrees in geography and computer science from the University of North Texas.
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