by Matt Crooks, Schneider Electric
A geographic information system (GIS) is the backbone of many utilities: It provides a central repository for asset and network data, immediate updates on assets’ conditions, as well as the ability to track, manage and analyze infrastructure. With it, a utility has unprecedented visibility into its network and the ability to record data far more quickly than was possible with paper maps and charts that traditionally were used to manage assets.
As valuable as these capabilities are, a GIS can be leveraged far beyond the straightforward tracking and managing of assets. A utility may be poised to strengthen other areas of its business with this same tool, heightening efficiencies and optimizing operations in new ways. There are three areas in which expanding the use of a GIS will reap even more benefits and further lower the total cost of ownership of the platform.
Share Knowledge Across the Organization
Traditionally, utilities rely on a group of geospatial experts to manage and maintain a GIS. This group of people understand mapping and how a GIS operates, giving a utility the power of a single system of record to ensure an accurate view of the network at any given time. If that network big picture is locked inside the GIS, the utility isn’t getting everything it could from that data. This is where Web maps can help get the right information into the hands of those who need it without requiring them to become GIS gurus.
A utility’s GIS group can publish maps and make them available internally via a Web browser. Web maps that leverage geospatial data can be used to inform decisions, improve customer satisfaction and support a wide variety of tasks. For example, Web maps that display historical data about outages in the network can be shared throughout the utility. Control room operators can use this information to optimize how the network is maintained. Utilities also can use maps to communicate with customers. For example, a map that highlights failover measures taken to protect a critical customer, such as a hospital, helps build consumer confidence.
Geospatial information can be leveraged across the organization for various purposes. Using Web maps makes it easy to share information in lightweight, easily deployed and intuitive formats. Employees across the company can access what they need without extensive or any GIS training.
Planning an Expansion
As a utility grows, a GIS can be used for asset planning and expansion. Many utilities likely already are adding new assets to the GIS, which makes it especially useful for recording what has taken place. It also can be helpful earlier in the process by centralizing the data considered and used for a utility’s growth.
Robust GIS tools can help develop hypothetical situations to consider as a utility executes expansion planning. With a design tool integrated with the GIS, there is the added ability to create, control and manage multiple design versions, work requests and input from multiple employees. In addition, a utility can view, query and edit designs without copying files on the network. By interactively designing directly in the GIS, adding assets hypothetically to perform a cost estimation or network analysis helps ensure the utility understands the impact of the build on its network. Once these assets are constructed and established in the field, you can convert the infrastructure in the GIS to “as built,” and they become part of the system of record.
In addition, a GIS design tool takes into consideration site conditions, design parameters and exclusion zones. These capabilities ensure the best design and help reduce costs and avoid excess material use. The ability to plot the future of a utility with the GIS platform can revolutionize the process, making the outcomes more efficient and accurate. A typical GIS will maintain a generic electric network model. For instance, it will show that points A and B are connected through line C. But a GIS network management tool gives a much deeper understanding of a network’s connectivity, giving the utility the ability to model scenarios and reduce the time and effort around expansion planning. The GIS platform can show the phase and voltage, as well as how the voltage changes down to the meter. A network management tool can even display changes downstream. For example, if the power source were to be shut off at point A, the GIS would show everything downstream of that source that would lose power. This ability to display the consequences of potential network changes eliminates guesswork and shortens the planning time around asset expansion. When various stages of the planning process can be modeled directly in the GIS using design and network management tools, work flows and applications are simplified, decreasing the likelihood that information might be lost during staff turnover. This makes GIS a database of real-time asset information, as well as a critical tool for future planning and potential asset information.
Managing Field Teams
One of the most important tools for a field crew is the transmission and sharing of real-time, secure data. The process traditionally has been slow and time-consuming, thanks to spotty network connections and the number of steps required to communicate with the home office. Regardless of the reason, how quickly and reliably that data is gathered can mean the difference between a disjointed field crew with unclear expectations and an optimized team’s confidentially moving from one project to the next.
Matthew Crooks is a technical product manager at Schneider Electric. He guides development of the ArcFM product and many of its extensions and works with customers to develop gas, water and electric solutions.
A GIS system on a mobile device can maximize a field-worker’s time out on the job as he or she receives new work orders without having to return to the dispatch office. The field team can be as mobile as possible while accessing the most up-to-date information. For instance, a utility can provide workers with the same GIS system upon which the rest of the enterprise depends. In other words, a single, spatially aware source can talk to other systems and provide data synchronization that is fast, transparent and that users can take to the field. This ensures everyone is working from the latest version of reality and can communicate with the home office regarding additional projects, unexpected challenges and the status of assets.
A GIS system can optimize talent further by leveraging cross-functional workers. For example, the back office can use this data exchange to send a field-worker additional tasks after it sees that the first one is completed. Rather than going out and simply completing one task, the worker can do several more projects as they arise. Or, if an outage is detected, crews already in the area can be dispatched to address problems and improve customer satisfaction with faster response times.
As a worker completes a task or repair, he or she can submit that data to the GIS platform from a mobile device. This saves the back office the time it takes to enter information from handwritten paperwork and helps build a more accurate and detailed knowledge base around repairs. In a future scenario when severe weather is on the horizon, operators can predict damage better because they have a record of what has been installed where and previous repairs that might have helped harden that area to oncoming weather. This informs better decision-making for prioritizing damage assessment activities.
Move Beyond Management
A GIS platform is a key tool for any modern utility, but chances are good that many are not using the solution to its fullest. A record of asset inventory and the real-time management of those assets are important, but leveraging a GIS beyond the basics to help with getting intuitive data into the hands of those who need it, expansion planning and execution, and enhancing the productivity and accuracy of the field team will set new standards of responsiveness and customer service.
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