Controlling the Uncontrollable With GIS

By Christopher Cherry, Pitney Bowes Business Insight

Controlling the uncontrollable is challenging. As a result, many companies struggle to predict virtually every aspect of their environment in an attempt to avoid uncontrollable scenarios. But this quest for control is nearly impossible when dealing with the potentially catastrophic forces of Mother Nature.

Electric utilities know this struggle when it comes to predicting, monitoring and managing network problems and service disruptions. A broken tree limb, wind gust or good old-fashioned lightning strike is all it takes to cause widespread outages and cripple networks. These outages cause customers pain and dissatisfaction, and they adversely affect the bottom line.

By abandoning the need for control and replacing it with the desire to understand and prepare, electric utilities position themselves for success. This shift, while empowering, requires implementation of the tools and processes to enable businesses to predict severe weather, plan for disaster, monitor networks and manage repair and post-disaster activities.


A Hypothetical Example


Consider this: A severe thunderstorm is barreling its way toward the nation’s capital. This storm cell is packing 60 mph winds, producing torrential rains and spawning destructive tornadoes as it heads toward Washington, D.C. The fictitious Capital Power Company (CPC) is unaware that the darkening skies, while foreboding, are the harbingers of catastrophic damage. CPC’s processes and tools limit its ability to predict possible storm scenarios. Without the ability to predict, CPC cannot plan, monitor and manage optimally. When the storm hits, CPC is unprepared for the massive outages and onslaught of damage. Repair crews are strewn across the city playing catch-up with the growing number of outages. As the hours go by, darkened traffic signals are causing accidents and snarling traffic; hospitals are on limited generator power; business establishments are losing money; and CPC consumer customers are waiting impatiently in the dark for the power to come back on. CPC is under pressure to get service areas back up as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Conversely, armed with the proper data, CPC could have taken the necessary steps to identify, assess, prioritize and begin corrective action immediately. These steps–assessing the damage, identifying the cause, prioritizing the issues and affected service locations, dispatching crews, repairing the problem, restoring power and notifying customers–are paramount to customer satisfaction and business success. With a more proactive plan that anticipates severe weather and its resulting network damage, CPC could have been more informed, prepared and ready to remedy the outage in record time.


Real-time Data and GIS


Today’s real-time data helps keep electric utility companies prepared for faster, more effective responses. A successful, location-based solution combines up-to-the-minute weather knowledge with the location of infrastructure assets and customer base. This combination provides electric utilities with bird’s-eye views of their networks and the potential impact of devastating weather. This type of solution combines location intelligence with geographic information systems (GIS) to provide an overall risk assessment. The resulting risk data enables electric utilities to integrate real-time weather data into their processes and operations. The risk data allows them to view weather occurrences– a hurricane, tornado, ice storm or thunderstorm–in conjunction with their network assets, customers, repair crews and supplies. This type of in-depth risk data knowledge shifts the power and control back toward utilities. It is nearly impossible to predict the exact location of a lightning bolt, but risk data takes educated guessing to new levels.

While real-time risk data is critical, historic weather risk data can be as important. Historic data provides the location of previous hail storms, tornadoes and hurricanes and includes natural disaster data such as earthquake fault lines, tornado alleys, hurricane patterns and flood plains. This type of information allows electric utilities to better understand the potential for loss or interruption based on previous events. These two sets of risk data continue to tip the control scale in utility providers’ favor.

A true location intelligent and GIS solution based on real-time and historic risk data consists of information to provide the most comprehensive picture. These types of risk data include:

  • Weather events with the potential to produce severe conditions–floods, tornadoes, wind, hail, lightning and thunderstorms–along with impact ratings from one (mild) to 10 (most severe);
  • Worldwide damaging wind events that are not caused by convective storms;
  • Accumulated precipitation and ice accrual for a given day;
  • Radar data in the United States, Canada and Europe, along with worldwide satellite data; and
  • Information on global tropical storms and hurricanes.


Location intelligence and risk data solutions combine software, data and services to help electric utilities measure, compare, visualize, analyze, prioritize and model data in unique, creative and powerful ways. By combining location and customer information with weather risk data, electric utilities can thrive in today’s challenging economy.

Electric utilities can implement a location-based, risk data solution that will prepare them for whatever havoc Mother Nature wreaks. Imagine an impending storm is identified and mapped on an asset relational grid. Affected customers are notified, repair crews are mobilized and clean-up materials are put into place. Once the storm hits, outages and damages are controlled and potentially minimized. The result is safer, happier customers and minimal impact on the bottom line.

Controlling the uncontrollable is not that difficult with real-time and historical risk data to make your organization more proactive.

Christopher Cherry is the director of communications industry strategy at Pitney Bowes Business Insight, a leading provider of location-based solutions, intelligence and expertise to businesses and governments worldwide. Cherry has been analyzing and advising in the communications sector more than 15 years and has worked to develop strategies for many of the largest providers.


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