By Bill Meehan, P.E., ESRI
A volatile energy market, coupled with a hazy economic environment, has forced energy companies to re-examine how best to operate all aspects of the utility organization. Information systems have for years transformed how energy companies operate, and digital mapping software has long been a part of this mix. As companies moved from computer-aided drafting (CAD) to more advanced computerized mapping using geographic information system (GIS) technology, engineers were able to not only automate the mapping function, they were able to perform advanced analysis for operations and network analysis.
Now a powerful shift is taking place: Major energy businesses are putting enterprise GIS to use in just about every area of the utility, including asset management, customer service, site selection, regulatory compliance, logistics, operation, risk analysis, finance and marketing.
With the evolution of GIS from a workstation application or a departmental tool to a foundational information system, the future of energy business will see senior management organize and administer all activities using a shared, enterprise network.
Mapping in Energy Organizations
For decades, mapping has been a primary operation for energy businesses. The very first utilities understood the importance of accurate facility maps and records. Complex electrical networks could only be built and maintained by plotting detailed system diagrams and drawings. Without these networks mapped, energy businesses simply could not function.
And the cartographic process was not a simple one. It involved laborious manual methods. Updating and exchanging mapped information was just as tedious. Without standards in scale, size, symbology and more, maps could not be shared seamlessly and often the same maps were reproduced several times over in different departments.
With the advent of computers, basic graphics software provided an automated method for generating facility network maps. These programs saved time and increased data accuracy, but they lacked computer analysis functionality. They automated drawing and data capture, replicating known information, like a network diagram, into a digital map.
In the 1980s, companies began turning to GIS, which provided the first fundamental shift in managing spatial information. GIS programs were not graphic software packages; they were spatial databases that managed information about assets, places, customers and other features. The data stored in the database could be visually displayed, but it could also be sliced and diced to create new information. Thus, GIS provided modeling and cartographic capabilities, but also provided true data management and analysis for managing not only every component of a network, but other data as well. Rather than viewing a computer drawing and then having to go to a separate paper file system or isolated database, a single database stored all information.
Today, another fundamental shift is occurring. Companies are deploying enterprise GIS to operate as the digital nervous system of the corporation. What was once a departmental database is now an organizational information system. The results are unique, user-specified spatial applications for all aspects of a utility business, not just traditional engineering and operations.
Technology Advances in GIS
Several technology advancements have spurred the adoption of GIS as an enterprise system. Hardware and software costs have decreased dramatically. The software is available in any of the full spectrum of information technology packages: as a back-office system, but also as a desktop application, for spatially enabling relational database management systems, the Internet and for mobile field GIS. Client/server architecture provides a means to manage spatial data in a central location, and then serve it out to as many clients as required. Web-based GIS is a cost-effective, user-friendly way to provide access to spatial data and applications to any department in the organization, as well as to consumers in the marketplace.
Today, GIS is an open technology. It’s scalable and can interoperate with other information systems. This robust enterprise solution allows diverse applications–such as SCADA, customer information systems, outage management and work order management–to share information and functionality, seamlessly working together with the GIS. More data are brought together from a variety of sources, using intuitive data-rich maps as an interface. GIS operates on different hardware/operating system platforms and works with a variety of different database management systems. In addition, the software tools are available using standard object-oriented programming, which allows customization of applications or extension of functionality. Lastly, component-based GIS can also be embedded into applications. For instance, functionality can be programmed into an enterprise resource planning system.
The key for success of an enterprise system is a broad array of applications. GIS provides solutions to a number of different areas. Here are just a few examples.
GIS can be used for planning and designing engineering work, whether it’s the construction of new facilities or the upgrade of existing equipment. GIS helps automate the design process, reduces construction costs and speeds up project completion. As part of this, inventory, material handling and carrying costs are also reduced. For instance, an asset manager can view, sort and analyze design data in a map-based view to evaluate the best time for an equipment upgrade. Compliance is better served with GIS as well. Utilities can adhere to strict environmental guidelines, for example, when adding assets in ecologically sensitive areas.
Specialized geospatial software provides street-level fleet routing, reducing overall drive time. Also, Internet-based software packages are available for providing online directions both internally to employees and externally for customers.
Managing real-time field workers and vehicles can be vital to utility organizations. GIS, combined with GPS, gives utilities a better understanding of where resources are and how to best deploy them to respond to an event.
GIS is also available in the field using mobile devices, such as GPS units and mobile computers. These systems help utilities locate facilities and capture the most up-to-date asset information directly from the site. The software can be integrated with other field-interfacing tools. GIS also gives users a means to generate a complete, organized, hard-copy map book of all geographic data.
These are just some of the examples of how GIS can be used throughout an organization. Each application area brings real value to the organization, and every department managing its particular data sets can better share its data with other departments, tearing down information silos and providing a single, seamless information environment tied together by geography.
Breaking From Old Habits to New
Utilities are achieving many benefits from the enterprise GIS environment. Perhaps the greatest challenge for today’s utility managers looking to implement an enterprise system is the fundamental change in thinking required. Managers must first understand that a GIS is not an automation tool or a digital mapping package; it is an information system and a framework for managing every process within an organization. GIS allows utilities to fully integrate and leverage data to make better decisions, improve communication and work processes, and add value to how business is performed.
Bill Meehan is director of utility solutions for ESRI, a provider of geographic information system technology.