Field Applications Improve Service Delivery and Maintenance at JEA

By Jon Taylor, Jackson Energy Authority, and Edgar Cooper, Ten Sails Consulting


Jackson Energy Authority (JEA) is responsible for the delivery of electric, gas, propane gas, water, wastewater and broadband services for more than 50,000 customers in its roughly 559-square-mile territory in west Tennessee, approximately halfway between Memphis and Nashville.

While JEA has a very stable office-based geographic information system (GIS) with data covering the distribution systems for every utility the company handles, in early 2004 the company began to look into creating a mobile GIS that would bring it closer to delivering the best customer service possible. Since the company was already planning a major upgrade to its GIS in 2004, the timing seemed perfect to also implement a mobile system.

JEA has always had very high vision for its GIS. From its earliest inception, the GIS project has been focused on getting the right data to the right people. JEA wants its people empowered for good decisions, and that requires that they have the best information possible. According to CEO John Williams, the desire to get GIS data into the hands of personnel in the field “”has been part of the original intent for the GIS. We have wanted a mobile system implementation from the beginning.”

As the system data has grown and matured in the office-based GIS, the technology to implement a mobile GIS has developed sufficiently to make the task feasible. Costs of typical laptop PCs have dropped and, from management’s standpoint, can be used effectively for two to four years. By the time these systems meet their service life, the state-of-the-art for laptop technology, along with the price for a similar system, will have improved to realize a cost savings of approximately $2,000 per laptop based on an initial planned expenditure in excess of $3,500/unit for hardened or rugged equipment. This allowed JEA to ascertain their “best cost” laptop for the money and buy an initial 12 with plans for in excess of 40 more during the next budget year.

Of course, reducing field staff operating costs has driven JEA’s decision as well. The utility calculates that it costs approximately $33 to roll a truck from its dispatch center. This cost goes up if the job is not done correctly the first time or if the truck is, for some other reason, kept from being at the work location when necessary or for longer than the time necessary. Typically, JEA locator personnel will spend an average of 1.2 hours preparing to leave the offices and go through their daily workload. This time is generally spent routing and printing maps from the office-based GIS for the target work areas.

As highly visible members of JEA’s field force, locators need the best tools to locate as accurately as possible, provide all of the facilities desired by the customer and be completed within the required time frame for that specific assignment. A mobile system was really the obvious solution to provide these results for them.

Once on-site, a locator may think he knows the route of underground piping between two valve points on the water system. With the data now available in the truck, it is a simple matter of looking at the display to ascertain that what was thought to be a straight line for a single pipe is in reality, parallel lines. This actually happened for one JEA locator less than two weeks after receiving his laptop with the field system on it. During an emergency locate due to a water leak, the locator was able to save the field crew time by correctly diagnosing which main was leaking. He also saved time by having the data available in the truck when he was called in. In addition, the company was spared extra expense by having the crew dig one time at the correct spot instead of twice and hitting two different mains. The final savings is for the customers themselves. One of the lines fed a manufacturing facility and the other fed a residential neighborhood. By having the leak correctly fixed, only the residential neighborhood was cut off for a short period during the actual repair. The manufacturing company was able to conduct business as usual with no interruption to its service.

Implementing a Mobile GIS

JEA’s GIS environment has a broad array of components including utility infrastructure data stored in Smallworld, customer information stored in an AS/400 and directory-based document management. JEA currently employs Smallworld 3.2.1 for maintaining its electric, gas, propane gas, water, wasterwater and land datasets and Smallworld 3.3.0 for maintaining its telecommunications data. Oracle 8i is used to store customer contact information and meter numbers in a lightweight data warehouse for each utility. In addition to standard tabular data, the utility’s GIS environment also contains a complex set of documents and scanned images. These related documents contain details on service locations, construction notes, “as-built” drawings and other information essential to servicemen.


Figure 1 – Enchanged JEA Architecture
Click here to enlarge image

In establishing a methodology to provide data to the field, JEA enhanced its architecture (Figure 1) to include both full and incremental extracts from all three data sources. A comprehensive data model review was conducted to establish which tables, attributes and geometries would be required by field users. The extract was then configured, and a full extract was performed. As requirements and feedback continue to refine what data is required and in what precise structure, full extracts are performed whenever significant structural changes are made to the content of the extract.

Smallworld provides version management facilities, which allow for generation of incremental extract files. After the initial full extract was completed, incremental extracts commenced to only extract the new, modified or removed data from all Smallworld datasets. Additionally, the related documents are managed through a custom Smallworld application allowing an incremental file copy. The Oracle-based customer data warehouse is extracted in its entirety during each full and incremental export cycle.

JEA’s system architecture consists of two database servers. The first contains Smallworld files, all related documents, and both full and incremental data extracts. A second server contains the customer Oracle databases. Office users are provided full access to all data sources through full core Smallworld clients running either on the users workstation or via Citrix. Alternatively, JEA provides some users with GTViewer (a geospatial information viewing application from Graphic Technologies Inc.) as their primary access to GIS data.

Field users are provided laptops that contain full extracts of all GIS data. Users are provided standard tools to perform functions like pan, zoom, pre-defined queries and network traces. To maintain current data on each field unit, synchronization scripts are run when connected to the network. All incremental files generated since their last synchronization are copied to the laptop and merged into their full datasets. By just copying the incremental files, the user minimizes time required in the office and network traffic.

Bringing Staff up to Speed

To fully involve JEA field staff in the implementation, and instill confidence in the users that the software really could help them, the utility brought together the overall user community for software demonstrations right from the beginning. They were able to express their needs to the vendors and have demonstrations of the solutions to those needs during the demos. Several formal training sessions were also held to prevent user interface issues.

The very first users to test the system were personnel in JEA’s distribution department, which is tasked with finding an accurate start point for the locators. They need to quickly locate street intersections and addresses to process locate orders for “Dial before you dig” purposes. In one 30-minute training session the staff was up and running on the system and were excited with the simplicity of the system for their needs.

Going Forward

The system implementation at JEA is a work in progress. Like a new teenage driver, JEA has a “license to learn.” The project’s initial stages focused on the hurdles that must be overcome to get a quality product into the field. Remember the more inexpensive hardware being used? JEA has been able to use a $50 hardened case for the machines and a $50 power inverter to address the short battery life of the machines. Yet, the savings in implementation over an outright purchase of more expensive hardened equipment with longer life batteries is significant. There have been and will continue to be other examples of this, and recognizing the fact is something a company must consider when putting in any new system.

One surprise JEA found was that a good mobile system, while geared for view-only capability in the field, might also make an excellent tool for internal users that require view-only capabilities for spatial data. This could lead to a secondary cost savings by allowing JEA to require fewer read-only licenses for their office-based GIS, turning those savings into more licenses for the field system, which would allow it to become more of an enterprise spatial data package and not just a “field” system. Finally, the savings could also be leveraged to use GTWeb (a web-based AM/FM/GIS viewing solution) as an enterprise read-only and query tool for this user group.௣à¯£

Jon Taylor is the GIS/SCADA supervisor at JEA, where he monitors and directs the overall activities of data maintenance and application development related to JEA’s SmallWorld GIS. He also assists in developing specifications for new GIS-related applications. He has a B.S. in Geography, with an emphasis in Cartography and Photogrammetry, from Texas State University.

Edgar Cooper is chief operating officer at Ten Sails Consulting, where he has counseled municipalities, telecommunications companies and electric utilities in the U.S. and abroad.

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