Geospatial Data Through Cyberspace: The “Most Elegant Invention” Proves Valuable to Utilities
By James Black
The Internet was one of the greatest spin-off products of the Cold War. If the Internet had been invented for the purposes we are using it today, instead of as a means of secure communications during times of war, it never would have been designed this way. However, the technology was well established before the most compelling civilian applications had been envisioned. None the less, this medium has developed into one of the 20th Century`s most elegant and useful inventions, especially for utilities.
The desktop PC replaced most mainframe server applications at utility organizations by the early `90s. The immediate result was more productivity but the downside was the lack of consistency and control of applications, processes and the data itself. Many engineers and information technology integrators first defined the problem with terms like “islands of automation,” “data silos” and “stovepipe solutions.” The solutions they offered ranged from simple “sneaker net” data transfer to complex batch transfers timed to update each individual system using Ethernet protocols. Miles of coaxial cable dangled from ceilings in utility offices to connect the PCs in what must have been an interior decorator`s worst nightmare. The Internet began to attract the attention of software engineers as the means to connect PCs via telephone connections.
About three years ago, Web-based products from GIS vendors began to appear. Unfortunately those early Web products were little more than viewers with limited or no editing, publishing or analytical process capabilities. Perhaps that was because users and software providers alike were still thinking in terms of proprietary software and file formats.
Attempts to view or manipulate images in a “vanilla” format were stymied as vendors retained the hope that each of their products would still win the war of customer acceptance. The Open GIS Consortium made solid advances in bringing together the technical development leaders of the major GIS companies to collectively bring some interoperability to each proprietary product. But in the end, it has taken a fast-breaking business process software “revolution” to accelerate the proliferation of Internet distributed geospatial data.
ERP, EAI and the Internet
Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and its supporting tool Enterprise Application Interface (EAI) are quickly minimizing the differences between spatial data and numeric data as gathered and used within a utility. Both of these processes rely almost exclusively on the Internet as the flexible conduit to gather and disseminate information.
ERP started as primarily a back office integration tool encompassing financial and other company business processes. But as utilities are using and in some cases reinventing ERP, these tools have now expanded to business support, energy trading and retailing. ERP is inclusive of the traditional domains of AM/FM/GIS including outside plant facilities management, transmission and distribution.
EAI may be one of the ultimate unifying technologies that will facilitate a seamless ERP. According to the Aberdeen Group, a Boston IT market analyst, there are integration tools developed by about 20 competing companies to implement “multiple, cross-enterprise applications to support the full range of business processes, from sales order management to vendor-managed inventory.” The goal of these companies is to “integrate all enterprise applications into a coherent, process-oriented whole.” The problem with most organizations including utilities is that many back office business process software designers and users have traditionally not paid much attention to spatial data. The engineering, work management and outside plant managers have not heard much about business software until recently.
Aberdeen group postings on the Internet conclude: “Aberdeen research shows that there is a distinct market for EAI in the early-to mid-stages of formation. This market offers solutions that extend beyond traditional middleware by addressing the enterprise requirement to integrate business application portfolios at a higher level. … The integration is at the level of business processes and practices; and the EAI solution makes the underlying middleware transparent to the user–no longer does IT need specific expertise in particular application-infrastructure technologies.”
“Enterprise Business Application” providers such as SAP, Baan, Oracle, People Soft and others compete to establish themselves as the primary provider of the business and IT backbone that supports an enterprise`s operations. To achieve this end, Aberdeen Group says, each has had to find ways to extend its solution`s value by incorporating best-practice processes, advanced management techniques that emphasize cross-functional processes, and visual business-process-modeling tools to drive implementation of a reengineered business framework.
Among the “visual business-process-modeling” tools available today, none are more powerful than the Internet-distributed spatial IT tools that continue to be developed. Intergraph`s GeoMedia Webmap product was launched and tested at Portland General Electric, Detroit Edison and the city of Huntsville, Ala. Intergraph now says they have over 60 installations. Using the Internet as the “transparent middleware” these Web-based map viewers are helping to solve the problems created by the independent PC and the migration away from mainframe client/server applications. Internet Web browsers are the much-vaunted “thin client” that Oracle`s Larry Ellison tried to promote a few years ago.
A major East Coast gas pipeline company recently selected Intergraph`s Windows NT-based FRAMME(TM) rulebase for its pipeline template and GeoMedia and GeoMedia Web Map software to enhance data manipulation and user access. The GeoMedia software provides reporting and analysis tools that allow users to extend the FRAMME-based features with virtually any spatially or referentially related non-FRAMME data source.
Merging Graphic and Non-graphic Data
These Web-based tools provide an intranet interface to the graphic and non-graphic data. Engineers and other employees within the gas pipeline company can now easily access maps, drawings and related information. The tools also provide intranet users the ability to make limited red-line “mark-ups” that can be e-mailed to others.
These products allow multiple users simultaneous access to up-to-date mapping information. Intergraph cites the example of planning engineers viewing maps and data to analyze changing network requirements, while field crews view the same maps to learn about specific facility details or terrain conditions along the pipeline.
Map revisions can be made on the fly, ensuring that all personnel can view the most current data for project planning, operation and maintenance activities, and record keeping, without the need for distributing paper documents. The system provides access and functionality to operations personnel located in field offices in approximately 30 states.
It is the convergence of ERP, EAI and the Internet that is transforming utility information management for the better. The coaxial cable is headed for the recycling truck. But most importantly, utilities are seeing data not as spatial or non-spatial, but as the information asset the organization needs to be competitive.
The benefits of the mainframe, that included a central and consistent data source, have now been made possible on PCs. The Web browser is the ultimate thin client. It is cheap, it provides for substantial reductions in software maintenance and update costs, and it is performing some of the work that was once the domain of expensive GISs.
James Black is a founding partner in Black & Gorman L.L.C., a communications firm specializing in information technology. Black & Gorman L.L.C. focuses on Latin America and created the Executive Conference on Integrated Information Systems for Latin America (Conferencia Ejecutiva de Sistemas Integrados de Informacion, or CESII). Black is a well-known industry writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org