GIS and GPS come down to Earth for Utilities

By Stig Pedersen, Thales Navigation

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In most respects, utility managers have brought their businesses into the digital age, and, in so doing, have created essential efficiencies and productivity gains. But, for many companies, those gains aren’t showing up in the field, where service crews still use dog-eared map books to locate utility assets and customer facilities. Handwritten reports and inefficiencies in service call scheduling are adding up to lost time and lost revenues, not to mention compromised customer service.

But, increasingly, utilities are exploiting GPS technology and its database companion, the geographic information system (GIS), to identify, map and later locate cables, utility poles, cell towers, gas lines and other features—not by street address, but by GPS coordinates.

Boosting Productivity with GPS/GIS

Equipment inventories, inspections, outage management

and service call scheduling are all becoming more efficient, and workers are becoming more productive—partly as a result of GPS and GIS technology. Some companies equip their service vehicles with GPS receivers so dispatchers can quickly identify and send the nearest vehicle to an emergency location. GIS can help companies manage their assets by accurately calculating, for example, when they need to implement vegetation management activities in right of ways. In Houston, utility giant CenterPoint Energy is reported to save about $80,000 a year using GIS to help manage some 71,000 acres of property. Experts at ESRI, a leading GIS vendor and authority on mapping technology, suggest that GIS solutions are also finding their way into smaller utilities, whose relatively small service areas can be mapped accurately at a reasonable cost with strong potential return on investment.

GPS data collection and accompanying GIS technologies are about to undergo an important change. Once the province of GIS managers, professionals and consultants, GIS mapping and GPS data collection have traditionally required hardware and software systems costing many thousands of dollars. Performing the data collection function required workers with the expertise of a professional surveyor.

New systems are becoming as easy to use as a consumer recreational GPS unit and are decreasing in price; for example, one was recently introduced at $1,500. For utilities and other organizations, that means laymen—not just specialists—will be able to use the systems.

GIS: The Basics

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A GIS is essentially a system that allows for the display of database information on an electronically generated map. In addition to the features displayed on conventional paper maps—streets, geographic boundaries, bodies of water, mileage figures, etc.—a GIS database typically includes an array of other information arranged in layers—aerial photographs, building floor plans, descriptive text and attributes—that are associated with and referenced to locations on the map. Each data layer in the GIS can be displayed on the map or turned on or off, as needed. The GIS stores all the data as a reference to the geographic location on the earth. The result is a visual representation of an often-complex collection of geographical features, attributes and facts. For utilities, that can mean the difference between employees spending several minutes reading text reports and a quick, productive glance at an informative map.

New data collection systems are decreasing in price and becoming as easy to use as a consumer recreational GPS unit.

For example, with GPS/GIS technology, utilities can map a community or service area, identifying the exact geographical location of every building along with information about electrical equipment, gas and water lines, access, building features and other information that might be useful to work crews. Best of all, field crews can help update the maps during the course of their normal duties.

Of course, all the information stored in the GIS database has to come from somewhere, and that’s where data collection comes in.

Establishing a GIS Database

General GIS databases are available from various sources. There is a national resource of freely available GIS data, called TIGER data, from the U.S. Census Bureau. TIGER data contains information including roads, water features, railroads, boundary information and more. TIGER data, unfortunately, is typically not accurate enough for utility applications.

Other databases are available from state and local government agencies and from private, commercial database vendors. Again, those databases might not meet utility company specifications, but often they can serve as a base. Additional data collection methods then can be used to update data or to map specialized features and attributes. For utility companies, that might mean mapping the locations of transformers, utility poles, or any number of features that wouldn’t normally appear on even the most detailed off-the-shelf map.

Low-cost, easy-to-use data collection devices are ideally suited for this updating function. The fact that these devices are so affordable and easy to use means that more organizations will soon be using GPS, in conjunction with GIS, for mapping projects. More people within utility organizations will be able to perform data collection, and the constantly updated maps will replace the dog-eared, out-of-date paper maps so many currently rely on.

What’s Next for GPS/GIS?

Unlike recreational GPS receivers sometimes used for data collection, more advanced data capture systems eliminate manual data entry and permit direct download via either a secure data card or serial connection to major GIS office software systems. The direct download capability of these systems can be expected to cut the time it takes to deliver data to the GIS system—compared to recreational GPS devices—by as much as 90 percent. Not only that, but direct download eliminates the human error associated with the traditional method of jotting down notes manually and later entering them into a GIS.

With costs decreasing, and with the universe of people who can use hand-held data collection devices growing, look for more and more of the nation’s utilities to make a broader commitment to GPS/GIS. Whatever the direction of future technology, the principles and practice of data collection will remain constant; one way or another, utility people will need to update their GIS databases, accurately and efficiently. And with more rank-and-file people using inexpensive collection devices, that’s a realistic and achievable goal—one that will deliver important benefits to utilities and their customers.

Stig Pedersen ( is GIS business director for Thales Navigation, a provider of GPS solutions for the consumer and professional markets.


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