Location, Location, Location: The State of Geospatial Technology

By John M. Powers, online/associate editor

Geospatial technology has incorporated itself into almost every aspect of daily life. Whether one is looking for directions to the new pizza shop in town or planning a vast communications network, geospatial technology, in some form, is the tool one uses.

A familiar use of geospatial information, in the form of a geographic information systems (GIS), allows the fusion of digital maps with links to data about areas on the map. But geospatial technology is about more than mere mapping. Geospatial information and technology is applicable to a wide variety of applications, and the electric utility industry is at the forefront when it comes to taking advantage of those applications.

“Electric utilities’ use of geospatial is more advanced than probably every other sector,” said Bob Samborski, executive director of the Geospatial Information & Technology Association (GITA), a nonprofit educational association serving the global geospatial community. “Most of the innovation in the utility industry and geospatial technology has come out of electric companies.”

Specifically, it’s the transmission and distribution arms of electric utilities that have taken the lead in implementing geospatial technology, with the distribution business holding a slight edge out of necessity.

“Distribution organizations have more readily adopted geospatial technology due to the nature of the way their business is conducted, directly to customers,” said Mary Ann Stewart, editor of GITA’s 2006 Geospatial Technology Report and president of Mary Ann Stewart Engineering. While geospatial technology can be useful to transmission organizations, the location of transmission assets is often more obvious than distribution assets, Stewart said. “Distribution lines frequently are underground, and it is not so simple to have a mental picture of the network or of the best way to manage these facilities,” she added.

Bill Meehan, director of electric and gas industry solutions at ESRI, agreed. “The electric distribution organizations are the heaviest users of this technology due to the huge inventory of distribution assets in the field. More recently, transmission organizations are adopting the technology as a platform for a host of transmission-related applications,” he said.

So, How’s Business?

According to GITA’s 2005 Geospatial Technology Report, a report on industries using GIT, “economic forces, big business scandals, and the mixed results of early efforts of deregulation” have kept utilities from “pushing forward on the technology edge of GIT implementations.”

But that might all be in the past. Jay Stinson, vice president and general manager of Intergraph Utilities and Communications, commented that, in the past, power industry deregulation caused budget shifts away from geospatial technology and that unions have sometimes stood in the way of innovation to protect jobs.

“There is no doubt that economic forces impacted growth in the early 2000 time frame, but this is not the case today,” said Stinson. He also noted that business mergers, which could be on the rise in the electric utility industry due to the repeal of the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, could accelerate the desire for standardization of work processes and that “many clients look for GIT systems to enable this to occur.”

Stinson believes the geospatial technology industry is poised for a new evolution within utilities, one in which “simple GIS and mapping” will be replaced by “complex spatially enabled asset management and network management solutions.”

Meehan agress. “[W]e are seeing an increasing worldwide trend from electric utilities who want to leverage their investment in their spatial information. They want to migrate their proprietary automated mapping system to a modern open geospatial technology where integration is critical,” he said.

This raises two questions: what technologies and applications are utilities using, and what are the issues they face in relation to GIT?

The Data

GITA sent a portion of its soon-to-be-released 2006 Geospatial Technology Report to Utility Automation & Engineering T&D to provide some insight into the electric utility industry’s use of geospatial technology. The full report will soon be available through the GITA website (www.gita.org).

The annual report, created as a way for sectors that use geospatial technology to know how their peers are using the technology, surveyed 86 electric utilities this year, up from 80 last year, said GITA’s Samborski.

Not only does this year’s report contain data pertaining to top applications, top technologies, and issues for electric utility users of geospatial technology, it also adds new data on workforce issues and benchmarking.

The top 10 geospatial applications in use at electric utilities (Figure 1) have stayed basically the same since the 2002 study. Some applications have moved up and down the list, but each one has remained on the list. The application “Trouble Call/Outage Analysis” has held the top spot on the list since 2002.

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“Being able to track a problem in a network based on location of outages is a critical geospatial application for electric utilities,” said Stewart.

On the top 10 technologies list (Figure 2), “Pen/Mobile Computing,” was tops in 2006, the same place it has held since 2003.

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“Mobile computing is important because electric utilities reside in the field; thus, having mobile ability to display maps and capture data is ideal,” explained Stewart.

A new appearance on the top technologies list is “Wireless,” which did not make the top 10 from 2002 to 2005. Stewart said, while utilities are interested in using wireless technology, coverage can be spotty, so utilities must use a “variety of approaches” for communication in the field. When it comes to communication for mobile units, the report shows that only 12 percent of respondents’ communications are wireless as compared to 51 percent of communications being through a docking station (see Figure 4).

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As Figure 3 indicates, the number of utilities using mobile computers in the field has risen almost 20 percent between 2005 and 2006. More than half (56 percent) of respondents in 2005 had no mobile computers, a number that has dropped to only 20 percent in the 2006 report.

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New data pertaining to workforce issues in this year’s study yields some interesting results. This year the report asked respondents to give the number of employees using geospatial technology, said Samborski. The electric utility sector responded with a total number of 13,724 employees actively engaged in using geospatial technology in their daily jobs, he said. On average, those employees use geospatial technology for more than a quarter (28 percent) of their daily work.

This raises a problem for electric utilities given some of the other new data. The report shows that, of utility employees that use geospatial technology, only 37 percent have four-year college educations. Thirty-two percent have only a high school education.

“There are a lot of positions that [electric utilities] need to fill. And they either can’t fill them, or they’re filling them with people they wish were more qualified. The supply of educated and well-trained workers is not meeting the demand. And that’s true not only in electric, but across the board.”

Yet given that lack of educated workforce, the report shows that electric utilities generate a new landbase (for example, a street network) available in a GIS much faster than many other sectors. For electric utilities, this process commonly takes one week (43 percent of utilities) to one month (28 percent) according to the report. Also, the span of time between energizing a facility and having it available in a GIS is shorter than in other sectors. Thirty-one percent of utilities take one month while 27 percent take only one week for the process.

Generally, the data presented in the report shows electric utilities are still at the forefront of using geospatial technology. But what specifically is most popular with utilities?

What’s Popular?

According to the 2006 GITA report, the most commonly used geospatial technologies are GIS, computer-aided design, mapping and cartography, information technology, enterprise applications, remote sensing, surveying and global positioning systems (GPS), and 3D imaging and other visual tools.

Actual technology provider experience corroborates the GITA report data. Meehan indicated that at ESRI “GIS for asset management continues to be the most popular geospatial application.”

Meehan also noted that GIS is not so much an application as it is a platform for many applications. “Many utilities use this foundation for their outage management, engineering and design processes, system planning, vegetation management and right of way management,” he said.

Transmission companies are using GIS for asset management, which involves “capturing the inventory, location and condition of the assets in the field and the relationship of those assets to each other and the surroundings,” said Meehan.

Also, using design tools with mobile technology has been in demand, said Stinson. “Applications like inspection, design, tree trimming, and general viewing and redlining of maps has been popular,” explained Stinson. He said adding GPS capabilities to maps, which in turn adds greater accuracy, has become popular as well.

“We are also seeing an increased interest in the use and management of digital imagery and our products that support the management and enterprise accessibility of terabytes and multiple generations of digital imagery,” Stinson concluded.

Even with such interest, and the GITA report data being what it is, Stinson and Meehan believe electric utilities still haven’t realized the full potential of geospatial technology. Meehan commented that utilities often think of GIS as a way to produce maps fast, but that “the real power of the GIS is as a platform integrated with the other corporate systems … many utilities have not realized the full potential.”

Stinson said more value could be drawn from spatially enabling applications to further the integration of numerous utility’s systems. “Field computing, routing and work force management applications that utilize maps are just beginning to be thought about by many utilities. The opportunities to add value and improve reliability and efficiencies are great,” he added.

That’s what utilities are interested in now, but what about the future? Will utilities start realizing more potential in geospatial technology? What’s on the horizon for electric utilities and what is the next “killer app”?

The Next “Killer App”

Samborski said geospatial and Internet-based applications will become more tightly intertwined in the future.. “Web-based applications are probably one of the faster growing areas of technology development within electric utilities,” he said. These applications, according to Samborski, include outage management systems (OMS), customer interfaces (such as online bill paying), field data collection and reporting, and work management. These applications are “all related to location and mapping.” That means, in Samborski’s view, that geospatial technology will be the building block for integrating such varied applications.

Again, Meehan and Stinson are in agreement. Integration is the way of the future.

“The geospatial killer app is the integration of spatial technology throughout the enterprise-the spatial enablement and spatial analysis within the total corporate IT framework,” said Meehan.

“This concept of a “Ëœsmart grid’ spatially enabled is very powerful. Bringing in real time data to enable operations to make well-informed decisions will improve reliability and save money to utilities,” said Stinson, adding that the industry has yet to see the full impact of spatially enabling business intelligence applications.

For Stewart’s part, “asset management applications that are truly useful to utility managers” is what the future holds.

Whatever the future holds, it doesn’t appear to contain a downturn in the use of geospatial technology. “The people familiar with the technology know that the payoff is really significant,” Samborski concluded. “It’s all about location.”


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