Moving Spatial Data Out to the Desktop/Laptop

Until recently, access to and understanding of geospatial information has been limited to geographic information system (GIS) specialists. However, this is quickly changing. GIS suppliers have spent a lot of time and money in recent years developing products that allow geospatial data to be viewed by other individuals, unleashing valuable information that was once locked away in mapping departments. “These products, commonly called viewer products, have energized the movement of spatial data out to other users,” said Brimmer Sherman, Intergraph Corp.’s business development manager.

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Successful distribution of GIS information to fixed, as well as mobile locations is relatively new. According to Sherman, viewer products have just become available in the past three to five years. Their success in the utility industry can be attributed to three key factors:

1. Many utilities have completed converting their maps to electronic files. Since many utilities have completed the conversion to electronic maps, moving this information out to other users is a logical next step. As utilities have successfully converted to electronic maps, most have also incorporated “intelligent” information. These maps, often called “smart maps,” provide detailed information about the equipment shown on the maps. For example, a map showing a subdivision could include information such as electrical transformer type, when the transformer was installed, gas distribution pipe size and material, age of pipe, etc.

2. The cost of viewer technology has become reasonable. Viewer technology’s high cost is one reason it was not embraced until recently. However, the combination of Windows operating systems with more affordable chips, such as those that have been developed by Intel (this combination is often referred to as Wintel technology), has made viewer technology more affordable. Wintel technology has not only brought viewer technology prices down, it has also made viewer technology easier to use. Since most users are already familiar with Windows, they are able to operate viewer products with ease. In addition, the development of palm pilots and small portable workstations running Windows CE is making it even easier to move information out to the mobile workforce.

3. Deregulation and competition have created a greater need to distribute geospatial information to other users. As competition heats up in various states, utilities also better understand how geospatial information can be beneficial to many employees. Making information readily available allows individuals to make smarter, faster decisions, giving them an edge over the competition.

Who Needs Geospatial Information?

There are four main classes of utility employees, outside the mapping department, who can benefit from geospatial information, Sherman said. The first class consists of those employees who only need to view the information. An example of an employee who fits into this class is a customer service representative responsible for estimating new distribution line construction costs. If a developer wants to know the cost of installing utility services to a new subdivision, the estimator can quickly access the maps showing the current field configuration and estimate the costs of new lines.

The second user class is made up of individuals who not only want to view the information, but also need to be able to change it. This class is commonly composed of field maintenance personnel. For example, an employee who performs pole inspections may find that a map does not depict the actual conditions in the field. With viewer technology, the employee can red-line the map to show the correct configuration or note unusual physical conditions around the pole. This information will not only be beneficial to the maintenance employee the next time he or she goes out into the field, it will also be beneficial to anyone who uses that particular map.

The third type of employees who can benefit from access to geospatial information are those responsible for field design work. Viewer technology allows a design engineer to access maps while he or she is in the field and then actually draw the design while looking at the current field conditions. The designer can place the poles, transformers, etc. right on the map while in the field, resulting in fewer design mistakes.

The fourth user class consists of outage management and dispatching personnel. By incorporating geographic positioning system information into the GIS, dispatchers can pinpoint the exact location of vehicles and work crews. They also have access to information that details the type of work the crew is doing and when the crew is finished with the work. Dispatchers can transmit work orders directly to field personnel’s mobile computer. This allows them to dispatch field crews more efficiently, especially during outage situations. Not only does this improve efficiency, but it allows the utility to restore service faster, increasing customer satisfaction.

Viewer Technology Implemented

MidAmerican Energy Co. is a good example of a utility that has successfully implemented viewer technology. The utility, which provides electric service to 653,000 customers and natural gas service to 622,000 customers in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota, has implemented 500 seats of viewer technology. The technology has been deployed throughout the company and is being used by field personnel to locate underground facilities. Outage management and work order management dispatchers, design engineers and customer coordinators also use it.

The viewer product, Intergraph Corp.’s Field View, is used in both a connected mode within the corporate infrastructure and in a disconnected mode on laptops and mobile data terminals (MDTs).

According to Drew Mathias, MidAmerican’s senior system analyst for geospatial systems, “The system provides us with a central repository for mapping and more importantly adds intelligence to our maps. In the past, a locator would have to find a paper map by going through filing cabinets and several stand-alone systems. Now, all the mapping information, along with the intelligence and graphics that make it valuable, is in one database that everyone can access.”

About 100 seats of Field View are running on MDTs in MidAmerican’s service vehicles. The MDTs’ information is kept current by loading snapshots of the GIS into each terminal weekly. Although the field service personnel do not have real-time access to the GIS, the weekly updates provide an adequate view of the current conditions, said Mathias. Another feature allows personnel to receive service orders directly to their MDTs via radio frequency and send completed service order information back the same way. This feature allows dispatchers to efficiently coordinate field personnel’s work schedule, eliminating a lot of unnecessary driving time.

Field View is used to access, verify and sometimes update information. If an employee finds that the field conditions are different from the drawings, the employee can red-line the drawings and then e-mail the changes to the mapping group. According to Bill Teager, MidAmerican’s electric and land-base AIM (automated information and mapping) operations supervisor, all updates are actually completed by personnel in a centralized mapping department, to ensure GIS data integrity.

Project History

In 1991, when the utility began its conversion from paper to electronic maps, MidAmerican Energy did not exist. The utility was known as Iowa-Illinois Gas & Electric Co. (IIG&E). In 1995, after much of the conversion had been completed, IIG&E merged with Midwest Resources Inc. to form MidAmerican Energy. This meant that the conversion process had to be expanded to include Midwest Resources’ documents as well. Complicating matters was the fact that Midwest Resources had only been in existence for about two years. It was the result of a merger between Iowa Public Service and Iowa Power. Therefore, the conversion project went from converting maps and documents originated by one utility to converting maps and documents originated by three utilities.

Since the Iowa and Illinois Gas & Electric conversion was well under way when the merger took place, the decision was made to convert Midwest Resources’ documents and maps using the technology, Intergraph’s FRAMME product, that IIG&E had already adopted.

Although the inclusion of Midwest Resources’ documents lengthened the conversion project, there were benefits to going ahead with the conversion, said Steve Newman, MidAmerican’s Gas AIM operations supervisor. Continuing the conversion process helped the newly formed utility standardize design symbols and procedures, as well as design practices. “The standardization of our design procedures and practices resulted in process improvements,” Newman said.

Viewer Technology Roll-out

Rather than wait until all the conversion was completed, MidAmerican began deploying the viewer technology as soon as the product became available. Once conversion was completed in a given service area, map viewer technology was rolled-out. According to Newman, this process worked well because training could be implemented in small groups, making the transition smoother and more manageable. In addition, the implementation included gas and electric at the same time, which made all the GIS information available at once to the employees who work on both.

Newman said that, although implementation went well, a few challenges did surface. The field viewer tool was deployed rapidly beginning on the east side of MidAmerican’s service territory and continuing west. The tool was deployed on company-issued leased laptops. It was learned early on that hardware breakage was a real issue, so as the tool was deployed in each service area, the affected service center was supplied with one spare laptop. Having the spare helped mitigate delays by allowing quick change-out of any laptop that was damaged. “However, one spare wasn’t always enough,” Newman said.

Another issue resulted because of an MDT project that was being deployed at the same time, beginning on the western side of the service territory and moving east. Norand pen-based mobile computers with flash memory were being issued as part of the MDT project. Newman said that everyone knew the two projects would eventually meet somewhere in the middle. Everyone also agreed that field workers shouldn’t have two computers in their trucks-one to run Field View and one for other mobile computing needs. As a solution, the utility decided to use the Norand computers, but with a spinning drive rather than the flash memory, which was not large enough to run Field View and the other field applications. Heavy map users in the eastern side of the service territory who had already been given the leased computers were required to trade them for the Norand computers. All other users who received the leased computers are still using them for now, but eventually will be given the Norand computers.

Training was another challenge the utility faced while implementing the map viewer technology. “A significant number of our field workers had never worked on a computer before. Some were not even familiar with a keyboard,” Newman said. Some of the workers were apprehensive and even resistant to the change, he added. However, the Field View product was easy to use and teach, and since it made their job so much easier, most users were sold on the product and technology in just a short time.

“Some of the employees who were most against the change, are now the product’s biggest proponents,” Teager said. “Now they don’t know how they could do their job without it.”

Mathias, Teager and Newman all agree that the biggest benefit of the map viewer technology is that it has given employees the ability to obtain current information quickly, and it allows the information to be updated in a timely manner. “Our employees used to have to go to a vast array of sources to gain knowledge, now they can go to one source, the viewer, and get all the information,” Mathias said. “This technology has eliminated many of our stand alone systems.”

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