The Evolution of Utility GIS: From “Good-looking Maps” to Mainstream Application

By Mike Smith, KLN Group

In his 1999 bestseller “Business @ the Speed of Thought,” Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates wrote, “…we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” The business and technology landscape is littered with numerous examples of how prescient Mr. Gates has proven to be on this count. Remember the deluge of .com ads during the 1999 Super Bowl? Those companies, most of which are long gone, were going to change the way we lived, spent our leisure time, and even how we bought dog food.

Of course, today the Internet has become a part of the “mainstream,” although not in the form that many of us originally thought it would, but it is here now and will ultimately be bigger than perhaps any of us imagined back in the go-go ’90s.

While these examples point to broader consumer markets, this scenario is in some degree analogous to how geospatial technology has evolved in the utilities industry. In the early-to-mid 1990s, AM/FM (automated mapping/facilities management) was one the “hot” technologies that utility managers were looking at as a tool to improve their business processes. Utilities would be able to take these computerized maps and improve on their operations, and all AM/FM players-suppliers, consultants and users-would see value and benefits from these multi-million dollar investments. In fact, many analysts and consulting firms were touting huge growth in the acquisition and deployment of AM/FM systems, with some market estimates ranging as high $1 billion annually across all utility market segments.

While there certainly were a number of large AM/FM initiatives in the 1990s, the market never approached the sky-is-the-limit vision that was often projected or even promised.

As utilities hired consultants and began implementing systems, AM/FM’s value proposition began to evolve. There were early successes in implementing this technology. In some cases, work was getting accomplished more efficiently. There were sometimes tangible customer service improvements. And, the maps certainly did look nice.

While the huge short-term potential of AM/FM was not always met in the 1990s, there were some long-term lessons being learned. Among these were that while it was nice to have good-looking maps, there had to be a more direct value to the utility-in other words, a more sound business case.

At the heart of seemingly every AM/FM success or failure was the data. Was it accurate? Was it being kept up-to-date? How will we convert the data? How much are we willing to spend to get an acceptable level of relative data accuracy?

Utilities were spending up to 10 times the cost of their systems to develop the data necessary for a successful AM/FM implementation, which left many a utility executive asking, “So, now tell me again, what are we getting for the millions of dollars we just spent on data?” The answers they got back were often not what they wanted to hear. Clearly, the business case for spending millions of dollars on data was very difficult to establish.

What emerged over time, however, was the realization that a great deal of value could be attained by leveraging data beyond the traditional AM/FM system. All this data, once converted and reasonably accurate, could “feed” many different applications outside of what had been established as the traditional AM/FM applications.

Data inherent in an AM/FM system, or in what was now being labeled with the more broadly used term, “GIS” (geographic, or geospatial, information system), could be used to support a broad range of applications. These could be as varied as outage management, customer information systems, vehicle tracking, asset management and work management, to name a few. Each of these application areas has a compelling business case, and an equally compelling need for GIS data-customer data, distribution model data and inventory data, for example.

In other words, AM/FM/GIS was no longer viewed as “the end,” but became “the means to an end.”

Driving this evolution of applications in the 1990s and into the new millennium were some macro-factors that ultimately led to geospatial applications providing a solution that helped utility executives address many of these “big picture” issues. Among these macro-factors were:

“- An increased sensitivity toward and focus on customer service, perhaps the biggest positive fall-out from the competitive utility debacle,

“- A growing set of regulatory and financial requirements, most of which are data intensive, and

“- The development of comprehensive asset management scenarios, resulting in a need to leverage operating data to get the maximum value out of all of a utility’s T&D assets.

Each of these dynamics are key business drivers in making the geospatial market what it is today: a key component of a utility’s enterprise IT infrastructure that will help the utility achieve its strategic customer, financial, regulatory and operating goals. Indeed, many in the geospatial market (this author included) have underestimated the impact of geospatial technology and applications over the long-term.

Nowhere is this new paradigm of the geospatial business case better illustrated than at Clay Electric Co-op in Florida. Clay Electric serves approximately 150,000 customers across 15 counties in north Florida. The utility’s geospatial solution is from UAI Inc. of Huntsville, Ala., and includes core GIS capabilities, as well as integrated outage management, staking, design, planning applications, and field force automation, leveraging these systems and their data.

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The complete “list” of benefits to Clay Electric are too numerous to include in this article, but a few stand out as examples of how utilities can make significant leaps ahead in using technology to their advantage. One example is the use of an up-to-date GIS on laptop computers by crews making service calls in the field. With better map data, they can find customers faster. With the customer data, they can provide faster and better answers to customer questions. In short, they are better equipped to solve problems faster, freeing up the utility’s resources.

A second example at Clay Electric is their outage management system. The intelligence that is a part of their OMS, called “uaDispatch,” enables them to quickly locate the predicted device out on the distribution network. Herman Dyal, Clay Electric’s director of engineering, adds that, “Once the device is identified, our field crews already have maps and customer data in the field on their laptops, which is a very powerful tool in helping us respond to customer calls faster during an outage situation. This is a much more direct approach to customer service.”

Equipped with up-to-date GIS map data on laptop computers, field crews are better equipped to solve problems faster, freeing up the utility௿½s resources.
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Taking the outage management example a step further at Clay Electric, the utility’s dispatchers have what Dyal calls an “instant history” for virtually every customer and device on the distribution network. This intelligence allows the dispatchers and customer service representatives to answer customers’ inquiries during and after an outage.

GIS has come a long way from just producing “good-looking maps.”

The Geospatial Time Tunnel

Having emerged from the traditional AM/FM strata and evolved into a mainstream computing application, geospatial technology and its related field automation applications now have a future that is, by all estimates, significant and secure, although probably not as spectacular as what was predicted a decade ago. Geospatial’s future continues to shine brightest where core data and systems are leveraged for maximum operational, financial and customer service improvements.

Market researchers at InfoNetrix estimate a healthy growth rate across what they see as being the three main segments of the geospatial and field automation market: geospatial systems, technical and integration services, and field automation solutions. The figure on page 38 summarizes the growth projection for these market segments through 2007.

The theme of the upcoming 2005 GITA (Geospatial & Information Technology Association; Conference is “Crossing Boundaries.” Given how far the geospatial market has traveled and matured to get to where it is today, this seems like a most appropriate theme for this evolving marketplace. ௣à¯£

Mike Smith is Principal at KLN Group, and is a co-founder of InfoNetrix LLC. He can be reached at

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