10 Things Utilities Should Consider When Selecting GIS

by Tony DiMarco, Integraph Corp.

A geographic information system (GIS) tailored for the specific needs of a utility and the management of utility infrastructure can be an important tool as companies strive to decrease operational costs while improving customer service and maintaining competitive advantage. To gain the greatest return on investment (ROI), however, a utility should carefully analyze its goals and objectives before choosing a system. What might be the best solution for one utility might not have all of the components another organization requires.

What should a utility look for when selecting GIS technology? Here are the top 10 elements a utility should consider.

1. Open platform. Selecting GIS technology that is based on an open platform enables a utility to easily integrate asset location information with other systems. A utility positions itself for the greatest ROI on its technology investment when it can easily leverage geospatial asset data through other applications such as financial, work management and customer information system (CIS) platforms. When a utility selects an infrastructure management solution built on an open database technology platform such as Oracle, it can more easily integrate geospatially located data into downstream applications.

2. Scalability. An enterprise GIS should grow as an organization grows and as other applications are added. Many companies say their GIS products are scalable, but many of those systems rely on multiple database instances to scale to meet the needs of larger utility enterprises. A utility should look for a system that is scalable within a single database instance, making it easier to locate, analyze, integrate and manage data with other legacy corporate information systems such as a CIS or enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.

3. Extensibility. Closely related to system architecture and openness is extensibility. A system should be modifiable and extensible using standard programming languages. Proprietary languages, which are used by some GIS systems today, add an additional burden to information technology (IT) support staff and may limit their ability to easily integrate GIS into the mainstream corporate IT systems and support infrastructure. The most extensible systems permit modifications using commonly used corporate IT-supported programming languages, which allows the IT staff to more easily support and integrate the system with other corporate applications.

4. Performance. When selecting GIS technology, a utility should carefully evaluate how much data a system can handle without negative impact. Many utilities house terabytes of data—whether it’s imagery, meter readings, engineering plans, etc.—and often require a system that can fuse vast amounts of geospatial data from different sources, scales and timeframes that can all be related to location. A utility should find a vendor that allows it to store and work with all of its geospatial and related data to create the most comprehensive picture possible.

5. Capability for long-term transaction management. When a utility has work order designs pending for a long time, it requires a technology solution with the ability to manage the project’s entire life cycle. A system offering long-term transaction management to meet this need, together with high-performance graphics for maximum performance, is a valuable tool. Storing data on an open platform makes it easier when utilities need to integrate many individual changes to a database.

6. Comprehensive range of applications. Just as a utility should select a system that can expand along with it, it is crucial for it to select a vendor that also offers the business solutions utilities often want in conjunction with GIS and basic utility infrastructure management. For example, if a utility initially uses a GIS primarily to assist with infrastructure management, then field automation, then chooses to add mobile workforce management, outage management or smart grid capabilities to its portfolio, the utility should be sure to select a vendor that also offers those capabilities. This will translate into easy integration and optimal performance when these technologies are used together.

7. Tailored for the industry. A GIS developed for the real estate industry or urban planning isn’t necessarily the tool a utility needs to assist with managing its infrastructure and network connectivity. Just because a vendor is well-established in the GIS market, it does not mean the company experts know much about utilities, or that the system is designed to meet some of the unique needs of the utility industry. For example, connectivity of an electrical, gas or communications network is a key requirement of GIS for utilities, yet many GIS systems do not model connectivity explicitly in the database. Some systems instead use graphic coincidence to ascertain connectivity. These systems determine if devices are connected by the fact that the picture appears to be connected, or lines overlap one another in some fashion. The actual connections of the network are not explicitly modeled in the database for direct access by other applications. For a utility enterprise that has to model and maintain a complex network in which -what is connected to what is important, an explicit database model of network connectivity is more robust, and should be considered mandatory.

8. Mobile capabilities. Field automation offers proven ROI across the enterprise. The ability to share the same visual image between engineering, operations and the field is a critical component of a complete enterprise GIS strategy. A combined GIS and field automation/workforce solution supports the display of maps in the field and coordinates routing, dispatch tracking and status reporting of utility field personnel. From routine work such as inspections and meter reads to trouble and outage calls, pushing GIS to mobile devices can improve both productivity and customer relations.

9. Industry standards. When a system meets international standards, a utility can work with data from multiple systems and have the benefit of interoperability. An open architecture based on industry standards is the foundation for interoperability across disparate data sources, formats and systems. A system that supports Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), Web Map Service (WMS) and other standards enables a utility to ingest spatial information from multiple systems and does not limit it to one vendor.

10. Ability to share data. A GIS-solution vendor should enable a utility to leverage the Internet to seamlessly share data with other departments, organizations and the public. A Web GIS application is an ideal tool for the viewing and distribution of existing data to both internal and external parties. This provides quick and easy online access to real-time data in a user-friendly environment.

Selecting the right GIS technology vendor is not as simple as asking around to find out which one is best. Just as all utilities are not created equal, neither are all GIS offerings and systems designed for geospatial infrastructure management, and a utility really needs to analyze its specific needs and goals before settling on a vendor.

In addition to assessing its own needs and goals, a utility should closely examine the longevity, financial strength, history of innovation and customer commitment of respective vendors to be sure that they will be able to provide optimal support both now and in the future as the industry and technology requirements evolve and expand. This is especially true during uncertain economic times when technology purchasers need to spend their budgets wisely and be sure that the vendors they select will be around a long time. If a utility maps its current and future needs and researches respective vendors, then selecting the right technology and supplier to match its needs will be much smoother and more rewarding.


Tony DiMarco is the director and global industry manager for the utilities and communications business unit at Intergraph Corp. He has more than 30 years of experience in utilities and software solutions.

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