GIS: It’s not what you have, it’s how you use it

Steve McMaster,ICL

Many management articles have chronicled the benefits of high leverage using the 80/20 rule articulated in the 18th century by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. Moving to more recent times, David and Tom Gardner with their Motley Fool approach to investing argue that “you have more than you think.”

The same can be said of GIS systems in utilities. Early excursions into the field of AM/FM/GIS systems usually required major up-front data-capture exercises. It is clear now that there is a lag in return on investment using this approach that has caused many organizations to hesitate or re-evaluate their project aims.

Fortunately, the ever-increasing adoption of standards and new technologies means accurate information now can be captured at a fraction of the cost. In addition, information that has been locked in other corporate systems can be used to populate maps so the power of GIS technology can be harnessed.

For instance, reliability and customer service levels are becoming increasingly important business drivers as utilities look to address the competing demands of the regulator, customer and shareholder. At an operational level, this has turned the focus onto systems that need to be integrated with GIS such as outage management, work management and customer information systems. One role of the GIS system in this case is to enable the utility to take a high-level approach to outage management. The ability to see customer calls and their concentration patterns enables a utility to easily perform high-level prioritization and proactively manage repair crew response.

ICL has been working with Orange and Rockland, a division of Consolidated Edison, on such a project, and the key learning point is to understand what data is essential. In this particular case, the utility had all its line devices (switches, transformers, etc.) together with its poles and customer locations already held in a legacy mainframe database. By developing validation and spatial placement routines for these, ICL was able to save up to six person-years of data-capture time. Moreover, the data in the GIS is fully linked to that in the mainframe. This allows Orange and Rockland to continue to use the legacy systems as well as the GIS, with single-point editing and placement. The data is entered only once in either system and is reflected in the other, thus saving all the replacement costs for the legacy systems.

With a spatial view of all line devices, poles and customers, attention turned to primary and secondary wires. Although all the wires were available in raster (scanned) form, only a small percentage had been captured manually.

Some would traditionally view this as an impediment to implementing the system, but this is where a business benefit approach needs to be taken. Using the information it had downloaded, the utility was able to identify a circuit, its segments and all attached customers. The GIS software can use this information to provide full network tracing, outage and customer analysis. Still required are the digitized wires to replace their raster counterparts. These can be captured incrementally, and the new system delivers benefit today.

This project also highlights the development of industry standards and the demise of proprietary architectures. The ICL GIS is based on an industry-standard relational database. Most popular GIS, if not actually designed this way, will now support the ability to hold its data in industry-standard relational databases. What this means is that it can integrate and share information easily with other systems that support these standards, as do all the market-leading database products.

This leads to the position where data captured and used by the GIS system can be used to support other applications or be used without reference to the mapping interface at all, creating what was once referred to at a GITA (Geospatial Information & Technology Association) symposium as “apps without maps.”

This theme of exploiting the data is one that many utility customers are leading with in their respective organizations. Having captured some information, they want to disseminate that information across the enterprise or to integrate it with other systems to provide enhanced synergy savings such as removing the need for data duplication. This means the GIS system must capture data in a fully open format, not merely be able to link or download into such. Experience has shown that a tremendous amount of utility asset data is still held in mainframe ISAM and VSAM databases, with other data held in relational systems. Therefore, the common denominator for integration needs to be as low as possible. Complex, unpublished or proprietary internal data structures cause exponential costs when it comes to integration, resulting in lack of flexibility and choice.

It is essential that companies can deliver business solutions quickly and provide fast payback. To ensure this happens, simple questions need to be addressed:

  • What do we actually need in order to deliver the business requirement and benefit?
  • What systems do we currently have in place that could provide some of that functionality?
  • What data from existing systems can we use? What format is it in?

In the end it may be that analysis of your current systems and their data will lead to a better evaluation of what you need rather than what you want.

Steve McMaster is product manager, Utilities North America for ICL, a global IT services company. It designs, builds and operates information systems and services for customers in the retail, finance, government, telecoms, utilities and travel markets.

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