Unleashing the Power of GIS

by Matthew Crooks, Schneider Electric

What is a geographic information system (GIS)? If you were to ask five people at the same utility, you could get a slew of different answers: a digital mapping system, a network documentation system, an as-built data processing system or a tool to create work orders, to name a few. These definitional inconsistencies highlight that although GIS has been used since the mid-1970s, utilities remain unaware of its full potential.

The problem is that many utilities have become too comfortable with their legacy GIS, uninformed of the considerable benefits and capabilities available through modernization.

For example, GIS is regularly cited as a “mission critical” system-its failure will result in the failure of utility operations-yet it remains underutilized for any real business transformation. Rather than used as a strategic solution, GIS most commonly acts as a simple data source for smart grid systems, like outage management. In today’s fast-paced world, utilities must use a GIS that can help meet heightened goals and increasing demands. Modernization of a utility’s GIS can accomplish this, shifting to become a platform that fosters the company mission or a decision support system, and achieve a system that goes beyond its status of a network repository to a true, business driver.

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / pictoores

The source of definitional inconsistencies

GIS was initially built to track and manage increasingly complex asset networks. For distributed assets, maps were used to document the location and characteristics of equipment. Over time, more and more data was added to the network, crowding information and requiring various map products at different scales for different purposes. This, along with the need to update maps with new information from the field, required more work and so backlogs continued to grow. Workers eventually lost trust in the accuracy of information. In an attempt to solve the problem, digital maps were created, but that led to further issues.

Early implementation of digital mapping systems, called automated mapping/facilities management, were costly and inconsistent. Inaccurate data was carried over from paper maps, while workflows to keep maps current went unchanged. Ultimately, utilities needed a platform that allowed workers to share map-based information amongst their networks, giving users the means to communicate immediately, share information and collaborate.

GIS as a platform

A platform is a tool that allows people to communicate with one another and obtain information, according to Phil Simon’s book, “The Age of the Platform: How Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google Have Redefined Business.” It is a destination for people to share insights and information, collaborate, and complete the tasks at hand. A modern GIS is a platform.

A key characteristic of a platform is its ability to track an identity. After a worker identifies herself, access within the platform is possible wherever she goes-on any device, at any time. Just like an e-book, that worker can pick up where she left off, whether on a computer, tablet or smart phone. Platforms also can interact with other platforms and carry a worker’s identity from one platform to another, creating a seamless transition between systems.

Because of the perception that platforms are complex, many utilities are hesitant to move to a modern GIS. However, this perception is misinformed; even users of the most advanced systems find modern GIS straightforward, yet powerful. The difference between it and other platforms is that modern GIS uses maps, providing a natural way for people to communicate. What better way for utilities to connect departments, field workers, regulators, the media and their customers than a map-based platform with which these stakeholders are already familiar?

Assessing GIS to determine modernization

To utilize the collaborative potential of a modern GIS, utilities must first take a hard look at their information systems. Assessing whether GIS is helping address big problems, living up to its original mission and easy to use is a good place to start when deciding if modernization is needed. Additional questions in the assessment process should include:

  • Is it easy to get data into the field?
  • Have paper maps been eliminated?
  • Is it so easy to use that anyone can tailor it to his or her needs?
  • Can workers access and share directions to transformers, valves, pipes, poles or wires?
  • Is system data current, complete and reliable?
  • Is GIS successfully doing everything wanted from it?

If the answer to most of these questions is no, it is probable the utility is operating with a legacy GIS that is not keeping up with the times.

Asking these questions is vital to utility operations. Currently facing immense challenges as the industry changes, utilities are dealing with smaller budgets and revenue erosion, as well as new competition in the delivery of electricity-most often from solar energy. In addition, utilities are forced to manage massive infrastructure that’s aging faster than anyone can hope to upgrade. Further complicating matters, utility workers are aging, and fast. As they retire, they take with them their beneficial nuances of the utility’s previous system that young workers will lack. In the midst of these challenges, utilities need more than a network documentation system, they need an information system that supports their goals. They need a platform.

Making modernization a reality

Five unique elements of a modern GIS platform can evolve a utility’s system beyond network documentation. Because much of the data in an electric company is location based, using map-based data for asset management is natural and intuitive. The planning and analysis made possible with a modern GIS allows utilities to transform data gathered through asset management into actionable information that can be seen on a map, such as vulnerable infrastructure, and visually understand what will be required of that infrastructure now and in the future.

With the most workers operating outside of utility headquarters or service centers, field mobility allows them to get information wherever they are working each day, find assets on a map and perform work at specific locations more efficiently.

By distributing geographical information on assets, workers have a greater understanding of the operational state of the network, such as what’s going on right now and where trouble areas are located, heightening the utility’s situational awareness.

Getting information to and from citizens strengthens the connection between the utility and its customers. Since people use maps every day on their smartphones, tablets, and computers, it’s an easier way to provide information and receive feedback. For example, customers can acknowledge an outage, allowing utilities to present a solution timeline and receive feedback following prompt maintenance of the problem.

Since utilities have essentially four common goals: make money; keep customers happy; keep employees safe and motivated, and comply with laws, rules, and regulations. To achieve such goals, they must be able to balance the needs of owners, customers, employees and the community at large-all of which compete with one another for time and resources. Through modernization utilities can reap the considerable benefits of GIS, when much of the work to negotiate interactions with these stakeholders can exist in geospatial representations and provide richer opportunities.

You’ve committed to modernization, now what?

After making the commitment to modernize your GIS, the first step is to ask yourself what you want your current system to do that it currently does not do. For example, does it leverage the latest technology, such as the cloud, imagery, smartphones and tablets to streamline the editing process? Does the location analytics of the system take data from tree-trimming programs, assets involved in previous failures, crime data from the police department, and more, to help identify potential problem spots for crews?

Further advancement of GIS can be uncovered when it’s truly thought of as a platform. In the past, GIS was difficult to integrate with other systems, but modern GIS talks easily with and allows today’s business systems to get location information by directly collaborating with the GIS-not by a clunky data extraction, transfer or load process. That’s because modern GIS is agile, with the vast majority of features configurable.

The final step in modernizing a GIS is implementing relevant solutions that are accessible inside and outside of the utility. New functionality should be accessible through web services for faster, easier implementation to make solutions work undocked and outside the walls of the organization. The tools dedicated to solving industry challenges live in industry-focused applications.

Modernization is key to a utility of the future

Stemming from the need to track and manage increasingly complex asset networks, the first GIS was created. Increasingly crowded and inconsistent over time, the need for a platform to share map-based information became clear.

As a destination for people to share information, collaborate and complete tasks, it’s clear a platform is the best solution for utilities to connect departments, field workers, regulators, the media and customers. With that being said, the question is, why aren’t all utilities using a modern GIS platform?

By leveraging the latest technology, utilizing location analysis, thinking of GIS as a platform, applying configuration and implementing solutions that are accessible inside and outside of the company, new functionality is possible. The time is now to push aside hesitancy and achieve a modern GIS that reaches the goals and demands of today’s utilities.

Matthew Crooks is technical product manager at Schneider Electric. He guides development of the ArcFM product and many of its extensions.

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