GIS: Are Utilities Lost In The Data?

Aligning data in real-time, graphic dashboards aid decision making

Phil Carson 

The world is awash in information and lacking in intelligence, according to me (and, reportedly, others).

A similar point was made to me recently as I delved into the world of GIS, or geographic information systems. Data on everything from soil to topography to weather to road construction to accidents is coming at utilities with GISs and, without conversion into actionable intelligence, the data's relevance loses value.

"There's a magic in GIS that has been all but lost by utilities," Jeff Rashid, director of ESRI's utility sector, told me. "Spatial logic and spatial analytics—being able to find patterns and trends in GIS data—can predict the likelihood of failure of facilities."

(Full disclosure: ESRI is a pure-play GIS vendor and a sponsor of Energy Central's Knowledge 2010 conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, Nov. 8-10. I should add that, personally, I think going to the source to understand certain issues is fair game and I've filtered Rashid's comments for thought leadership here.)

"GIS isn't new for utilities," Rashid said. "In many ways, utilities have been pioneers in integrating GIS with their business systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), outage management, customer information systems and so forth."

Utilities have journeyed from paper maps to computer-aided design (CAD) to automated mapping and facilities management (AM/FM), where many utilities remain mired, short of the analytical capabilities that can inform business decisions, according to Rashid.

"What we've lost as an industry is the power to analyze that data to see the patterns and trends that help a utility see the likelihood of risk or failure," Rashid said. "Utilities have spent millions of dollars building these rich data sets, yet they're lacking in taking advantage of that data—simply analyzing it in the context of geography and in concert with other business intelligence tools. And there's no sense in doing business analytics if people can't understand what they see easily and quickly."

The ability to present reams of data in a manner that aids decision making has been driving the recent, rapid uptake of operational awareness dashboards, according to Rashid.

"That's the enabling side of 'smart grid,'" he continued. "Utilities can take the vast amounts of data generated by smart grid sensors and display it in near real-time to decision makers in management or in the field."

Another area that can be improved by appropriate use of GIS systems, in Rashid's view, is the schism in utility culture.

"It's my opinion that, in most utilities, they develop systems for the company and they develop another system for their mobile workforce," Rashid said. "It's taking a while for the mobile worker to become an integrated part of the enterprise. There's almost an adversarial relationship there. When utilities succeed at integrating their mobile workforce, it'll be transformational for them.

"What they need, from a business standpoint, is a way to unite what the mobile worker is seeing in the field with what's available in the office for collective decision-making," Rashid said. "And the data is improved by enlisting the mobile worker's involvement."

"In this way, authoritative knowledge critical to the enterprise can be collected reliably and fed into analytical models that guide the best use of resources," he intoned.

Readers, as always, please weigh in with your perspective. Has Rashid overstated the challenge or understated utilities' progress in fully implementing GIS capabilities? I'm listening.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily