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Bringing reliable near real-time GIS within reach of every utility

Workflows for ensuring utility GIS quality are fundamentally broken and have been for decades.  Integrating CAD and GIS into an efficient workflow has been a challenge and it has simply not been a priority in the utility industry and in some parts of the communications sector to ensure real-time, high quality asset GIS data. Recently business drivers for high quality GIS data such as implementing a smart grid, estimating service availability and other applications have made GIS quality a top priority.  And now non-traditional geospatial companies are offering geospatial-based technologies that are revolutionizing the capture and maintenance of GIS information about utility and communications assets that can provide a foundation for the real-time network digital twin that is essential in the era of the smart grid and our increasing dependence on communications and utility networks. 

Broken business processes degrades GIS data quality


Maintaining accurate, up-to-date asset data has been a challenge for utility and communications firms for decades.  Over the years the lack of CAD/GIS interoperability has cost communications and utility companies hundreds of millions of dollars trying to cleanup their GIS data and streamline their CAD+GIS workflows.  One of the persistent themes from the very beginning of the Between The Poles was the challenge of integrating CAD and GIS data in a common workflow (some examples; 2006, 2007, 2008 ).  Critical metrics for utility readiness for the smart grid is the as-built backlog, field update backlog and the location accuracy of the assets in the utility's GIS.  It is not uncommon for as-built backlogs to stretch into months even years, for updates from the field to take months to be entered into the records database if they are entered at all, and for the location of assets as recorded in the GIS to be city blocks from its actual location.   The challenge is to fashion workflows that include both engineering and geospatial data and applications into an efficient data flow from planning through design and construction to operations and maintenance with feedback loops that ensures an accurate, near real-time GIS.  For many utilities and communications firms traditional GIS, which has been the standard platform for utility GIS for the past few decades, has simply not delivered cost-effective, real-time, high quality asset location and associated data.

As-built and update workflows

A key workflow found at all utilities and communications firms is the field maintenance process.  I many utilities this is a broken feedback loop which results in the quality of GIS data degrading over time.  When a field crew performs maintenance on network infrastructure, which includes routine and emergency maintenance, or encounters equipment incorrectly located or described in the GIS, the changes or the corrections to the GIS data from the field need to get back into the GIS quickly.  Too frequently this is still a paper-based process typically involving redlining as-builts, which get to sent to records for updating in the GIS.  The backlog associated with field updates can stretch into months.  The slow turnaround of field updates discourage field staff from reporting corrections and changes further exacerbating the GIS quality problem.  The result of this and other broken workflows such as the as-buillt workflow is that not only is GIS data incomplete, inaccurate and out-of-date, but that its quality degrades with time.


Business drivers for accurate, real-time GIS

For communications companies a major driver for an accurate and up-to-date GIS is providing rapid availability of service estimates to prospective customers.  I remember a large U.S. telecom that because it could not rely on the information in its GIS had to resurvey all the locations of its fiber terminations in order to respond to potential ADSL customers indicating whether they were close enough to a fiber termination for the service.

For electric power utilities a powerful business driver that has emerged in the last few years is the smart grid.  Digitalizing the grid has made the role of geospatial data and technology strategic for utilities. As a Navigant Research report stated the smart grid is all about situation awareness and effective anticipation of and response to events that might disrupt the performance of the power grid. Since spatial data underlies everything an electric utility does, GIS is the only foundational view that can potentially link every operational activity of an electric utility including design and construction, asset management, workforce management, and outage management as well as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), distribution management systems (DMSs), renewables, and strategy planning. As John Simmins of EPRI has reiterated on a number of occasions a prerequisite to implementing a smart grid is cleaning up GIS data and developing business processes (feedback processes) to ensure that it remains accurate and up-to-date.


Technology enablers: Open standards, open source geospatial and handhelds

Recent technical advances have made it possible to implement cost-efficient processes for ensuring that utility asset data including GIS data is accurate and up-to-date.  There are now many widely adopted geospatial standards; Simple Features for SQL, WMS, WFS, GML, KML, and InfraGML to name just a few from the OGC that were not available two decades ago.  Secondly, since the founding of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGEO) in 2006 there has been rapid development of open source geospatial projects including PostGIS, GeoServer, MapServer, Leaflet and others.  This open source code-base has enabled entrepreneurs to rapidly develop low cost geospatial applications because the cost of maintaining most of the code is shared across a broad developer community.  Thirdly the advent of the handheld touch screen computer and phone provides a low cost universally accessible hardware platform for field staff to access geospatial and other information stored in a utility's databases.  With the appropriate software smart phones and tablets make it possible for field staff to see all of the information about an asset in the field at the touch of a finger.  For example, I blogged about how Duke Energy field staff are using an open source based mobile application which provides a single, common easy-to-use web tool for viewing geospatial asset data stored in GE Smallworld, ESRI ArcGIS, Intergraph GTechnology, spatialNET and Google Maps as well as non-GIS data in Maximo, SAP, three different outage management systems, four or five customer information systems, CAD drawings and photos and images.

Shifting the paradigm: GIS data maintenance from the field

The paradigm shift is empowering field staff to take responsibility for the quality of data in the utility GIS. Since they have direct knowledge about the location and condition of utility infrastructure, the key to revolutionizing data maintenance and enabling near real-time, accurate GIS and other data is "cutting out the middle man" and enabling field staff to maintain the utility GIS and other data in the field as they are working. Enabling field folks to do this without adding significantly to their workload (and over time reducing their workload as the quality of the GIS improves) requires a simple "touch and go" user interface which minimizes typing, responsive applications running on handhelds, and workflows that enable field staff to see their changes with a minimum delay measured in hours or days at the maxium.  Of course, operational data can be protected from problematic updates using data versioning technology (long transactions) which provides a rapid way for records folks to review and identify potentially problematic updates.

At Distributech 2019 a new entrant IQGeo emerged into the utility and communications space and announced an alternative to traditional GIS.  myWorld Capture is a mobile solution that prioritizes direct data maintenance from the field.  Building on an open source geospatial platform that supports data versioning and interfaces to legacy utility/communications GISs such as ArcGIS and Smallworld, myWorld provides tools that make it possible to develop and maintain a high quality near real-time GIS with the information that is required for a complete network asset data model including equipment location, descriptions, connectivity, condition, and status. 

The key to ensuring that the data is high quality and up-to-date is empowering field workers to make updates at the source as the work happens and to automate the data maintenance workflow as much as possible.  This approach can eliminate backlogs in field updates, encourage field staff to take responsibility for ensuring the quality of the utility GIS and enable an effective feedback loop that improves GIS data quality over time.   With the promise of near real-time updates directly from the field this approach provides a key foundation for the digital twin of the grid that integrates sensors reporting in real-time with simulation and analytics that makes it possible to create a accurate real-time situation assessment and to model the electrical state of the grid and possible future states based on reported or forecast outages and planned expansions and other changes to the electric network.

Operationalizing the new paradigm

How does this work in real world practice? I had a chance to chat with Dick Rohm, Director of Engineering at Cable One about how they are progressing toward their goal of no backlogs for field updates or for as-builts.  The business driver for this initiative, which they have been working on for the past several years, is service availability - being able to tell a customer immediately whether a fiber service is available at the customer's location or whether it will require an addition to the network.

Cable One provides commercial fiber services to businesses as well as cable services in 21 states, primarily in small cities and big towns.  Sales success requires being able to respond rapidly to potential customers requests for business fiber service, and say yes we already have the fiber capacity in your neighbourhood or no we have to build out a fiber line to support you.  Improving the quality of the data in their GIS is an important business driver for Cable One.  

By prioritizing as-built and update workflows Cable One has managed to ensure that as-builts and updates are in the GIS quickly, typically within 2-3 business days.  To achieve this, they first changed the as-built process, making the design process paperless about five years ago. Their engineering GIS allows engineers to use AutoCAD to design fiber and RF networks directly into GIS .  For construction, contractors are provided with AutoCAD drawings (DWG) on thumb drives and it is up to them if they wish to print them.  For small jobs, contractors can work completely electronically. For large jobs, contractors still use paper, but they print the DWG files themselves. Contractors must register with Cable One's Project Central which is used to track all projects. When paper as-builts are returned, they are spot-checked, and the GIS is updated based on any redlines. A project will not be closed out (and contractors paid) until redlines are in the GIS.  The GIS is used by Marketing and Sales as an added application to myWorld.

For updates from the field the initial idea was to use a web extension to their GIS, but they found that it was too cumbersome and slow.  It was replaced by myWorld on a handheld working with Google or Bing Maps which provided front end for viewing all engineering geospatial and associated data in the field. The myWorld solution only requires about an hour training time using a video. 

Based on the success of the myWorld implementation, user acceptance testing of myWorld Capture is currently underway. myWorld Capture enables field staff to update GIS and other data as they work.  Ease-of-use and rapid response are its key features. It makes it possible for field validators to do most of their work by tapping and drag and drop with very little typing.  Field engineering staff have to do more typing but even for them it is minimal.

The objective of the myWorld Capture implementation is 24-hour turnaround for updates from the field. It could even be less, but it is currently limited by the process of posting updates to the GIS and to the MyWorld database, which occur every night.  myWorld Capture will roll out to all field staff by July 1 of this year.
Dick Rohm emphasized that the key to making a transformative project, such as this at Cable One, successful is changing thought processes in the field. Data needs to be treated as just as important as physical assets.  When something changes or an error is found, the priority for field staff is to update it.  To encourage field staff to make changes in the GIS, tools need to be provided on handhelds that are fast and easy to use. Update processes must be fast so that their changes can be seen by field staff quickly in the GIS. Over time, field folks will increasingly rely on the GIS because they will see corrections that they make from the field appear in the database within 24 hours or sooner.  As data quality improves as a result of this feedback loop, field staff will find that they can rely on the GIS for locating and accessing up-to-date information about assets.


Prioritizing updates from the field to reduce the field update backlog to 24 hours or better together with an as-built backlog on the order of two to three days is a remarkable achievement.  It shows that with a business perspective that prioritizes a near real-time, reliable digital twin of utility and communications networks and geospatial technology supporting open standards and based on opensource and implemented for handhelds in the field, a cost-effective solution to the decades old GIS data quality challenge is within the grasp of any utility or communications firm.


Topics: Geospatial software, Utilities, Data quality, Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

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