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All Places > Electric and Gas > Blog > 2020 > April

Global Pandemic

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) global pandemic is affecting everyone. People and utilities adopt new behaviors – almost daily. They ask themselves not only “how do we get through this?” But also, “What good can be harvested?”


Staying close to home, my wife and I went for a long walk on Sunday afternoon. We have taken two more since then. When we come out of this trying time, some new actions will stick– like more Sunday afternoon walks. In a way, it has been beneficial to be forced to think differently about quality time together. We saw the value in doing things in a new way. We will keep this habit.


Utilities Adjust

The Edison Electric Institute said, “a large percentage of a company’s employees (up to 40 percent) could be out sick, quarantined, or might stay home to care for sick family members.” A workforce deficit of 40 percent would challenge long-standing comfortable work habits and patterns. Utilities cannot close their doors. They must maintain safe operations. Moreover, what if a storm hits?


Utility staff are resilient. We serve our customers – every time. We rise to the occasion.


My engineering staff started asking about working from home in the 90’s – it never really caught on. Now, just like that - employees are working from home. Field employees are each taking a separate vehicle to worksites and working staggered shifts. Some are taking company vehicles home and reporting directly to their first job rather than to a central meeting point. It makes sense.


Limiting virtually all gatherings and meetings tests our conceptions of communication and collaboration. And, it just blows up the paperwork culture.


Employees are not able to turn in paperwork in the same way. Some are using the postal service to deliver their papers to the home of the person that handles it next. Sub-optimal at best! Mail service is being disrupted in some countries upsetting this seemingly simple paperwork workaround.


Locating Improvements

In their personal lives, utility employees shop, file taxes, bank, pay bills, and enjoy entertainment electronically – remotely. Could a utility do more things like this – of course.


What value could be added to workflows? Plenty!


Entering data directly at its source, without paper, delivers several benefits. Errors drop and throughput increases. Less handling cuts out delays in data entry. Timeliness of information skyrockets. The entire organization enjoys a real-time view of activities improving management and business decisions.


Most utilities rely on GIS in some way. However, some still view this as a “Maps and Records” responsibility - not grasping its superior communication principles. A modern GIS plays a critical part in communication. It pushes and pulls information specific to each person’s role and interest. Even external stakeholders like customers and local governments get exactly what they need. And, it does all this while addressing hardware and data security in a comprehensive manner.



Common Communications Using GIS

  • Assign and close work assignments
  • Examine current conditions and reference information
  • Consume status dashboards
  • Access public-facing web maps and apps
  • Collect data
  • Navigate and track locations


Communication is essential – it is the foundation of leadership. These resources bolster every utility employee. For example, the call center sees the current status of daily work. They also understand large project progress, and storm response. Mobile communication tools that rejuvenate existing workflows also scale up readily for emergency response. Utilities that see GIS this way use it to drive their tabletop exercises. All emergency staff practice with the same tools they will use in actual conditions (see an example). Because they are straightforward, foreign crews easily use them too. 



COVID-19 impacts are increasing daily and likely to affect utility work for some time. Utilities are reaching for ways to keep employees and customers engaged. They need ways to manage information without handing papers from one person to another. Customers want to know what is happening. Employees need to get information without walking down to the wall map in the conference room or a co-worker’s cubicle.


ArcGIS is a fully modern GIS. It has wonderful communication capabilities that can be stood up very quickly. These help organizations adapt to changing conditions. The next time you take a walk at your home office, consider how advancements in communication could result in permanent improvements to existing workflows.


To find out how a modern GIS can improve communication, visit the electric utility page. 

I recently attended the first meeting of a new summit, Utility GIS Applications, in Atlanta, Georgia. This vendor-neutral event was led by utility representatives to showcase how GIS is transforming utilities. Topics focused on mobile applications, data collection, asset management, and outage restoration. Special thanks to Brandon Raso from Puget Sound Energy. Brandon did a remarkable job chairing the program.

The format was unlike any other conference I have attended. During the two days, the group never separated; they met over breakfast and stayed together for breaks and lunch. This provided continual quality time for in-depth conversations. With an attendance of about 40, the atmosphere was ripe to network with others that share interests and struggles. While most attendees represented electric utilities, several from gas and water contributed markedly to the content.


Here are my top four observations:


  • Community—Utility GIS professionals are hungry for a greater sense of community to share and learn. Large utility events often make it tough to add more than a couple of new connections to your LinkedIn network. In Atlanta, a fun icebreaker enabled everyone to meet early in the program. Even the introverts enjoyed the format that started personal conversations with like-minded people. Periodically, discussion questions provided a change of pace at each table. Each table reported its conclusions to the entire group, providing additional perspectives and enhancing the conversation.
  • Data capture—Presentations shed new light on the state of the art for technologies like GPS units, drones/imagery, and lidar—even lidar surveys inside manholes! These capabilities integrate tightly with GIS, enabling rapid and accurate data collection. Good data directly supports activities like enhanced asset and vegetation management.
  • Mobile applications—The original mobile solution—the "tree killer" paper map—is still alive and well. Modern mobile apps clearly represent the low-hanging fruit for utility work. They can improve data completeness, accuracy, and timeliness while updating antiquated workflows. Fieldworkers do not want heavy, ruggedized laptops; maybe they never did. They expect intuitive phone/tablet apps that work like the apps they use in their everyday life. Everyone agreed that these tools must make the work experience better to avoid their being used as truck wheel chocks.
  • User involvement—A clear theme emerged from the stories of success and failure. New technology represents a big culture change for users. They want to understand the why and have input. Intentional change management pays huge dividends. Early and continual user engagement is fundamental to ultimate success. The voices of experience repeatedly claimed that bringing food really helps those meetings with field staff!


Modern GIS capabilities line up very well with the changing needs of a modern grid. Utilities face similar technical challenges and yet often address them differently. This stems from their goals, system characteristics, information systems, and resources. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; a wide variety of proven GIS solutions exist to meet every need.


Today, location-aware apps are prevalent across modern society. Even individuals with very little disposable income routinely rely on them. We treasure our smartphones that provide efficiency, accuracy, and convenience based on location.


Someone commented that they gave up trying to outsmart their iPhone and now simply leave the location services setting on all the time. Why? Because the apps do not work right when it's turned off! Nothing works right without location—very profound.


Utilities consider the location of assets, employees, weather, customers, work, traffic, and more. This makes GIS the ideal platform to gather all types of data and understand its business value, simplify communication, and create situational awareness.


To find out how proven GIS solutions can address utility challenges, visit our electric industry webpage.