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.