True Understanding Requires Breaking Complex Problems into Simple Solutions
By Bill Meehan, Esri Utilities Solution Director
Years ago, I taught a graduate night course in electric power engineering. Most of the students had good working knowledge of linear circuit theory (simplified direct current circuits). This was easy to learn, simple “battery connects to light bulb” stuff. To solve the light bulb circuit, the most math you need was ninth grade algebra.
But electric power circuits were harder. They weren’t linear, and they were . To figure out heavily loaded power lines, you had to do math problems more complex than those Will Hunting faced on Robin Williams’ chalkboard.
How do you do it? You solve thousands, perhaps millions of simultaneous, non-linear, differential equations. Hardly ninth grade algebra.
When you’re a weary, sleepy, night school student who just spent all day working your day job, how do you calculate the power flow of an electrical grid? You don’t.
So rather than slog through differential equation theory, I opted to have the students relate their understanding of how the grid actually works. I chose to simplify the conversation to match their understanding. Then once they got that, the math would follow.
I choose simplicity over complexity. Because complexity masks our ability to understand.
The former director of software development and now chief architect at Esri, Scott Morehouse’s favorite expression is “Simple Scales, Complex Fails.” He used this statement as his mantra for the development of software. Clearly, . In addition, many aspects of GIS are complicated. But Morehouse always drove his team to explain and build things as simply as possible. Then, once you get to your simple reference of understanding, you build it.
Morehouse also knew software that works in the lab tends to become bogged down with the large data sets demanded in the real world. The ArcGIS platform demonstrates Morehouse’s solution to this. ArcGIS is a great example of simplicity and scalability. As more people outside the GIS department use GIS in their everyday work life, scalability becomes just as important as – if not more so than –functionality.
In 2009, Esri asked utility GIS users, “After the completion of construction or maintenance, how long does it usually take before your GIS data reflects the new project information?” The majority of users said 30 to 90 days. The authoritative data takes too long to get to the right people! The GIS takes too long to reflect reality. It’s a complex problem. What would the simplest solution be?
Well, what if authoritative information existed instantly on every employee’s device? As simple as that. That’s what the ArcGIS platform does. In fact, ArcGIS for Electric Utilities and ArcGIS for Gas Utilities are designed to help organizations share, communicate, and collaborate with the most recent information. Not 90 days from now. Just
So the next time you have a complex problem, find out what the simplest solution would be. Then see if your ArcGIS platform can offer it. More often than not, there’s a simple solution to do just that.