04/08/2021

BY RYAN FRITZ AND HALEIGH HURST

Have you ever looked up directions for a road trip, searched for the best restaurant nearby, or checked the weather radar on your phone? If you have, then you’ve encountered a geographic information system.

A geographic information system (GIS) is a platform for gathering, managing, and analyzing data that can organize layers of information into visualizations using maps and 3D scenes. For utility companies, a GIS can lead to large gains in efficiency, safety, and situational awareness. A modern GIS can provide automation of inspection reports for patrolmen, visualization of planned construction for engineers, and even be used to provide alerts if severe weather is approaching important assets. However, it is not always a walk in the park to implement and maintain.

GIS Implementation for an Electric Utility in response to NERC Facility Ratings Alert

In the case of one electric utility we recently partnered with, the need to implement a GIS came about following a NERC (North American Electric Reliability Corporation) Facility Ratings alert. The Facility Ratings alert called for Transmission Owners and Generator Owners of Bulk Electric System facilities to review their facility ratings processes. This alert, coming on the heels of a large outage experienced by another provider, also required these entities to take a number of steps to ensure that methodologies used at the time of design were sufficient for current conditions.

While this electric utility was committed to the reliability of the electric grid and safety of its customers, this was no easy undertaking. First, they had to gain approval from the TRE (Texas Reliability Entity) on the approach for gathering the required information and coming into compliance. As if that wasn’t hard enough, then came the most challenging part – identifying the locations of all transmission lines and gathering the required data.

At the successful conclusion of this exercise, in which data was captured through use of survey grade GPS devices, a member of the project team astutely asked what should be done with all of the great data. Wouldn’t it be useful for Maintenance to be able to quickly identify where aging wood poles were located and when they were last inspected, or for Engineering to quickly understand the voltage of lines that covered a particular area of the provider’s service territory? These are just a few examples of many questions raised that the electric utility now had the data available to answer.

This momentum led to the birth of a new idea: implementation of a GIS. After gathering requirements from stakeholders across the enterprise, it became clear that Esri, a market leader in GIS technology, provided the platform that would equip this electric utility with the ability to realize the many benefits and opportunities that arose due to having access to location data for its assets. Esri’s ArcGIS Enterprise platform would provide mapping and visualization, analytics, and data management capabilities. A powerful GIS application would soon replace handmade paper maps and Excel spreadsheets improving cross-functional collaboration and timely access to large geospatial data sets across the enterprise.

The selection of a tool however is only the beginning of the journey. The modern, agile GIS platform was not created and seamlessly implemented overnight. Rather, it was earned through years of experience planning and delivering enhancements to the platform. Below is an overview of insights which will promote the success of a GIS implementation or take the administration of an existing GIS to the next level.

The modern, agile GIS platform was not created and seamlessly implemented overnight. Rather, it was earned through years of experience planning and delivering enhancements to the platform.

Implementation

Implementing a GIS requires significant coordination and planning. The ideas outlined below are not intended to serve as a comprehensive list, but speak to some of the key steps and considerations in the process:

Gather Requirements Engage cross-functional partners to identify a business case and requirements for your GIS at the very beginning. Will it replace or integrate with existing applications? What are the current state and future processes that could be improved by the GIS? Who will the users be? Does the data exist already, or will it need to be collected? Where will the data be stored? These are all questions that are better answered early in the process and with a representative set of stakeholders involved including an Enterprise Architect and Security Manager.

Perform Vendor Selection Define a core set of selection criteria and select a software suite that meets the needs of your organization. It is important to understand who the market leaders are and the costs and benefits of selecting one vendor over another. In addition, the job isn’t done after selecting a software vendor, as often times, additional professional services and complimentary software is needed. When implementing a GIS, your organization stands to benefit by engaging outside professional services providers who can provide expert guidance and implementation support in a cost effective manner. In any implementation it is also important that your organization’s Procurement department is engaged early in the process to ensure solutions and providers identified meet commercial and security standards of the organization.

Establish Program ManagementThere are many components to coordinate throughout the lifecycle of implementing a GIS: contract management, vendor management, obtaining hardware and software, quality assurance and testing, training, and executive status reporting just to name a few. Governance must also be established at the beginning in order to ensure the program is and stays aligned with goals of the organization. Supported by a strong governance framework and proactive leadership, effective project managers can drive progress quickly, removing roadblocks encountered along the way.

Identify the Skills Required to Support the SystemSupport requirements increase over time as more capabilities and features of the system are identified and unlocked. In the case of a GIS, the skills required to support the system and data contained within are often times unique. Plan for it to take time to locate resources externally as this will be necessary, but also consider growing the skills of resources within your organization. While an exact skill match for a particular role may not be readily available, you can identify strong individuals within the organization who, with commitment to professional development, can grow into the roles over time through experiences gained during project based work.

It is also important to recognize that the system is only as good as the data that goes in. GIS Analysts and data editors are the gatekeepers to the cleanliness and reliability of your organization’s geospatial data.  While “support” is often thought to consist of supporting the application and infrastructure, GIS Analysts and data editors will make up a significant component of the support staff.

Maintenance & Enhancement

After implementing a GIS, it is crucial to stay up to date with the latest advancements in technology and enhancements to the platform necessary to continue delivering tangible value for the organization. Below are some considerations.

Maintain a Roadmap – Define and document the direction of the program and revisit it regularly. Work with a certified GIS software professional with extensive knowledge of the industry to set goals and define the steps necessary to promote the stability, security, and usability of the platform. That partner should have visibility to industry and technological advancements that enable you to gain the most from your investment in a GIS. Additionally, it is also important to solicit input from your company’s technology department.  A GIS cannot exist in a vacuum, and technology is an enabling partner that is critical to the success of your implementation.

Maintain Subject Matter Relevance – Once implemented, it is imperative that the application owner stay up to date with advancements in technology. Through attending industry conferences, creating working partnerships with software and professional services providers in the industry, and being willing to implement new solutions, an organization can stay on the cutting edge of enabling its employees to solve critical business problems in a timely, data-driven manner.

Collaborate – Work with users of the system. Listen to the field workers and engineers who use the application to gather an understanding of what works, what doesn’t, and potential enhancements. They use the technology to fulfill their job responsibilities, so it is important that they are involved in shaping the direction.

Socialize Accomplishments – There are many complex business problems that a GIS software can solve. Share the successes, achievements, and lessons learned with others across the enterprise. Showcase specific examples to help inspire creative thinking of how these solutions could provide new benefits to the organization. This sharing can be both informal, such as through hallway conversations, but also formal, such as during company all-hands meetings.

Plan for Growth – Be prepared for adoption of the technology by other teams and consider incorporating projects into your roadmap to enable your GIS to scale both in terms of numbers of users and features available to users.  Some projects are simple, such as rolling out additional hardware to address increased load and demand while others will focus on meeting a specific business need, such as integrating a third party data set to aid in spatial analysis aimed at reducing the cost to support a linear asset. The bottom line is as the system is adopted, you can expect an increase in use cases and supporting infrastructure requirements that can be addressed fairly easily if you’ve taken the time to plan ahead.

In this constantly evolving industry, the only constant is change. Location data, location-based analytics, and visualization provide the electric utility with the ability to confront problems that lie ahead with data-driven insights and solutions. Implementation and maintenance of an agile, modern GIS platform is essential as the challenges faced by your organization grow in complexity and scale.

Implementation and maintenance of an agile, modern GIS platform is essential as the challenges faced by your organization grow in complexity and scale.

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