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Are Utilities Truly Exploiting their GIS?

DINESH RAJAN's picture
Principal Capgemini

Dinesh Abhimanyu Rajan is an industry specialist, who has worked across the globe for over two decades, assisting Utilities during key phases of change such as Deregulation, Rollout of Smart...

  • Member since 2009
  • 3 items added with 2,455 views
  • Jun 11, 2009
In today's competitive global scenario, a successful utility must take maximum advantage of all its resources - from manpower to infrastructure to information. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to integrate geographic data with other corporate data has become absolutely vital to this task.

Let's begin by looking at some of the common challenges a utility faces today.

For an energy retailer or supplier, identifying targets for a new campaign requires a substantial amount of information about customers and prospects, which includes geographical or spatial information. Figuring out the best locations for setting up payment kiosks is another such challenge.

For a distribution company, knowing where assets are in relation to where they are supposed to be is one of the major challenges. Optimization of travel routes for a vehicle fleet, and directing a technician to a specific fault location in the shortest time are important considerations for efficiently managing a field workforce. Planning cable laying or pipe laying over public lands, considering rights of way, terrain, and line-of-sight determination for smart metering communication networks are some other challenges faced by utilities.

Clearly there is a spatial aspect to all these challenges, and some utilities have invested in GIS technologies to help them overcome a few of them.

But, more than not, we find the utility is guilty of gross under-use of their GIS.

What are utilities doing with their GIS?

There is a lot more benefit than can be derived from an investment in a GIS. Electricity providers who are struggling to find efficient ways to increase response times to unexpected outages and gas suppliers who suppliers who are looking for ways to extend their quality and reliability of services must learn to use their GIS for more than what is listed here:

  • In an attempt to digitize asset location information, utilities have begun to use their GIS as a mere database to query information for specific needs such as creating regulatory audit reports and looking up asset information.
  • A GIS is used as one of the engineer's design tools. Limited geospatial information is queried to assist in infrastructure design.
  • The GIS is also used to publish maps of the service territory for internal use by the utility's different departmental functions.
What more can be done with GIS?

Figure 1: Some applications of GIS from a Utility's Perspective

AMI systems deployment

For a medium to large size utility, embarking on a multiyear deployment strategy for AMI systems, the GIS can help bring down operational costs:

  • Fleet tracking options using GPS and GIS could be extended to the deployment team.
  • Modeling can help determine the most economic routes for an effective deployment plan.
  • Grabbing the GPS coordinates while installing the new meter using a handheld deployment assistant would help further refine the enterprise network model for the GIS.
  • GIS technology will play a key role in the automation strategy in that it will provide the initial infrastructure information to drive analytics. In addition, the results of analytics on the intelligent grid are best presented in a geographic dimension.
Outage and restoration

Integrating the outage management system with the enterprise network model is one part of the picture. Sure, you can see the impact and extent of the outage and possibly predict the next outage. But there is a lot more that can be done:

  • Historical information can geographically pinpoint areas that are prone to outages.
  • Availability of maps for on-call crew helps in the following:
    -Timely arrival at the fault location by using an optimized route.
    -Use of asset location details to make sure required spare parts are picked up on the way.
  • Layers for weather, temperature and other atmospheric conditions can help model the outage patterns and define pre-emptive measures.
  • Layers could assist the restoration team with traffic and safety information as well as convenience information such as gas stations and restaurants. This is true for other field work personnel, too.
Smart Grid (for electric utilities)

Much can be said about the self-balancing, self-healing, intelligent, and efficient smart grid. The core of such a smart grid is definitely a GIS with content supplied by information from smart devices and equipment:

  • A smart grid solution must include content on weather and terrain to help plan for effective expansion of the grid.
  • The geographical spread of Distributed Generation Resources will help identify areas that are well balanced for energy needs.
  • Distribution systems in the past were geographically modeled and overlaid with models of the regional water, sewer and telecommunications lines. This is ever so important with smart grids especially in the context of telecommunication infrastructure.
  • Communication models for the smart grid can be created using the GIS and decisions on the kind of communication methods (wireless, GPRS, PLC, and BPL, etc.) can be assisted with information from the GIS.
  • GIS with its interoperability aids in dynamic representation of data. This enables transitions from a static to a real-time environment that incorporates data from multiple sources. For example, weather information, truck tracking, and sensor device information can be quickly brought into the Smart Grid model.
Asset Management and Fleet Management

It is important to know your assets, and it is just as important to know where they are:

  • Utility Asset Management Systems today are generally guilty of declaring that their assets are either "in the field", "in warehouse X", "decommissioned", etc. When you've invested in a GIS, you might want to do better by recording location-specific information for key moveable assets.
  • A utility needs to know where assets are located in addition to the details of the other resources nearby. This is especially true for underground assets. This could help prevent hitting a water pipeline while digging for a cable, or vice versa. Performing a spatial proximity search using a GIS for assets easily provides the location of all underground assets.
  • GIS helps tracking of assets at all stages, from planning the purchase to retirement. For example, a GIS showing an abandoned underground cable can help a utility identify an abandoned asset, and help differentiate planned assets with current energized assets.
  • A simple GPS receiver and a radio transmitter can help you track where each of your vehicles are, at what speed they are moving, and a history of where they've been.
  • Vehicles going out of location, as well as unresponsive vehicles, can be more easily found when there is a last reported GPS location on hand.
Billing and Revenue Visibility

From the retail perspective, customer segmentation and behavior models are the key to creating the right product for the right customer. It also helps to know which customers are paying on time:

  • With the availability of interval meter data, a customer's bill can be calculated using their selected rate plan, as well as any other rate plan on offer. This could generate information about whether the plan is appropriate or not for the customer's usage patterns. Now imagine this information on a map of the service territory. The marketing department could easily target a particular region to promote select rates. In fact, it would lead to a more cost-effective and directed campaign.
  • On similar lines, rate designers can determine a rate's performance in a particular geographic region or weather zone, and can model and visualize rate change decisions before introducing them.
  • Geographic representation of customers with outstanding bills may reveal inconveniently located check drop boxes or payment kiosks. The GIS could also be used to efficiently distribute the kiosk placements throughout the service territory.
  • Another way to use the GIS is for the purpose of ensuring high network reliability for high revenue areas, such as critical installations, business and entertainment districts and city centers.
Utilities are not alone in this

Figure 2: Collaborative Approaches

Keep it lightweight!

Consortiums such as the Open Geospatial Consortium, Inc. (OGC) focus on GIS standards for interoperability between software, systems and organizations. This interoperability can help the utility access information when needed rather than keeping a complete copy of content obtained from external sources. This has two key benefits:

  • Content maintenance remains the responsibility of the content developer. The utility has access to the most current content at any given time.
  • Extremely lightweight GIS applications can be developed. This is absolutely necessary for developing mobile GIS solutions for a utility's field workforce and the fleet management (and empowerment) solutions.
A solution for some of the GIS uses mentioned earlier is a relatively inexpensive add-on to the utility's GIS already in place. However, be warned, it is the utility's responsibility to ensure the creation and maintenance of an Enterprise Network Model that can form the basis (along with maps) for most of these solutions.

Cloud computing services are something that may be of great interest to the smaller utility, or one that is operating with a lower capital budget. GIS is computationally intensive because a large amount of data needs to be processed in a short time. GIS on the cloud is something all of us see when we use the Internet to find a restaurant nearby, so why couldn't a utility do the same?


GIS technologies, products, interoperability, analysis capabilities and simulation tools are quite mature today. A utility that has invested in a base GIS product is probably not putting it to optimum use. There are many ways in which a utility can exploit its GIS to bring in process efficiencies and reduce cost and time to market. The utility can integrate with other content providers and use add-on tools to develop solutions including lightweight mobile solutions. It is important that the utility develops and maintains its own enterprise network model as that is the basis for the success of any GIS solution. Working with local agencies a utility may even be able to offer some of its GIS capabilities as an additional service to the local community or business.

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Thank DINESH for the Post!
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