Asset Management Starts with Great Data

Posted to Esri in the Digital Utility Group
image credit: Image used with permission.
Bill Meehan's picture
Director, Utility Solutions Esri

William (Bill) Meehan is the Director of Utility Solutions for Esri. He is responsible for business development and marketing Esri’s geospatial technology to global electric and gas utilities.A...

  • Member since 2002
  • 205 items added with 245,997 views
  • Sep 24, 2019

When I worked for the power company, I liked to ride around town with my colleague Paul.

Paul was a troubleshooter. He hung out in his bucket truck waiting for something to go wrong on the grid. Once someone reported a problem, Paul would get a message from the dispatcher to race to the location of the power failure. He would then quickly locate where the failure occurred; radio in an assessment of the damage; then, if possible, fix the problem. Or in more complicated situations, he would assess the damage and contact the dispatcher to send help.

To make such an assessment, he needed to know everything about the electric network—the location and type of each switch, transformer, lightning arrester, and sensor. He needed authoritative data from the company's geographic information system (GIS). And what he needed most was access to up-to-date information. He didn't always get it.

Me, Myself, and My Maps

One day while driving around with Paul, he came upon a line switch that didn't look right. There was no reported power failure, but he wanted to investigate it. He hesitated. He clearly didn't want me—the boss—to see something. But I probed, and he finally came clean.

Paul reached under the seat of the truck cab and pulled out a huge stack of papers. They were worn map sheets, inspection reports, and feeder maps, which were either created from the GIS or were original hand-drawn maps. The map sheets had very neat red markings all over them.

Naturally, I asked him why he kept his own private set of maps and records. He knew that I had been the champion of the company's GIS project. He broke the news that many of the troubleshooters kept their own set of maps. They didn't trust the mapping department or the GIS to keep the maps updated. Plus, the mapping department didn't put some of the important stuff on the maps, such as some hazardous situations. He figured that if he handed over the map sheets, his life and work would get more complicated and perhaps less safe.

I couldn't blame Paul. The mapping department was carrying a large backlog of work. Often when they printed a new map sheet, it wasn't up-to-date. Paul and his fellow troubleshooters stopped giving information to the mapping department altogether because to them, it was a waste of time. But the problem wasn't only that Paul didn't share vital information with the mapping department—it was that he didn't share that information with anyone. And he wasn't alone.

Not only did other troubleshooters—who covered the same area as Paul on different shifts—not have his intel, but asset managers, planners, maintenance people, and reliability engineers lacked access to data as well. Had they known what Paul knew, these other groups could have acted and potentially prevented failures. Paul's approach was narrow and related only to his job.

Breaking Data Free

Today, GIS isn't a computer application to automate the creation of a digital form of paper maps, like the kind Paul hid under his seat. Rather, it is a geospatial infrastructure, much like the social media platforms people use daily, that was built to share, collaborate, and integrate with all kinds of systems and data. That means literally anyone in the company can access location information about assets, weather, traffic, social media, or customer complaints. They can access that information on any device, anytime, anywhere.

Many utilities still work in information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) silos. I recall asking a utility customer where they kept the information about their pad-mounted transformer inspections. Their answer: a stand-alone data file. That's the digital equivalent of hiding paper maps under the seat of a truck. Like Paul, people did what they needed to do to help with their individual jobs.

Today's utilities face enormous challenges. They can ill afford to keep duplicate, out-of-date, and inconsistent data.

How Does This Impact Asset Management?

Asset management isn't just about keeping data about assets. It has three core concepts:

  1. Knowing the behavior of assets through their complete life cycle
  2. Monitoring the performance of those assets
  3. Optimizing the assets to balance financial and operational considerations

To do this, everyone in the utility needs to share information. Silos need to be torn down. Paul, in effect, hid the condition and accurate location of vital assets.

Imagine if Paul had ArcGIS—a true geospatial infrastructure that brings together location and enterprise asset information in a single environment, where the location, condition, and state of the asset life cycle can be shared, analyzed, and acted upon.

When Paul finds a problem with a switch, he can pull up the information on his mobile device, show the location, trace the network, and correct any data errors right then and there and take a picture. Paul can even have real-time access to what's going on with the switch. From that moment on, everyone in the company who has access to ArcGIS sees Paul's observations.

The ArcGIS geospatial infrastructure, like social media, can consume and deliver data to the IT and OT systems at a utility—busting those silos.

What does this have to do with solid asset management? Plenty. Asset managers can use machine learning and big data analytics to instantly adjust their plans. They then can track the life cycle performance of their assets. Asset management is about making sure that the company's very expensive assets provide the highest value to the utility. Asset managers assure that those assets produce the highest operational and financial value. Inconsistent, duplicate, hidden, missing data inhibit asset optimization.

Nearly everything a utility does relies on location. That's why the ArcGIS geospatial infrastructure assures great data for asset management. Imagine liberating data out from under the seat (figuratively, of course) of your employees' trucks. 

Find out more about how ArcGIS modernizes electric utility asset management by visiting our landing page.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 24, 2019

Today's utilities face enormous challenges. They can ill afford to keep duplicate, out-of-date, and inconsistent data.

Data is useless when it's not used. Unless you're building out a library for future generations to see about your customers, harness that valuable and hardfought data and make your organization and customers better off for it!

Thanks for sharing, Bill

Tom Martin's picture
Tom Martin on Sep 26, 2019

Interesting perspective but I actually disagree with the premise that great data is required for machine learning and data analytics in support of better asset management. I hear this all the time from utilities-- concern that their data isn't perfect so they can't get started on data-driven decision making, but that's the wrong mindset. 

Data is only as good as the use you put it towards. Most high ROI risk-based analytics can be implemented on "good enough" data and then once you're using the data, you can figure out the cost/benefit of improving to "great" data.  

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 26, 2019

Thanks for the perspective, Tom. I guess that leads me to wonder, though, how do you filter between 'bad' data and 'good enough' data? I recognize perfection is not needed (as they say, it's the enemy of the good), but if data is a decade old or it was gathered unreliably, how do you know if it's still worth investigating?

Gary Hilberg's picture
Gary Hilberg on Dec 9, 2019

Bill - very valuable message about data siloing and lack of trust by field personnel in corporate supported data, applies to asset management, safety and process instructions, policies and many other tools that our employees should trust and use.  As we become more and more reliant on data, we need to make sure that we have the data control, verification and updating systems in place to make sure that our employees are not injured or killed in a potentially very dangerous environment - high voltage electrical systems!  Many systems that come out of the IT world do not address the critical need for approval of content/changes as complex systems have so many complex features.  

One area of major concern needs to be the documentation of all the distributed energy resources on our system now - first generation residential Solar PV is grid dependent and will trip on loss of grid power BUT with energy storage and other syncronous on-site generation there is significant potential for many more live systems downstream from traditional generation sources.  I hope that we keep this data up to date so our service personnel remain safe.

Bill Meehan's picture
Thank Bill for the Post!
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