To do What!? – GIS for the Field

Posted to Esri in the Digital Utility Group
image credit: ID 118042059 © Prathan Chorruangsak |
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
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  • Mar 25, 2019

I hear this all the time: "We have this comprehensive GIS in the office. We use it to print maps for our field offices and crews. Can we put our GIS into the field for the mobile workers?"

This question reminds me of the time I ran electric operations for a power company. Often, I would ride along with troubleshooters on their shift. They were the folks who roamed the service territory looking for problems 24 hours a day. When trouble happened, they raced to the location of the problem. If the problem was small, like a blown fuse, they would fix it. Otherwise, they would assess the issue and call the dispatchers, who would round up additional help.

I recall riding with Paul, a troubleshooter, on one relatively slow day. Paul drove by a pole. He stopped and looked up at a switch. He didn't like what he saw. He spotted a damaged insulator. Then he sheepishly told me that he was about to do something that I was not going to like. He reached under the driver's seat and pulled out a huge stack of neatly marked-up maps. He flipped to a map page and pointed to the suspect switch on the map.

I asked him why he kept his own set of maps. He told me that he didn't trust the geographic information system (GIS). The GIS maps were out-of-date and had too much stuff on them that was irrelevant to his job.

On his own maps, he made notes of the information that only he, a troubleshooter, needed, like when someone last exercised the switch. To get that information, he had to go to the work management system. When he was in the office, he would carefully mark up his set of maps with that information. He also needed to know what upstream and downstream devices fed each switch. He created elaborate arrows to help him navigate the circuits.

He never told anyone. He just did what he had to do to get the job done. He complained to me that whenever he provided feedback about errors on the corporate maps, the data never seemed to make it onto them. So he had decided to take matters into his own hands and keep private records.

Paul identified several common problems:

  • One-size-fits-all paper maps are not effective.
  • Printed maps are always out-of-date.
  • Correcting errors on paper maps is hit-or-miss.
  • There is too much irrelevant information for the task at hand.
  • Information from other systems is missing.
  • Simple network functions are missing.

If I told Paul that we could give him access to the GIS in his truck, he would answer, "Thanks, but no thanks." The GIS did not give him the exact information he needed.

A modern GIS tailored for fieldworkers simplifies all kinds of tasks. They range from transformer and pole inspections to damage assessments. They could include customer surveys, staking, manhole cleaning, battery maintenance, meter testing, and painting. They could include customer connections and even credit and collections status. The list goes on! There are hundreds of field tasks that need GIS.

Just as Paul noted, each one of these field tasks requires a very limited set of information. Why load up fieldworkers' mobile devices with everything they could ever want—but really don't need—on their tablets or smartphones? What Paul really wanted was just enough information to do his job—no more, no less.

When people talk about mobile GIS, they have some vague notion that fieldworkers need access to all the information in their corporate GIS.

They don't.

Maybe we should not be using the term mobile GIS. Instead we should use GIS for the field. For each task, there can be an app, like this, or this—one for Paul, the troubleshooter; one for Juan, the call center rep; and one for Mary, the field designer. We should be asking about a damage data collection app, a streetlight-replacement app, or a pole inspection app. If my job is to do lamp replacements today for the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, then my app should show me only streetlights that need lamp replacements in Somerville. I don't need or want data on line switches, gas leaks, or dirty manholes unless the task requires it—period.

ArcGIS is an enterprise system. It has enormous capability. It also can deliver only selective information and functionality to users based on their identity, such as Paul, the troubleshooter.

It can access information from other platforms, such as a maintenance management system. Paul could have maintenance histories on switches—even though the source data comes from the maintenance management system—right on his tablet, updated continually.

ArcGIS can access information such as traffic and weather conditions from web services. Paul could see weather forecasts and history—updated immediately.

Paul could even navigate upstream and downstream devices right from his mobile device, a new capability from Esri.

If fieldworkers want to add notes to the map, they can use a simple form instead of having to mark up maps and hide them under their seat. Or, even better, they can take a picture of damaged devices and add it to the enterprise GIS. Then the troubleshooter on the next shift will see it too. So will the dispatcher and the reliability engineer—everyone, right then!

GIS for the field means giving the fieldworker just enough information, at just the right time on just the right device to do the work at hand. No more, no less.

When thinking about giving a GIS app for a fieldworker, we first should ask, "To do what?" That will drive which data, services, and tasks are presented to the user.

Then maybe we can finally trash the marked-up map sheets hidden under the seats of workers' trucks.

To learn more about Esri’s Electric solutions visit GIS for Electric Utilities

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Robert Lilley's picture
Robert Lilley on Apr 4, 2019

Excellent post Bill! I remember working with Southern California Edison and their Smallworld GIS team that would print out entire Map Books for the line crews in case of "the big one" so they would have the network in their trucks...just in case. It's great to see that technology has evolved to be more mobile and that small Apps like GE's Mobile Enterprise can provide online and offline GIS data access to utilties that require a full end-to-end solution from a single vendor like GE:


Bill Meehan's picture
Thank Bill for the Post!
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