Five Tech Trends to Embrace, and One Not So Much

Posted to Esri in the Digital Utility Group
image credit: used with permission
Pat  Hohl's picture
Director - Electric Industry Solutions Esri

Pat Hohl, PE, is Esri's director of electric industry solutions. He was a pioneer in the use of GIS for electric utilities. He has over 35 years of experience in utility engineering, technology...

  • Member since 2018
  • 133 items added with 182,557 views
  • Jul 29, 2019

This item is part of the GIS in Utilities - Summer 2019 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

The crossover of know-how is occurring at a blistering pace bringing advanced expertise to utilities. New ideas are imperative to address the many issues facing utilities today.

However, it often takes a while for people to see the value in new ideas. When I was a distribution engineer, we used index cards to track asset information. When we installed the first spreadsheet program, some employees did not embrace handling data electronically – they liked their paper cards. Completely overlooking the power of the trend, they simply used spreadsheets as a new way to print the cards before squeezing them into the same old drawer!

Embracing these five trends will help any utility transform the way they conduct business and enable individuals to earn a reputation for real problem solving.  

1 Data is the Greatest Informant

Data is the lead story --it greatly impacts the other trends. Understanding data can improve every business process. Analyzing data produces meaningful predictions allowing utilities to fine-tune everything from breaker maintenance and crew scheduling, to project budgeting.

Begin to challenge yourself and others – “What data supports this conclusion?”

The trend now is to pull many types of data from their so-called “silos of excellence” into one place. This promotes greater understanding, analysis, and communication to others. Utility data is location-heavy. “Where” something occurs impacts utilities in a striking way making GIS an ideal place to bring data together.

Start small and build bench-strength in this area. Leverage the 80/20 rule which states that 80 percent of the value can often be had for the first 20 percent of effort. Continue by applying discipline to data curation and governance.

2 Details Matter

Years ago, utilities migrated from manual drafting and map production to CAD and automated mapping. These digital mapping records served us well for many years.

Today, the trend is demanding GIS data do more than just make maps.

The industry is asking for more detailed digital models of the system for dynamic planning, analysis, and real-time operation. They must fully support processes to integrate renewables, improve resiliency, and increase efficiencies. That means they need to do more than look good -- they need to be smarter. They must include true 3 phase connectivity and physical characteristics.

It’s not practical to build separate models for every system. Build a single model that is capable of supporting all the needs for grid data using CIM (common information model). Plan the model based on local grid modernization objectives and timeframes.

3 Cross-Platform Applications

Recent studies indicate people check their phones between 80 and 300 times per day. This trend shows how people live and work today. Embrace a cross-platform mindset sometimes referred to as “mobile first”. People like mobile – give them mobile. Put customers and employees at the center of the solution rather than building to legacy needs.

Properly architected applications can be built once and quickly deployed on any device in a way that is targeted to the user’s role and needs. This approach increases consistency, reduces training, and users love it!

4 Interacting with Information

Three technologies are changing the way people interact with information in a “hands free” way. Augmented reality overlaps digital information onto the things a user observes. Mixed reality allows users to interact with digital objects displayed in their actual field of view. Virtual reality provides an artificial environment where users can interact with digital data.

These applications may seem like science fiction to some. However, digital natives who grew up with digital technology, expect things to work this way. Look for opportunities to leverage GIS and three dimensional data in new ways. Advanced visualization is currently being used by utilities around the world. These trends have outstanding fresh potential to reduce training costs, improve safety, and reduce construction conflicts.

5 Machine Learning

Taking advantage of big data is far too complex for manual analysis. Machine learning is an incredibly powerful branch of artificial intelligence that finds patterns in data. In a sense, the machine, or computer, learns from data and applies that learning to the problem at hand. It does not matter if that problem is energy theft, or vehicle accidents.

Utilities are data-rich but have not exactly been a hot bed of data science. Unfortunately, highly paid data scientists do not often dream of a utility career. Fortunately, machine learning tools are now being included in standard GIS applications.

Historical data is full of patterns that machine learning can quickly find. Reduce the time from measurement to decision by leveraging new knowledge of patterns to form predictions about the future. Utilities are beginning to apply this technology to problems like integrating solar energy and transportation electrification.

Not So Much

Spend a few minutes on YouTube researching artificial intelligence and you may become troubled that robots will soon take over most jobs--displacing many fine utility employees. Some say that children born today will never learn to drive a car. This is due to the projections for autonomous vehicles which rely heavily on artificial intelligence.

Jim Hackett, CEO of Ford Motor Co. recently admitted “we overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles.” Although I would not advise anyone to begin a career in routine data keypunching, the notion of artificial intelligence replacing many utility employees in the near time is likely too optimistic.

Wrap Up

Learn from the trends. Embrace the outstanding new capabilities available to address today’s utility challenges. Do not think of GIS like that index card-printing spreadsheet – just a fancy way to make better maps faster. It does so much more.

ArcGIS is the ideal place to bring all kinds of data together. Esri designed the new utility network specifically to model greater detail, including 3D. Network management in ArcGIS includes embedded analytics, machine learning tools, and data sharing across the enterprise with apps that people enjoy using.

For more information on how ArcGIS helps utilities capitalize on the latest technology trends download our free e-book Digitally Transforming Utilities: A Complete GIS.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 29, 2019

Although I would not advise anyone to begin a career in routine data keypunching, the notion of artificial intelligence replacing many utility employees in the near time is likely too optimistic.

I think this is a fair assessment-- AI will be a valuable tool in the utility of tomorrow, but they will be just that: a tool. The tool will need human judgement and input to determine how best to use the data and outputs. 

Anna Phillips's picture
Anna Phillips on Jul 30, 2019

"Some say that children born today will never learn to drive a car. This is due to the projections for autonomous vehicles which rely heavily on artificial intelligence. "  I am still looking for the "Car" of the Jetsons.

I have worked in GIS from 1989.  I have seen alot of changes in use of GIS.  I get excited each time a different department at our company finally gets "It."  I remember when I could not get a download from another department because it was "their data" and I might do something wrong it it.  Now, let's use GIS to update and correct that data in real-time.  Wonderful. 

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