Posted to Esri in the Digital Utility Group
image credit: Photo 7849132 © Brad Wynnyk -
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
  • 159 items added with 183,912 views
  • Feb 26, 2020 9:45 pm GMT

I like to ask a couple of questions when I open a presentation. “What is the weakest finger in your hand?” Of course, everyone raises their baby finger. I follow up with this question. “What is the most popular letter in the alphabet?”  Most people yell out “A.” To be honest, I’m not sure A is the most popular, but it works for my little ice breaker. Then I ask the question. “Why did the original designers of the keyboard choose to put the most popular letter A to be struck by weakest finger?”  On the surface, it doesn’t make sense.  Here is how it happened. The original designers put the popular letters, like the vowels, in easy to get to spots on the keyboard. Recall that the original keyboard was a mechanical typewriter with levers. As people got used to the keyboard, the levers all jammed up. So, they moved the popular letters to hard to get to places – to slow the typists down. Wait, what? The design of the keyboard was to lower productivity?


We’ve had electric keyboards for decades. Even our little pop-up keyboards on our mobile phones mirror the same dumb layout of our forefathers. Designed for low productivity. Are we afraid of change?  Nope. We’ve become so used to things, it’s hard for people to even know that change is needed. It’s sort of a blindness – failure to see what’s in front of our very eyes.  Innovation and transformation occur when we shred that blindness and see things in a new way.  Like who would have thought that you could use your phone to listen to music, or take pictures, or as an encyclopedia?

When I had dark black hair, I had responsibility for the mapping group at a power company. The maps were all hand drawn. They included primary electric maps, secondary maps, strip plans and a whole bunch of others. The group’s mission was to keep the maps up to date as best they could given their staffing levels. They always had a huge backlog of work. To keep things manageable, they put as much stuff onto the existing map products as was practical given the size and scale of the drawings. There was just no way to meet everyone’s needs with specialized map products. The group always got requests for new map products, but most requests could not be fulfilled due to staffing issues and they would have yet another map product to have to maintain forever.

The result was sort of one size fits all concept – keep the number of map products as manageable as possible and make the maps as comprehensive (and often complicated and hard to read) as possible.

And forget about the print distribution process! It was terrible. You had to transfer field notes and corrections from the old issues to the new prints then file them into the old map books. Given the hectic nature of field offices, this was low priority work.  I used to see stacks of new prints still rolled up for months waiting to be filed. The result was that the maps were inaccurate and out of date. The field folks knew that. They never really trusted the maps, so they would regularly drive out into the field to check to see what was really in the field before planning any work. Many of the field people wouldn’t bother to notify the understaffed and overworked mapping group of errors since they knew that they wouldn’t get to them for months or longer.

GIS to the rescue!

Like the old keyboard, we kept the exact same process with our GIS. Sure, the updates took far less time than the old hand drawn process. But the maps were still were complex. They followed the old cartography rules. In fact, aside from the fact that a computer created the maps, they all looked the same as the old hand drawn ones. And still woefully out of date. To make matters worse, we continued to print the maps and distributed them like in the old days. The field people mostly used printed versions of the maps. That’s still true at many utilities even today.

Its time to shred the paper maps. Well actually the digital versions of the paper maps. It’s time to use the GIS as a location intelligence system. A modern GIS, like ArcGIS makes this easy to do. It maintains a precise representation of the network. Yet it distributes simple easy to use maps, both 2D and 3D to any devices using web services. Just like social media. Finally, ArcGIS has transformed GIS from simply a means for automating the map process into a system of insight. It helps utilities discover things (good and bad) about their network and their business that they had never been able to see before.

Whenever you look at your computer keyboard, or your mobile devices little pop-up keyboard, think about all the things we do on our business simply out of habit. Like creating exact duplicates of old paper maps on our GIS. Instead think about using the GIS as an enabler of transformation for asset management, customer care, grid mod and who knows what else.  See patterns, connections and relationships. Shred those old paper maps!  See what others can’t.

For more information on how GIS transforms the electric utility business, visit our website.

Connect with Esri

Fill out this form to receive more information from Esri.

Bill Meehan's picture
Thank Bill for the Post!
Energy Central contributors share their experience and insights for the benefit of other Members (like you). Please show them your appreciation by leaving a comment, 'liking' this post, or following this Member.
More posts from this member


Spell checking: Press the CTRL or COMMAND key then click on the underlined misspelled word.
Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 26, 2020

Great lesson, Bill-- lot to take away from that! 

Another benefit of GIS over paper maps, I would imagine, is the value of knowing that all actors in an organization are definitely working off of the same maps and no one is hoarding their old version that's up to date but the one they prefer to use. 

Yooper Logic's picture
Yooper Logic on Mar 4, 2020

Spot on!  The depth of capabilities of GIS is tremendous, but sometimes it's the simple things that can bring the most value; playing from the same sheet of music, for example.

Bill, one point of clarification... while the keyboard was re-configured as you describe for the purposes of slowing down keystrokes, it had nothing to do with a desire to put a damper on productivity, but a clever solution for the prevention of key arms from becoming jammed (not even sure everyone knows what that means!).

The real question to consider might be why the keyboard was not changed one the IBM selectrics hit the market? 

As Matt notes, old habits are tough to kick, eh? 


Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on Mar 6, 2020

You are correct.  I was not intended to damp productivity.  It just had the impact of doing that.  Great question - why didn't IBM change the keyboard layout with the selectric?  We will never know.  I wonder if there were some meetings held in the '60s that documented that thought or they just didn't think of it.

Alan King's picture
Alan King on Mar 5, 2020

Thanks for posting Bill, very insightful. Icebreaker idea is good and I didn't realise the key placement history. 

I spend a lot of time with GIS teams on those challenges and also with a personal passion for maps, paper has its place, in a frame on a wall..

Thanks for sharing and the insights!

Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on Mar 6, 2020

Love it - put the old maps in frames and hang them in your family room in the basement

Linda Stevens's picture
Linda Stevens on Mar 6, 2020

Great post and insight. I always appreciate how you opening comments!  As a geographer I love maps, but I became a geographer because of my passion for looking at a problem from geographic perspectives. While paper and non-paper maps will always be important (you need something if the mobile access/internet goes down) I am even more excited about the potential uses of geospatial data where a map is never viewed. Building geospatial driven digital twins, edge-computing, and three-strike analysis more! 

Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on Mar 9, 2020

That's right - while maps are terrific discovery is also about location intelligence!

Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »