Early on, utilities, with no specific cartographic expertise and lacking any standards
around scale, orientation, map sheet size, symbology, or detail, created a huge
investment in paper maps and records. Whole organizational and operational processes
were linked to maps and map grids. That legacy largely remains today.
Today’s modern geographic information system (GIS) and its associated spatial
database can offer radical improvements over the legacy paper map processes
and thinking. Or the GIS can be compromised to look, feel, and behave like an
automated map machine, retaining the old limitations, processes, organizational
structures, and systems that preceded its implementation.
This paper will describe the evolution of GIS and associated processes at utilities.
It will also provide some examples of how leading utilities have shed and shredded
their legacy processes to produce real business value with an enterprise GIS.
Progress is often defined as improving upon past accomplishments. A breakthrough
is defined as breaking away from past accomplishments. Progress is gradual;
breakthroughs are quantum leaps. Breakthroughs require new knowledge, seeing
things in a different way, and visualizing a new paradigm. Progress solves the
problem of “How can I make this process work better?” A breakthrough revolutionizes
There is nothing wrong with progress. All businesses must improve their current
operations, gradually tweaking processes, building new tools and facilities.
Occasionally, new technology arrives that has the potential to significantly
alter how a business operates. GIS is one of those technologies. The challenge
for utilities is first to recognize that GIS can enable breakthrough improvement,
and second, to shed the legacy that inhibits breakthrough in favor of just progress.
Why is it so tough to shed legacy processes and thinking? The answer is that
the legacy processes work so well and are so entrenched into the business that
no one can even see that they are obsolete. Henry Ford was the pioneer of mass-produced
vehicles. Mass production was a breakthrough from custom-built production methods.
His processes and methods were emulated throughout the world. As part of the
Ford process, large inventories of spare parts were kept, and large inventories
of completed automobiles were manufactured awaiting customer orders. This worked
for many years.
Ford’s process was improved upon by more sophisticated manufacturing techniques,
including robotics and computers. Toyota questioned Ford’s manufacturing process
in a fundamental way by employing Demming’s statistical process control for
quality and lean methods for minimizing inventory. The Toyota Production System
(TPS) broke from the past to manufacture automobiles that were cheaper to produce
with a quantum leap in quality. Toyota’s breakthrough implementation of TPS
resulted in nothing short of market dominance.
Evolution of Mapping Systems
Maps have been used in utilities for many years. They needed to be. Workers
needed to find their way to customers, underground structures, poles, and equipment.
The maps served three main functions:
Documentation for what had been built a “visual facilities inventory”
Basis for engineering upgrades and new customer connections
Representation of the network for analysis of electric or gas flow
Often the responsibility for the creation and maintenance of the maps was with
the engineering department. The engineers and technicians created new work orders.
After the new facilities were built, drafters would copy the work-order data
along with field notes and built changes back on to the maps.
Map sheets were sent to the field offices and trouble centers. Copies of the
maps were marked up by field people and sent back to the mapping group for inclusion
on the maps.
In the beginning someone within each utility made a decision to create maps.
At that time they decided how big they should be and what should be captured
on the maps. Utilities often would hire mapping contractors to draw the maps
or simply copy maps from published map books, such as Thomas Bros. or from USGS
quads or wherever maps could be found. As systems became more complex, new maps
were created to show greater levels of detail.
Over time, mapping became a big deal, with large staffs maintaining an ever-increasing
number of map products with varying degrees of detail and annotation. Some maps
were very accurate, others more schematic-based. Most were developed with no
particular mapping standards, since all maps were used internally. Symbols,
scales, and levels of detail were largely invented by the utility.
Utility mapping groups organized their paper maps by grids. Sometimes they
aligned with standard map grids, like the state plane coordinate systems, and
other times they were just arbitrary. However, once the map gridding system
became established, many other processes began using the map grid as a means
of organizing work. Electrical and gas equipment, pole numbers, value numbers,
even meter reading routes were often adopted or derived from the legacy map
gridding system. These map grids found their way into early plant accounting,
meter inventory, billing, trouble call, and customer systems of the late 1960s
Operating divisional structures were often divided up along map grid lines.
While the facilities paper maps were used extensively for engineering and operations,
they were largely ignored in other major business units within the utility,
probably because they were hard to understand and contained highly technical
information. They were, in effect, engineering documents. The value of the information
contained on these maps and records was largely hidden from the rest of the
The Wonder Years End
Investor-owned utilities enjoyed steady growth and prosperity, with little
significant regulatory interference from the 1930s breakup of the utility holding
companies (with the passage of the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1938)
until the 1965 Northeast Blackout. The blackout, the 1970 Clean Air Act, the
1973 oil embargo, the Clean Water Act of 1977, Three Mile Island, the 1978 Natural
Gas Policy Act, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) of 1978,
the Energy Policy Act of 1992, FERC Order 636, FERC Order 888, and others caused
huge investments in plant and equipment that did not generate one additional
kilowatt-hour or Btu of additional demand for electric and gas utilities.
In order to preserve shareholder earnings, rates needed to rise. However, with
the breakup of AT&T, the rise in consumerism, and the post-Watergate negativity
with large institutions, rate increases were hardly popular. State public utility
commission and the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission could only approve rate
By the late 1970s, it was clear that utilities needed to cut costs to maintain
decent shareholder return. By then, information technology could be applied
to help improve productivity and customer service.
The classic utility IT systems were created at this time: customer information
systems (CIS), trouble call, meter inventory, work order tracking, payroll,
supply chain, and financial. They helped drive down costs. All aspects of the
utility processes needed to be improved. Visionaries saw that the information
trapped on the hand-created maps and records might have additional benefit throughout
the enterprise to help decision-making and improve performance and communication.
Mapping Systems Evolve
Computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) were becoming
affordable. By the early 1980s, PC CAD/CAM systems were adapted to engineering
drafting by utilities. CAD systems quickly replaced the manual drafting board
for new design work. CAD was a natural for designing new substations, take-stations,
and buildings. The time to create a new drawing was cut in half, revisions took
seconds not hours, the quality was better, and the ability to print and electronically
communicate was spectacular. CAD was great for new drawings. It automated the
Since it was important to have access to data about facilities, CAD systems
were modified to allow facility data to be isolated and associated with the
graphical representation. Thus the term automated mapping/facility management
(AM/FM) was adopted. These modified CAD systems allowed some degree of storing
and reporting of facility attributes in a database, while still maintaining
the mapping functionality. While some AM/FM systems attempted to piece together
the individual map files to form continuous maps, fundamentally they were managing
drawings and associated data. The paradigm was essentially the same as the old
mapping systems. Maps are drawings. They have a size, a scale, and symbology.
During the same time as AM/FM systems were being deployed, GIS technology was
maturing. GIS, like CAD and AM/FM systems, produced maps, but did so in an entirely
different way. CAD and AM/FM automate the drawing and data capture process to
create maps. GIS manages spatial information about things, places, and features
in a database and displays the results in the form of the map. CAD and AM/FM
replicate known information a sketch becomes a finished product, whereas
GIS creates new information.
A word processor creates a finished typed page from a hand-written document
(no new information). A database query solves a problem (a query creates new
information). CAD and AM/FM systems created drawings from sketches (providing
no new information). A GIS solves a spatial problem and creates new insight
and information. Progress is automating the mapping function (using a CAD system).
A breakthrough is uncovering the cause of a recurring reliability problem (using
spatial analysis of a GIS).
Whether the asset maps are stored on paper or in CAD files, visionary utilities
have shredded the map sheets and viewed the facility data to solve broad-based
business problems, not just engineering or network analysis problems.
Figure 1: CenterPoint Energy – Know Where Your Assets Are and Are Not
GIS Adding Value
GIS is about three things, and we’ll take a closer look at each one:
Electric and gas distribution utilities have assets geographically dispersed
throughout the service territory. The infrastructure is aging. It is simply
too expensive to replace equipment just because it’s getting older. The key
is to understand which assets need to be replaced and when. Replacing equipment
too early means money could have been spent in other, more critical areas. Replacing
too late means replacing after the equipment has failed, leaving customers without
gas or electricity. GIS allows disparate information to be integrated.
CenterPoint Energy of Houston, one of the largest electric and gas distributors
in the nation, uses GIS extensively for managing its assets. Certainly, CenterPoint
uses the GIS to produce facility maps. However, it uses the data underneath
the maps to help manage its assets. Knowing where equipment is so managers can
make intelligent decisions about planning and operational issues is critical.
During 1998-1999, the CenterPoint Energy Underground Locating Division recognized
a rapid increase in requests to locate underground facilities. That growth,
along with the acquisition of a gas company and more facilities to be located,
gave CenterPoint the opportunity to identify economies of scale in its underground
locating business process.
The result of that effort was Underground Locating and Ticket Research Application
(ULTRA), a system that integrated GIS, new technologies, and process re-engineering
to save CenterPoint Energy $1 million in its first year of implementation. Savings
were achieved by using GIS tools and data to produce digital maps and processes
that resulted in fewer “field locate” queries being required and increased efficiencies
in the locates that were performed.
Decision-making using GIS can be applied to these utility tasks:
Economic development Encouraging development near existing
underutilized gas mains and power lines.
Demographic studies Sub-regional load forecasting, enhancing
in-house data with external data sources such as land-use inventories, zoning
data, and wetland protection areas.
Vegetation management Linking reliability data to vegetation
growth characteristics, as well as providing analysis to support just-in-time
tree trimming or weed abatement.
System planning Determining patterns in load growth.
Rate case studies determining the cost of service.
Long-term capital planning Linking historic weather, environmental,
political, and social data to form long-term capital spending programs.
Reliability centered maintenance Linking reliability to
maintenance planning and inspection data.
Loss evaluation Seeing where losses are higher or lower.
When things go wrong, or when disasters strike, utilities need to communicate
to customers, employees, the media, local government, and often state and federal
emergency management agencies. The ability to communicate the current state
of work or outages or crew deployments is critical.
A variety of utilities use GIS to display in real time the current status of
outages and the extent of the damage.
In customer satisfaction surveys, customers consistently either praise or criticize
utilities for their ability to communicate the current state of progress of
outage repair, in-progress work for new construction, or for something as simple
as repairing a street light. People generally understand that things can go
wrong. The utility can be heroic in its efforts to restore power, but if it
is unable to communicate progress to customers, then its efforts go largely
unnoticed. GIS is used extensively in communication:
Work order status Coordination of work internally and externally
with other agencies
Weather and how it relates to current work in progress
Safety Notification of where crews are in relation to switching
Crew and vehicle tracking
Communication of work division performance
Outage reporting to media
Bad debt analysis
Given the demands on today’s modern utilities, incremental improvements are
not sufficient. Breakthroughs are required. Returns on investments (ROI) must
be large; paybacks must be short.
Aside from fuel purchases (whether through purchased power contracts or internal
generation), electric and gas distribution utilities largest expenses are:
Labor internal or contract
Materials and hardware
Utilization of Labor
Southern California Gas, a Sempra company, uses GIS capabilities for its Automated
Meter-reading Information and Geographic Optimization System (AMIGO). The project
provides a meter-reading realignment and optimization system in order to plan
and dispatch routes for meter-reading staff. The system interfaces with Southern
California Gas’ Customer Information System (CIS) and the data from the handheld
AMIGO is used to visualize the complex relation between Segments and Sections
(local areas and combination of street blocks) for planning purposes. Furthermore,
it allows the user to automatically create new, balanced routes using street-level
routing optimization routines. AMIGO’s spatial database will store not only
routes and employee information but also a read history for SoCalGas’ more than
5 million customer locations totaling in more than 60 million records.
Additionally, meter-reading supervisors can remotely access the routes on a
map display and move route segments between employees in case of employee unavailability.
The system also allows SoCalGas to clean up inconsistencies between the street
data addresses and the current CIS address information and make the improved
data available to other departments in the organization.
SoCalGas leverages geospatial processing for other logistical challenges, like
the routing of customer service personnel. This project is called Advanced Resourcing
Tool (ART). ART interfaces the dispatching system PACER, allowing dispatcher
personnel to identify route assignments and exceptions visually. Routes are
built for approximately 2,500 field technicians on a daily basis.
Other areas where GIS has been applied for efficiencies are:
Engineering and design (using spatial optimization to minimize costs)
Operational planning/switching analysis
Permitting and notification
Productivity measurement by location
Meter reading and service
Automatic meter reading deployment
Bad debt collections
The challenge for utilities implementing true enterprise GIS is to fully understand
that a GIS is not an automation of the former mapping business process (an application)
but a foundation for many business processes, many of them new. The justification
for the GIS is not in the improvement of the mapping process, but as one of
the enablers for fundamental and perhaps radical process improvement and its
associated savings in cycle time, asset utilization, and productivity.
GIS is a breakthrough technology. Utilities can fully leverage the data and
its relationship to other information stored internally or outside the enterprise
to better make decisions, facilitate broad internal and external communication,
and improve work processes, increasing total shareholder return. n