My Q&A with Esri – how GIS Delivers Value to Utilities

My Q&A with Esri – how GIS Delivers Value to Utilities

By Jon Arnold, ETS16 Community Advocate

GIS – Geographic (or Geospatial) Information Systems – has been in use since the 1970’s, and continues to evolve in the Internet age. Initial applications such as cartography, urban planning and agriculture remain strong, but GIS also has great value for commercial and industrial markets, with energy being a prime example.

Utilities can benefit from GIS in many different ways, and this represents another opportunity to leverage today’s communications networks and technologies to enable the smart grid of tomorrow. At ETS16, we heard from Esri, a global leader and one of the true pioneers of GIS. To further articulate that opportunity, here’s my interview with Bill Meehan, Esri’s Director, Utility Solutions.

Technology is a central theme at ETS16, and Esri is the kind of partner utilities need in their ecosystem as they modernize the grid. Explain briefly the role that real time GIS plays in helping make the grid smart.

There are five types of data that support advanced or smart decision making, and each uses location as a key attribute. The first data type is authoritative – this is information we know to be true. How old is something, when it was last maintenance, where it is. The second is predictive. What might happen, such as failure history of an asset or where lightning is more likely to strike. Third would be experiential information, such at what comes from experienced workers, who might say, “I could have told you that would happen.” The fourth is social media or crowd sourcing, and the fifth kind would be real time or measured data.

The last two are really important because they provide the reality of what really is happening despite the prediction, analytics and speculation coming from other types of data. Social media can be valuable, but lacks the real time and objective attributes of measured data. When decisions need to be made quickly, especially about things happening in remote locations, this is where GIS has the most value for smart grid.

Specific to utilities, real time data linked to location makes the grid smart by adding the dimension of space to the measured information. Real time data answers the question, what’s going on right now across the grid. Real time data consumed into a GIS answers the additional questions of where things are going on. This way, grid operators gain deeper knowledge of why things are going on by looking at relationships in terms of what is going on in other places.

Energy is one of several markets served by Esri – how are the needs of utilities different and how is their readiness to adopt GIS and locational analytics compared to other sectors?

Esri has two energy markets – exploration (oil, gas, and mining) and utilities. The oil and gas market is mainly about geology – the features of the land, above and underground. At the heart of this industry is spatial analysis – which leads to the answer to where to dig a well or explore for gold based on spatial conditions.

Utilities, public works and transportation are primarily about the management of assets. Where assets are, their condition, their relationship with other assets, how are the assets connected. Esri’s platform provides access to those assets through maps, awareness by combining the information on the maps with other map-based information (such as real time data, predictive data, crowd sourcing, etc.) and analytics. Taken together, access, awareness and analytics provides an answer to core questions such as “where are my assets most vulnerable?” and “what is the impact of their failure?”

While utilities have had GIS for decades, usage has been limited to only a few departments. Today with cloud, mobile and web services, utilities are ready to fully leverage their GIS information. Not only are they ready, but we are seeing strong adoption of Web GIS with our customers.

What specific forms of real time GIS data provide the most value to utilities?

Real time data that is easily associated with a location (address, GPS) or an asset, which has a location.  The value of GIS is not so much about a single location, but many locations, so that patterns can be established. The data must provide some basis for decision making, which relate to the mission of the company and its customers, otherwise the value is minimal. There can be tendency to gather data, real time or otherwise, “just in case” it might have value.

How fully are they able to realize that value, and what capabilities or expertise is still lacking?

GIS in utilities has historically been linked to the creation and management of paper-based maps. This still persists. The value of real time data is to increase the understanding of the network, its customers and communities. The technology is in place. What’s lacking is clarity about the linkage to mission of the company. For example, utilities agree that the data captured in the GIS is not fully complete nor sufficiently accurate. Increasing data accuracy requires innovation, resources, and the commitment to address the data issues. Without that, the value of the GIS will be less that it could be.

To what extent are you providing data that they never had before, and what are some examples that utilities may not have anticipated?

The ArcGIS Platform is based on the notion of a portal. This means that it facilitates the collection of data from inside and outside the utility. This opens up the possibility of collecting any information that has some reference to location. A great example is the consumption of imagery from remote sensing, where the use of LiDAR and Phodar has become very popular.

However, without an infrastructure to capture and mash up that data, the potential is limited. So the portal – both cloud and on-premise – is the key, along with the diagnostic tools to both consume and manage the spatial analysis data.  The data is out there on the Web, however, the secret sauce is bringing it all together for decision and money making.

As the grid becomes smarter and sensors more pervasive, what emerging GIS applications do you foresee that will be of value to utilities?

While the notion of spatial analysis has been part of GIS for years, it hasn’t been adopted widely. With more sensors, AMI and PMU’s, utilities will have the point data. However, the value is in the analytics of that point data. For example, utilities will know that a certain number of customers have installed solar systems. What they need to know is how the collection of customer using solar system will impact their network. They also have demographic information; how can that information be combined with the point data to help utilities deal with the increasing competitive threat?

GIS is also about managing data. Given the increased volume of data and the need to do analytics and data sets (imagery, LiDAR, AMI) that have been hitherto unheard of, GIS now must handle data volumes never anticipated. Esri is heavily invested in Big Data and IoT structures, which we see as essential for improving data management capabilities. When utilities have that, GIS can help them more fully represent their assets in their natural 3D state.

Tune in and follow us!