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Mobile GIS for Gas Utilities - It’s about Safety

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Sometimes technology providers can be so focused on implementation that we lose sight of the values our users prioritize. That’s why meeting with crews is so important for vendors of mobile solutions for the utility workforce. Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with some ArcFM Mobile users: an operations supervisor and two gas specialists at a Midwest utility. Immediately they identified usability as a priority characteristic of a mobile GIS – give me the information I need, fast and easy. But a deeper discussion with the operations supervisor (we’ll call him Paul) revealed that safer and more effective operations are the primary value that mobile GIS brings to gas crews.

The nature of natural gas requires that gas operations teams prepare based on worst case scenario. Resolving 99% of gas leaks safely seems like an exceptional goal, but really it is not. Even one accident resulting from insufficient response to a leak is unacceptable. To Paul, mobile GIS more than anything is an emergency response tool. It helps crews handle incidents and outages safely and quickly. Since timeliness of response determines the outcome of a gas incident, seconds matter. Fast and accurate awareness of location, situation, and network is invaluable.

The first and foremost need for Paul’s specialists is location awareness, made possible by the marvelous blue dot. That is, show the truck or gas specialist’s current location on the map with reasonable accuracy. For normal work orders, pinpointing a user’s location is not an urgent matter. But in an emergency, the crew needs to find a service line or a valve fast. A specialist with years of experience in an operating area will recognize locations and know what is underground. To out-of-towners and new hires, assets are invisible, so the blue dot is essential to indicate where they stand in relation to data shown in a mobile GIS.

Once location is established, situation awareness becomes the priority. Field operations require an accurate, complete, and reliable view of geospatial asset data. This means providing gas specialists with a copy of the asset data for their operating area that is updated frequently and automatically. Do not ask users to manually sync data. Beyond that, Paul’s gas specialists require an intuitive presentation specialized for their needs. Critical assets such as high-pressure mains and critical valves must have unique and eye-catching symbolization. A user must be fully aware a valve is critical before closing it, as the valve could feed a regulator station serving hundreds or thousands of customers.

Intuitive digital maps promote effective gas operations, but to truly enable safe operations a mobile GIS must also provide network awareness. Gas specialists need a reliable way to determine the customers affected by an outage, and the tracing capability of a mobile GIS serves this purpose. This is where safety hits home. Many of the customers in Paul’s service territory have older furnaces with open pilots which require a manual relight after an outage. Without relight, service restoration will dump natural gas into these homes. The operations crews require an accurate understanding of the gas network to provide relight service as well as a courtesy safety check of appliances.

Usability is always a primary characteristic of mobile apps that see wide adoption. But for a gas utility, that’s only the start. A mobile GIS must provide location, situation, and network awareness in a way that is accurate, usable, and reliable. Paul concludes that an app tailored to the needs of gas specialists for safe and effective operations will be the most valuable tool they carry.

Jon Fairchild's picture

Thank Jon for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 19, 2019 11:40 am GMT

Resolving 99% of gas leaks safely seems like an exceptional goal, but really it is not. Even one accident resulting from insufficient response to a leak is unacceptable. To Paul, mobile GIS more than anything is an emergency response tool. 

What a great perspective on how the future innovations of the digital utility aren't just about improve efficiency, cutting costs, or other admirable goals, but how it plays into the top goal of a utility which is safety above all else. The ability for GIS to enhance safety is, alone, a reason to embrace the digital tools. 

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