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Three Ways to Improve Data Quality In GIS

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Old Habits Die Hard. 

All my life, I've struggled to manage my weight. I've probably lost 1,000 pounds in my life, but the problem is I've gained 1,050 pounds. If I really wanted to lose weight permanently, I would kill off my old bad eating habits for good, not just suspended them for a while during the diet and then bring them back again as soon as I lose enough weight. To really transform, old, negative habits must die.

We’ve heard a lot about digital transformation. There are really two, maybe three elements of digital transformation. The first element is the right technology platform. The second is a change in behavior, maybe even a radical change. Sometimes, the third is a complete business disruption. UBER, iPhone, Netflix and Airbnb have changed the way we use taxi’s, communicate, watch movies and stay in hotels. These transformations involve an upheaval in behavior. The reason I can’t manage my weight is that I have not successfully changed my behavior.

Electric utilities are transforming. Customers are installing solar systems in droves. People are hanging batteries on their garages. Microgrids are popping up all over the place. Electric companies are unbundling their component parts: generation, transmission, distribution, and retail services.

Need to Kill Bad Habits

To survive profitably, transmission and distribution (T&D) companies need to kill old habits and rituals they have perfected since the time of Thomas Edison. It’s not a secret that many forward-thinking industries are data driven. To survive digital transformation, they must change.

Lack of investment in management, processing, and upkeep of good data is one really bad habit of utilities. They need to kill that habit. Good data is a fundamental requirement for solid operational and financial efficiency. Most electric companies have a GIS. Yet study after study and interview after interview reveal that utilities just don’t trust the quality of their GIS data. Most don’t have a complete record of their T&D facilities in GIS. They keep substation information in CAD. Then they rarely update their substation data to reflect as-built situations. They rarely model underground structures. Most do not have processes to ensure the data is timely. And in all too many cases, the facility location is not even close to GPS accurate. In a study several years ago, Esri asked utilities how long it takes for information from the field to make it into the GIS. In some cases, they measured the time in weeks, not minutes, hours, or even days. The price of this lack of precision, timeliness and completeness is simply lack of efficiency, which translates into higher costs; poor customer service and reliability; and, in some cases, accidents. While most now agree that GIS is a fundamental component in every T&D utility's IT portfolio, the simple existence of GIS is not enough.

How do many utilities deal with incomplete, inaccurate, or out-of-date information? Easy. They just have folks jump into vehicles and have people check so to see if the information in their records is in fact correct. This is a costly and time-consuming bad habit. Utilities do it a lot.

The data has got to be right.

The reason many companies do not have a complete set of data is of course is the cost to migrate, collect, and maintain the data. The T&D utility has an aging work force, aging infrastructure, greater cost exposure, lower margins, and increasing customer expectations. So they believe there isn't money left over to do a better job of completing the data migration and of capturing the more difficult assets such as underground facilities, substations, or secondary services. Yet today, information drives most modern business decisions, including how to prioritize facility investment. Processes are dependent on good data. Grid modernization demands it.

Three Ways to Improve Data Quality in GIS

1.  Think of the GIS a Platform

GIS is not a map making machine. Esri’s ArcGIS platform is at its best when it serves as a means of pulling information from a variety of data sources, both inside and outside the company. This includes business intelligence, data from first responders, from smart city resources, customer information, materials, work management, asset management, SCADA, ADMS, AMI, and network analysis systems. Utilities don't have to store and maintain all the data in GIS. Ironically, utilities often capture too much information in GIS.

What does the GIS need?

  • Complete inventory of facility assets
  • The location of those assets,
  • The spatial relationships of assets to each other and to the world around them.

They have too much information in one place and not enough where they need it. If utilities want to see demographics on the map, they can pull it from the web. Model Assets as They Really Are. 

Utilities began their GIS journey replicating their old paper and distribution and transmission maps. They wanted the digital version to look exactly like the old paper maps. This was a digital transition, since the behavior of the workers didn’t really change very much. That meant that things were not really modeled as they exist on the group. With the new ArcGIS Utility Network Management Extension utilities can now get the best of both worlds. They can make easy to use maps and represent network elements with all the features, like terminations, grounding configuration and banking technology built in.

2. Capture the Complete Network in GIS

The notion that the GIS is the single source of truth is a lie. Well today it is a lie. It should be the single portal to the truth. Information about substations, transmission designs, relay systems, underground structures, and a host of other facilities are stored somewhere else. The GIS can store a complete model of the T&D system, sometimes called a digital twin in the GIS. Having all facility data in one place avoids duplication, out of synch data and convoluted processes – all bad habits!

3. Put Data Into the Hands of Everyone

Believe it or not, utilities still print out maps for their field workers. That puts a crimp in communication, collaboration and coordination – the three c’s of good data management. Using the ArcGIS platform, when something happens in the field and is updated on the field worker’s mobile device, everyone knows about it right then on any device, anywhere, any time. The ArcGIS platform takes is cue from social media platforms. Tweets are immediate. So too, when field workers update their data on a mobile device, everyone knows. Paper drags the processes down. It just slows things down to a crawl.

With the ArcGIS platform, there is no long journey from the field into the GIS department

If I ever want to lose weight, my old eating habits must die. Likewise, if T&D utilities want to transform, their old data habits must die. No more defaulting to field checks for data accuracy. No more reliance on GIS as solely a mapmaking machine. No more keeping data in file cabinets. Instead, companies must improve integration with corporate systems and invest in modern processes of data governance. That’s what a true location platform provides.

For more information on the ArcGIS platform for utilities, click here.

Bill Meehan's picture

Thank Bill for the Post!

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Esri, the global leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, builds the most powerful mapping and spatial analytics technology available.


Vanessa Edmonds's picture
Vanessa Edmonds on Dec 6, 2018 2:17 pm GMT

Thanks for the article, Bill. When it comes to killing old habits to better leverage data for GIS, specifically, where should utilities START? This is a question I get from clients. 

Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on Dec 7, 2018 9:08 pm GMT

Hi Vanessa, 

Thanks for your question.  It's a good one.  I would say the very first place to start is to take a very short survey (2 questions) asking a number of people at the utility::

On a scale of 1 to 5, how well does this statement describe your GIS:

1)  Our GIS automates the process of creating our distribution operational maps.

2) Our GIS is a strategic information system that improves how we run our business.

The gap in answers can help you determine where the company stands on their use of GIS.  Once you know this, then you can attack the data issue.  

Hope this helps.  Let me know how it goes.




Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 7, 2018 1:21 am GMT

"To survive profitably, transmission and distribution (T&D) companies need to kill old habits and rituals they have perfected since the time of Thomas Edison."

Bill, utilities survive profitably right now, and profits are limited by state Public Utility Commissions. In California:

"The CPUC sets the rates by regularly applying adjustments to ensure that utilities collect no more and no less than is necessary to run the business and provide a fair return to investors."

If they become more profitable, money is refunded to ratepayers. What is a utility's incentive to change?

Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on Dec 7, 2018 9:19 pm GMT

Great question. Check out my earlier post.

The regulatory model will change in the future.  As you know,  utilities were regulated in the first place since they were a natural monopoly. See the original Supreme Court Case which established public utilities.  Munn v Illinois 1877. (The so-called Grain Elevator case)  Solar now competes with the grid.  So the rationale for a natural monopoly is altered. So utilities will have to become more efficient as competitive pressures mount.  It will take some time but will happen. Also, utilities are always facing political pressure to improve.,  Commissions will look to benchmarking to compare one utility against another.

Thanks for the question.



Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 11, 2018 4:27 am GMT

Bill, that solar "competes with the grid" has been a popular misconception since the 1970s. The grid offers 120V AC electricity whenever customers need it; solar offers DC electricity when the sun is shining. The two don't always complement each other.

Some solar customers mistakenly believe the electricity their panels generate can be used whenever they need it, but electricity must be used as it's generated. Some can be stored in expensive batteries, but it doesn't take long before they run out.

This can come as a shock to someone accustomed to using grid electricity - the lights go out. Their computer doesn't work, their cellphone and their electric car don't charge. They can't just "get some more" until the sun shines again, and even then customers are shocked to learn their panels only generate a fraction of the electricity they use every day.

So nearly all solar customers remain dependent on the grid, even if they're able to augment their supply of electricity from a PV array on their roofs. Grid electricity remains a monopoly, it remains profitable, and will for the foreseeable future. Though the U.S. regulatory model has changed since the 2005 repeal of the Public Utility Holding Company Act, very few customers believe it has changed for the better. Supposedly "free" solar electricity is responsible for some of the highest utility rates in the country, leaving many customers to think they were better off before.

Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on Dec 17, 2018 9:09 pm GMT

Agree Bob.  However, the growth in solar is significant, which will certainly cut into the utilities'' revenue, so, from that perspective, they compete directly with utilities at least for part of their revenue. That means that utilities will have to work smarter. Better data quality will help them make better decisions.  

Thanks for your insightful comments and for ready my blog.

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