Imagine this. You report a fault in your gas, electricity or water supply. A field service engineer arrives, steps out of the van and pulls out a hand-held device on which he or she can immediately access the location of pipes, mains or anything else necessary to effect a speedy repair.
Thanks to the application of GIS (Geographic Information Systems), this is now possible. Utilities are required by law to keep detailed records of the locations of their extensive assets. Until recently, such information was generally kept on paper maps. However, the sector has been at the forefront of developing GIS, taking complex data and turning it into digital maps in a way that enables everyone, from field engineers to customer service agents, to access information as and when they need it, through various platforms.
This move from paper to digital maps makes for easier and faster data storage, retrieval and interpretation. Staff can now look at visual representations of assets in specific locations, rather than having to interpret complex tabular data. The results have enhanced every aspect of the utilities businesses, from asset management to customer satisfaction and marketing.
The switch to GIS has been facilitated by the more general technological advances that have revolutionised businesses across the board.
“Browser-based applications have had a huge impact on the way all businesses work,” says Infotech Enterprises Europe sales and marketing manager Alistair Maclenan.
“GIS is now often a part of the core business tools, thanks to the compatibility of software. Wireless communication tools and Global Positioning System (GPS) devices have helped to reduce the cost of primary data capture, and the hardware that supports these technologies has also played a part, as bulky laptops have been replaced with hand-held devices.”
The National Grid Company (NGC) has enormous assets, including 13,600km of overhead lines, 550km of underground cable and 300 sub-stations. The move from paper maps to GIS systems involved a lengthy and complex process of cross-referencing data from many sources, including paper maps, an asset database, datasets from Ordnance Survey and, where necessary, visual verification.
At first, NGC built on a pre-existing GIS system, but this was replaced by a solution based around GIS consultancy Intergraph’s Geomedia product and Oracle SDO. The resulting Geomedia desktop application is now used by over 200 people at 12 sites.
The switch to GIS is clearly a complex undertaking, but what about the cost? “The digitisation of paper maps, management and dissemination of data and investment in software and training will together make up a significant proportion of the total cost of implementing GIS,” says Maclenan.
But the use of GIS means that constructions, asset refurbishment and repairs can be done more effectively at every level, saving money. Field personnel can undertake repair work faster and with fewer errors.
Infotech’s Maclenan explains, “Maintenance of the network can be planned, with the routes of the maintenance crews optimised so that they spend more time working and less time travelling. In the event of an emergency, the fastest route to a location can be obtained from a GIS.”
The National Grid uses GIS to plan and manage vehicle access for constructions, repair and refurbishment with more than 20,000 landowners that it has wayleave agreements with for access to land; for environmental impact and risk assessment; for general planning and repair; and in handling enquiries from the public and emergency incidents.
The Department for Regional Development (DRD) Northern Ireland Water Service uses MapInfo’s MapXtreme to provide one third of its 2,300-strong workforce intranet access to digital maps showing the location of assets.
The numbers are impressive. The company has 22,200km of water mains, 100 water treatment works and 9,530km of sewers. These supply 680 million litres of water and treat 615 million litres of sewage in 900 sewage treatment works for 1.6 million customers every day. Digital maps are used in all planning and repair work and to lay mains. This means that staff can allocate and use resources effectively, and also that maps can be updated, where necessary, to ensure that the information available is always up-to-date and accurate.
Asset management also includes actual customers. In the past, where meters were not in use, GIS would compare customer billing information with address data. This cross-referencing of information has revealed areas where up to 1.5 per cent of customers were not being billed. It can also match developments and billing, both of which allow the retrieval of revenue that otherwise could have been lost.
Privatisation has intensified the need for better asset management, but the introduction of GIS has meant good news for everyone. The money saved and the revenue generated as a consequence, can be passed on to customers in the form of lower costs. Customer service has also improved because of enhanced planning and development and faster and more efficient repair work.
As Maclenan explains, “The patterns that emerge when information is presented graphically mean that management can better plan their maintenance strategies. Customer service operators can provide customers with information relating to their locality more easily than if this information had to be retrieved from a specific department.”
In the case of National Grid customers, instant answers to questions can be given over the telephone that previously had to be referred to other departments.
The use of GIS can also improve utilities’ marketing. Martin Bradbury, client services manager for market intelligence and database marketing company EuroDirect, points out that, “until 18 months ago utility companies did not possess the marketing infrastructure of other commercial sectors. The Data Protection Registrar did not allow utility companies’ customer databases to be used for anything other than billing and delivery systems.”
In other words, data was only mined for information relating to energy use and payment history. This meant that the utilities lagged behind in marketing know-how and application.
Bradbury continues: “Given this, it is unsurprising that when competition took off, from 1997 onwards, the utilities used traditional marketing methodologies which resulted in data being under-used. Since privatisation and the introduction of competition, utility companies have become much sharper and more hard-headed about what they want from their marketing departments.
“They were forced to address their marketing strategies and implementation as they realised that they had to hold on to their existing customers as well as bringing in new ones. In some areas the rate of customer churn was extraordinarily high as customers were switching from company to company just to take advantage of introductory offers.
“To make it more complicated, buying activity was skewing the marketing efforts of utilities towards those customers who were most likely to churn and least likely to pay their bills. EuroDirect has been using GIS to help utility companies market more effectively to those customers who are less likely to churn and most likely to pay their bills.”
As Richard Gilson of Your Communication (formerly Norweb Telecom) explains, “Your Communication uses a Smallworld GIS to predict the telecommunications expenditure of every commercial building within the areas it serves, and it pinpoints all of these buildings very precisely in relation to our network. This means that it can target its marketing and selling campaigns to make them as effective as possible.”
The results achieved so far by the utility companies using GIS are impressive, but there is a great deal further to go. The incorporation of additional mapping information and the extension of GIS-mapped areas, the training of more field workers and the increased dissemination of technology will all be required before the WAP-enabled field service engineer, outlined in the first paragraph, becomes an everyday figure.
Most importantly, we’ve always known that electricity suppliers brace themselves for the surge of electricity required for the simultaneous making of 17 million cups of tea brewed across the UK when a major soap star is married, separated, shot or sectioned. Now we know exactly how they know where to send how much power.