GIS: The 'crystal ball' effect

Technology has expanded to such a point now that it’s playing a vital role in closing the communication gap between internal departments and remote staff.

For water utility companies with a large mobile workforce, vast infrastructure to run and maintain and large numbers of customers, there is the potential to significantly reduce trips back and forth to the office, allowing workers to stay out in the field and be more operationally efficient. At the same time, the technology allows office-based staff to obtain detailed updates and analysis on operations in real time. But how can a business best manage this influx of high-velocity data, make sense of it and use it to its best advantage?

Geographic information systems (GIS) technology comprises interactive maps and apps which are able to provide real-time visualisations and analytics for an entire water network. A GIS platform becomes the ‘single point of truth’- the system of record - for network asset data and provides stakeholders intuitive centralised access to not only that asset data but also contextual data about the environment around it, affecting the infrastructure, roads, networks, customer and office locations.

The use of GIS has been well documented to have positive effects in many different water utilities, however, what is emerging is the transition to the use of this technology by mobile workforces as well. The field workforce is equipped with devices running apps that connect back to the central GIS platform. The office can then allocate tasks direct to the mobile device. Progress with undertaking maintenance tasks, inspecting damage and resolving customer complaints is then reported back to the office through the device, providing a near real-time operational view.

Water companies face a variety of operational challenges, for example tracking and managing water leaks, and GIS can help significantly in rising to these challenges. In the office, the technology allows the nearest appropriately skilled field team to be identified and for them to be sent the job through their mobile devices. Once the cause of the leak has been identified, the field engineer can report the details back, including the exact location, via the app rather than recording paper-based notes and travelling back to the office. GIS technology can also pinpoint customers that could be affected in the area as a result of the leak. This is extremely beneficial for water companies as it allows them to communicate to customers about the issue, before a complaint is lodged, thus demonstrating a more sophisticated level of customer service whereby an issue appears to be being resolved before it is even reported by the customer.

GIS technology also enables water companies to be more strategic and proactive in their approach to maintaining their network. Data can be collected about asset types and in particular the materials that pipes and other infrastructure are made from. The GIS can then cross reference that with data on the soil types, terrain and weather conditions to create a predictive model which informs prioritisation and timing of pre-emptive maintenance.

An example of a water company successfully using GIS technology is Thames Water. Serving up to 15 million customers, Thames Water is the UK’s largest water and wastewater services company. It supplies around 2,600 million litres of tap water and removes and treats more than 4 billion litres of sewage every day.

Thames Water faced the challenge that it relied on a wide number of systems and tools to enable employees to perform different tasks, in different parts of the business. To address these issues, Thames Water invested in the ArcGIS platform and, as a result, the company has been able to significantly improve the efficiency of its processes. It allows employees in the field to work more productively as they are directed to the right location straight away and don’t have to waste time looking for assets that have been moved. Engineers can instantly see the locations of Thames Water’s own assets and the property of other utility companies and make decisions that can speed up repairs and minimise public inconvenience.

Alongside the efficiency savings come some significant cost savings. For example, now that asset update information flows directly and automatically from workers in the field to the central asset database, fewer administrators are required to process the data. Similarly, in the IT department, it is more cost effective to manage a single solution rather than multiple separate systems.

GIS uses the power of location to correlate all incoming data, allowing an organisation to visualise, through the power of maps, the bigger picture. There’s no longer the worry of issues with data quality due to inaccurate or missing information captured in the field, and data can be communicated and analysed in real time, helping large water utilities to become more agile and efficient through more informed decision-making. Location maps are the unifying factor that allows the company to visualise high volumes of data and track patterns that would not have been seen before.

It's then even possible to use spatial analysis to generate predictive visualisations, based on previous incidents - giving the company a crystal ball to more effectively and efficiently manage operations.

Simon Weaver, analytics programme manager at Esri UK

Image source: Shutterstock/Artem Samokhvalov