The GISt of Utility Design

Geographic information systems are revolutionizing industries by allowing designers to better select sites, and to visualize and plan infrastructure and facilities based on real-world topography and other data.

“How long will it take to finish the GIS?” This is a common question from clients, but the answer is always the same: “GIS is never finished.” Because just like the networks geographic information systems (GIS) represent, GIS exists in a state of perpetual change until a utility closes its doors and no longer provides service to its customers.

GIS is a set of integrated computer tools used to store and interpret geographic data that can be mapped, such as utility assets, roads, addresses and country boundaries. Utilities use GIS daily to serve the needs of customers by making changes, including creating new accounts, analyzing network conditions, building new lines, responding to outages, and replacing and fixing equipment.

For a utility to maintain the health and effectiveness of its GIS, the GIS must be agile enough to both reflect and — more importantly — regulate change. Improving GIS health starts with better design. Better design starts with understanding the design process. For utilities, there is a direct correlation between GIS data health and the system’s design process. Implementing an effective design process can be complicated, due to the impact across an organization. A poor design process can lead to increased costs, missing or incorrect data, and a delayed outage response.

A GIS-based utility design process is the optimal framework for regulating change because it provides flexibility, operational efficiency and data integrity. The utility design process can be very complex and nuanced, so here are some important things that must be remembered if efforts are to be successful:

1. Utility design is a process, not a single application.

Utility design is a process that begins when a need is first reported or realized and culminates in the GIS reflecting the fulfillment of that need. Utilities should consider all current workflow activities, all data consumed and created throughout the process, and the applications necessary to manage and integrate it all. Understanding when the true beginning and end of the design process occurs will reduce the likelihood of leaving gaps in workflow.

2. The design process drives data changes and regulates data entry.

The most common source of a utility’s new GIS network data is the output product of the design process. Utility design involves data inputs from many different contributors in different departments. As the number of contributors or designs increases, so does the risk of errors due to manual data entry. GIS-based design, along with integration, mitigates this risk by providing to users data entry options driven primarily by mouse clicks and screen taps, rather than keystrokes on a keyboard. This functionality not only creates consistent data formatting but also lays the foundation for field design operations on mobile devices.

GIS-based design also regulates data entry by applying validation procedures, such as mandatory fields, conditional rules (if this, then that), and unique value verification. Notifying users of errors at the moment data is entered can help prevent costly mistakes and future delays, because the information provided is both correct and complete before it moves on to the next step in the workflow.

3. Automation + Integration = Efficiency.

The operational efficiency gained from GIS-based design is grossly diminished, if not negated, without automation and integration. Modern utilities rely on functionality to automatically populate known data values, along with integration to link it with other utility applications that provide data required by the design process. Below are just a few key integrations and their benefits:

  • Customer information system (CIS) — Sees to it that correct and up-to-date customer information is included in work order designs.
  • Work management system — Creates and sends new work orders to the design application, manages and syncs the list of current available construction units, and receives status updates for reporting as work orders progress through the design process.
  • GIS — Provides a current network model that can be consumed by and interact with the design application. As designs are completed and constructed, they are sent to GIS and posted as-built through a simple select-and-click process.

While all of these integrations are important, full GIS integration is mandatory for achieving real operational efficiency. The reason why is explained through a concept called Reality Delta.

4. Reduce the Reality Delta as much as possible.

In an increasingly digital and interconnected world, a utility’s GIS is the digital manifestation of the entire operation and must be able to reflect its current condition. This Reality Delta (RD) is an abstract concept describing the gap between GIS and the physical world; thus, it has no specific unit of measurement. To understand RD, look at its inverse relationship to GIS data health — a lower RD means increasing GIS data health, while a higher RD indicates the utility GIS model is trending toward becoming outdated and incorrect. Unhealthy GIS data has significant negative impacts on utility operations, such as: diminished outage management system (OMS) capability in predicting the true scale of an outage, inability to locate managed assets, poor engineering analysis (EA) models, and out-of-sync customer records in the customer information system (CIS), just to name a few.

A utility could implement the most advanced GIS-based design application on the market, enabling its engineers to crank out scores of work orders in little time, but without an automated as-built posting option, it provides very little value to the rest of the organization. The backlog of constructed work orders will continue to increase if GIS analysts cannot post work orders at an equal or faster rate than engineers are designing them, resulting in a rapidly growing RD.

5. Optimize the design process beyond engineering.

Engineering is the top priority when it comes to having a GIS-based design application, but remember engineers are not the only personnel involved in the design process. The data collected by a customer service representative from the initial customer request should be connected to a resulting work order and used to populate any congruent attributes. Design sheets created by the GIS-based design application should be tailored to benefit the needs of the construction crew performing the work. Material pick lists can include features like bar codes or storage location numbers for warehouse personnel to pull materials easily. An optimized design process addresses needs at every step along a workflow and should be routinely calibrated to reflect the current conditions and future goals of a utility.

No matter where you are on your GIS journey, now is the time for all utilities, even those with an existing GIS in use, to begin evaluating or creating a five-year strategic GIS plan. Utilities that invest in GIS services to help develop and/or execute that plan are well positioned for what could otherwise be a very challenging road ahead. 


Matt Chapman

Senior Solution Consultant Geospatial