T&D World Magazine
Seven Ways to Modernize Utility GIS

Seven Ways to Modernize Utility GIS

Take a hard look at your GIS. It’s probably time to modernize.

I hate the word “selfie.” But this new concept is everywhere. Over the past year or so, everyone seems to taking pictures of themselves and tweeting them. This seems awfully self-indulgent. Yet, maybe it’s a good thing to take a hard look at yourself once in a while. Maybe taking a selfie gives you a chance to reinvent yourself.

Utilities need to reassess their practices, too, particularly in this age of rapid change touching everything from climate and renewable resources to technology. One technology utilities might want to take a hard look at is their GIS. After all, utilities have been using GIS for ages. So it’s probably time to modernize. Here are my seven ways utilities can modernize their GIS.

#1: Take a Selfie of Your GIS

Now’s the time to ask yourself, “Is my GIS doing what I want it to?” And, “Is my GIS just a technology to computerize my old operating maps faster and neater?” Now I’ll ask you a question: Are you still printing those old maps and mailing them to district offices? Maybe not. Maybe you create a PDF and email them. But if that’s the case, are you at least also leveraging the latest technology, such as the cloud, imagery, smart phones, and tablets? Could your editing process be streamlined? Based on your answers, it might be time to change things—and fast.

#2: Use the GIS to Solve Business—Not Just Mapping—Problems

Most utilities still use GIS only in operations and perhaps for a few workflows, like outage management or distribution design. But think about how many of your problems have to do with location. What if you could find where workers are more likely to get hurt? Or imagine you could map tweets of unhappy customers. Your GIS could even pull crime statistics from the police department’s GIS and layer these on top of streetlight outages. That could better prepare your field crews.

#3: Stop Thinking about GIS as an Application; It’s a Platform

In the past, GIS was a client-server system, and it was  hard to integrate with other systems. But today, GIS talks easily to other business systems. It’s a platform meant to be integrated. Business systems need location, and they get that today not by clunky data extract, transfer, and load processes but rather by collaborating directly with the GIS. Modern GIS rethinks and simplifies the whole information technology architecture. It draws on fast, secure web services to leverage the wealth of data available from the web—whether the information was collected around your corner or around the world.

#4: Stop Building Custom GIS Applications

Most people don’t know that GIS is about configuration, not customization. Spatial and location analytics come out of the box. Today you can find templates and third-party providers for nearly any workflow. And if not, it’s pretty easy to create your own workflow with built-in configuration tools that come standard with the GIS. Esri pays special attention to making sure you can do that within ArcGIS.

#5: Simplify Your Asset Data Model

Most data models are too complicated. One of my colleagues likes to describe this old-fashioned GIS like a blueberry muffin—with too many blueberries in it. The muffin is too heavy. Every time a utility builds a new application, they add more blueberries. The cleanest system has the barest number of blueberries, or attribute data, in the model. Don’t duplicate data; it should live in only one system. If you need the data in an application, reference it from somewhere else. Just because you want to display data in your GIS, doesn’t mean it has to live in your GIS. Remember this: Simple scales; complex fails.

#6: Stop Building Your Own Basemaps

In the early days of digital mapping, utilities built their own basemaps, with relevant streets, landmarks, parcels, and water bodies. But these old maps had no accurate coordinate system; they mostly pre-dated GPS and will never be as accurate. There are many accurate basemaps Esri makes available online for free. Use them. Sure, you will have to adjust your asset information, but in the end the more accurate coordinate system will save you lots of time and aggravation. Plus, you won’t have to store, manage, or edit that data ever again. If you need to access data about a proposed new street plan, find it and store it in the GIS as a separate layer. Once it’s in your basemap, you can dump it anywhere.

#7: Fix Your Data

If your data stinks, so does your GIS. Despite knowing this, utilities still encounter bad data plaguing their industry. With incorrect, incomplete, or old data, GIS features and functions are useless. With all the effort you put into building a sophisticated data model, don’t short-sell yourself by populating it with bad data.

So take a snapshot of your GIS. Study your selfie, and then take these steps to modernize your GIS.


Bill Meehan, P.E., heads the worldwide utility industry solutions practice for Esri. Author of Enhancing Electric Utility Performance with GIS, Modeling Electric Distribution Performance with GIS, Empowering Electric and Gas Utilities, Power System Analysis by Digital Computer, and numerous papers and articles, Bill has lectured extensively and taught courses at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts. Bill is a registered professional engineer.

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