Different shaped light bulbs hanging from the ceiling

When Will My Lights Be Back On: Outage Management

GIS-based operations enable power companies to gather information from disparate sources in case of outages, assess the damage and provide real-time information to anxious customers.

“More information is always better than less.” — Simon Sinek, author and lecturer

Sinek went on to describe the value of more information: “When people know the reason things are happening, even if it's bad news, they can adjust their expectations and react accordingly,” Sinek stated. “Keeping people in the dark only serves to stir negative emotions.”

When I worked for a power company, my job was to make sure people were not in the dark—literally. Why were they out of power? A snow storm drizzled ice on the power lines. Some drunk crashed into a utility pole. Or else, a squirrel climbed onto the lines and forgot that his tail was a very nice conductor. Or something much worse, like a plane crashed on a major transmission line.

Yet when people call the power company’s call center, the customer service representatives on the other end of the line or the dreaded interactive voice response (IVR) often keep callers in the dark—figuratively and literally. “Why is my power out?” “When will it be restored?” “Please tell me? I can take it. Just let me know.” “Is this a huge power failure or a little one?”

I fly a lot. I’m on the runway. The plane hasn’t moved from the tarmac in the last half an hour. I have a 45-minute connection in Denver. No communication. No explanation. Then the plane moves. A little. To quote Sinek again, “more information is better than less.” I can take bad news. I can’t stand being kept in the dark.

Why don’t airlines or utilities or car repair shops give out more information? They don’t have it? Maybe. They are afraid of being wrong? My bet is that someone at the power company has it. But there isn’t an easy way to get current information to everyone in the company. And to the customers, the ones impacted the most.

Less Information Is Never Good

The trick to getting solid answers to customers is to gather a lot of information quickly. They need to know two things:

  • What’s the damage?
  • Where’s the damage?

With that information in hand, the power company can provide a much more accurate assessment of the damage and how long it will take to fix the problem. If the damage is substantial, then the company will have the tools to figure out how to deploy crews in the most effective way. This also provides the company with better overall restoration time.

Once the power company has solid information, then that poor stressed call center representative could provide the customer an answer. Better still, the company can provide the information on customers’ smart phones, eliminating those unnerving answers from the power company, “Sir, we are working as hard as we can to get your power back.”

To apply Sinek’s philosophy, the more information about the damage, the better they can fix things. Plus, the better they can communicate. Sinek may also agree that the faster they get that information, the better.

How to get that information quickly?

Location Is the Key

The trick to analyzing a lot of information coming in from many sources is to have a common framework to help you figure out what’s going on. There is information coming from all directions. Utilities could get a phone call from a taxi driver saying that she heard a loud bang or saw a flash before the lights went out. Or they could have a customer tweet about a tree hitting a wire line. Or perhaps someone tweets a picture of a broken pole on their phone. The common denominator for all this information is location. Location unlocks a critical pattern. For instance, what if all these pieces of information share the same location? Then the loud bang and flash, the tweeted tree, and the broken pole photo point to a single event. The utility sends one crew member and fixes the problem. If they speak to different events, they can still track and dispatch crew members for efficient repairs.

That’s where GIS (geographic information system) comes in. GIS is a platform designed to process information from many sources. It also provides an easy way to communicate to interested and worried stakeholders what’s going on right now. It can also analyze why things are the way they are. After organizing information by its location components, the GIS figures out where the nearest crew is or how close the damage is to critical infrastructure.

The GIS provides a simple, powerful roadmap to knowing how many repair jobs the crews must do and where they are.

Innovative utilities such as Seattle City Light realized the full potential of GIS-based operations. They leveraged social media within their Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI)-based ArcGIS Online. Click here for more details. Utilities are deploying simple location apps on mobile devices. These communicate targeted information from the field back to decision makers in the office. They share, communicate and collaborate faster and more accurately. Public facing outage viewers help relieve customers’ stress by viewing outage areas and the crew locations.

A map of the area served by Seattle City Light

To improve reliability and strengthen relationships with residential and commercial customers, Seattle City Light constantly investigates innovative technology and enhanced business processes.

The reality is that power is interrupted now and again. Power failure mostly happens because of weather issues. People get that. The problem for customers is that they must figure out what to do when a power failure hits. Using the powerful access, awareness and analytic capabilities of GIS, utilities can coalesce information from many disparate sources. Then then can assess the damage. And the impact. Finally, they can communicate most effectively.

Sinek is right. It’s always better to have more information than less. It’s even better to share it.


Bill Meehan is a member of T&D World's Executive Insights Board.

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