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Future of GIS in the Utility Industry

By Richard Klapper, Manager, Technical Support, Reliant Energy

Richard KlapperBeing asked to envision the future of GIS use in the utility industry is quite a challenge. This is because one has to not only try to predict what the quickly changing utility industry will look like but also try to discern where GIS technology is headed. Trying to look into the future of these two rapidly moving targets and plot their intersection will be challenging the minds of utility personnel for years to come. Because utilities must construct, operate, and maintain a large number of facilities spread over a large geographic area, GIS technology has been a core component in the utility management toolkit. Although GIS will continue to perform its standard role, it appears its usage will expand into new areas.

With utility deregulation on the horizon there appear to be several trends taking shape:

  • Utility services to customers will expand, and customers will be given more control of choices.
  • As utilities compete for customers, customer service will become even more important.
  • Utility regulatory bodies will focus increasingly on service reliability.
  • There will be a heavy emphasis on efficiency and cost reduction.
  • The industry will be driven by mergers and acquisitions, which will lead to worldwide operations and nontraditional Businesses.

GIS will likewise continue to change as technologies continue to advance. Although it is impossible for anyone to predict all the changes we will see, there are a few trends that are becoming clear. A few of these trends and their uses by utilities are described below:

  • GIS will continue its march onto the Web, which will allow almost universal access to spatial information by both employees and customers. This will reduce costs and allow the greater spread of GIS access throughout the enterprise which will result in better customer service and in many cases allow "self-service" applications for customers. An example of a self-service application would be reporting malfunctioning streetlights and designating, on a map, the specific light.
  • The spread of GPS technologies will allow numerous opportunities to integrate GPS and GIS systems to improve field data collection. Significant cost reductions could be obtained if field data collected using GPS could be automatically downloaded into the GPS system.
  • More GIS data will be available in the public domain, which will significantly reduce data costs.
  • GIS engines will increasingly be embedded into other Business software, significantly reducing programming costs for spatial analysis of data. Financial, material, and construction and maintenance data, which is captured in other corporate systems, will be able to be spatially analyzed without specifically entering a GIS environment.
  • Wireless technologies combined with the previously discussed Web-enabled GIS will allow spatial data to be moved into the field and used in many ways now confined to LAN-connected devices. This will be of significant benefit during storm restoration efforts when a utility system has suffered major damage.
  • Improvements in voice recognition programs and radar technologies have the potential for reducing data collection costs by allowing a person to more quickly inventory above-ground facilities in the field.
  • Routing programs will reduce costs and provide better, more predictable customer service. Better routing methodologies will allow more accurate estimated time of arrival information to customers.
  • Better demographic analysis capabilities will become valuable Business analysis tools as utilities move into nonenergy delivery retail Businesses.

The above noted changes in the utility industry and GIS technologies will require considerable agility from GIS vendors. The consolidation of the utility industry through mergers and acquisition will favor vendors with product offerings across multiple industry lines. This is because few companies that are solely electric or gas distribution utilities will survive. They will be more likely to find themselves a part of a much larger enterprise that contains pipeline, water utilities, retail marketing, foreign utilities and telecom operations as well as electric or gas distribution.

As such, a vendor with products across multiple industry lines will be in a unique position to make an enterprisewide GIS a reality and provide the benefits of leveraging spatial data across all entities within the company. In addition, the emphasis on acquiring new companies will bring increased focus on rapid GIS implementation methodologies to ensure that newly acquired companies can be rapidly integrated into the existing enterprise.

The above discussion focuses on trends and potential outcomes of the search for new and better uses of GIS. Although some of these ideas are speculative, one thing is certain: GIS will increase in importance in the utility company of the future.

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