It’s the Law! Really?

Utility Pros, Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge the Status Quo—the ArcGIS Platform Has Your Back
Twenty-five years ago, when I worked for a power company, I was the champion of the GIS project. As champion, I had a mission to get the most use out of the company’s investment in geospatial tools. We didn’t talk about GIS as a platform back then, but the idea was to share authoritative network data with everyone who could benefit from it. It was often a battle. Why? People were so used to using paper maps that anything different was frowned on by the field users. In fairness, they were concerned about safety. If one of their primary tools, like their operating maps, looked different, it might cause someone to be confused. Confusion, of course can, lead to accidents.

The GIS Pole Champion

While in the role of GIS champion, I was convinced that the technology could modernize many of our workflows. One workflow I wanted to improve was how we obtained rights to install poles. When the company wanted to install a new pole in public places—mostly in sidewalks—the city or town needed to grant us (the utility) permission. We didn’t need an easement, but in the state where I worked, the power company needed what was called a grant of location.
To get a grant of location, the power company had to submit a request to the city council or board of selectmen. The municipality would then hold a public meeting before giving us permission to install a pole. At the public meeting, residents could offer their comments and suggestions. In the vast majority of cases, permission was granted and nobody seemed to have an issue with the installation. While it often felt like we were going through the motions with the approval process, it was the law.
For us, getting government approval wasn’t the hard part. The real time-consuming part was in the initial phase of the process: developing a pole petition plan.

Business as Usual—Or Not?

The pole petition plan had been around for decades. The plan was made up of a printed map showing the location of the proposed pole, along with notes such as the height of the pole and sometimes facts about the surroundings. It was a perfect application for GIS. (In fact, today, the pole petition plan would be an extremely simple configuration of one of the ArcGIS for Electric Utilities applications.)
However, there was a problem. The pole petition plan was not simply a map. It was an official plan that required a specific format, which included a border, a title block, a revision block, and—get this—an original signature from someone in charge at the power company. So that meant we would have to keep an original plot or PDF of the plan on file somewhere, which was a pain. The plan was also an odd size, so plotting these plans was awkward. After a number of failed attempts to figure out how we could create an up-to-date signature in the GIS, we gave up trying to replicate the pole petition plan.
Then I revisited what sparked the idea of using GIS in the first place: the grant of location process. I started to ask my colleagues about how we could get the grant of location without submitting the pole petition plan. My colleagues assured me that submitting a pole petition plan in the exact format was the law, period. I probed a bit further. Which law was it?
I asked for a copy of the law. No one could locate it—the rule or the regulation. I then asked what phone company staff did to get a grant of location. It turned out they submitted a sketch, with no title block or signature.
So it wasn’t a law after all. It was a legend.

Cutting through the Red Tape

Lesson learned: your company may be creating custom maps and applications based on false assumptions. Rather than going to great lengths to replicate legends or old rituals, you can turn to ArcGIS as your collaboration platform. You could get together with the city government and figure out a way to communicate a need for an easement, a permit, or a grant of location, using ready-to-go ArcGIS solutions.
I wonder how many custom applications are the result of someone trying to comply with some kind of red tape. (Remember how the term “red tape” came about? In the sixteenth century, people used red ribbons to wrap stacks of documents to be filed. The notion of dealing with stacks of paper still often hampers us from streamlining operations.)
So the next time coworkers say that you have to do some kind of process that requires a custom map or app, tell them to cite the law. I bet what they will find instead of a law is red tape. You can simplify the process with an easy configuration in the ArcGIS platform.
To learn more about how you can cut though the red tape and avoid costly and unnecessary custom apps, visit

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