Rip Up Those Old Paper Maps

Pop quiz! What’s the difference between a paper GIS and a digital GIS display?
“You can fold the paper plot, but you can’t fold the display.” That’s the most common answer. That’s also the problem.
Many people still view GIS displays as less convenient ways to see GIS plots. When I worked for a power company, we built special cabinets in the dispatch center just to hold our medium-voltage operating map sheets. That’s because we’d plotted our sheets on nonstandard sizes, so the standard file cabinets didn’t work. When we converted from our old, hand-drawn operating maps to GIS maps, we just plotted the new map sheets to look exactly like the old ones. And we plotted them on the same size paper as the old paper maps. Why? So they could fit in our custom file cabinets. If we could have recreated coffee stains on the GIS plots, we would have. Everything—the symbols, annotation, line weights, and of course plot sizes—were the same on the new as on the old map sheets.

Our underlying basemap grid was also a throwback to some arbitrary system from early in the previous century. Change it? Get out of town!

The Struggle to Change with Technology

Why are we so in love with old map sheets? Because in such a dangerous business as utility operations, the old map sheets work. We fear if we change, something bad will happen. Someone will blame us. We rarely reflect on the negative impact of keeping old processes and systems in place. Yet these impacts abound.
The whole process of maintaining map plots, whether computerized or hand-drawn, is fraught with delays. A plot is a small snapshot of a utility system. It’s time-stamped. Yet we know each hour of each day, someone is changing the system. A repairperson swaps a streetlamp. A technician replaces a gas valve. A construction crew sets a new pole. Utilities don’t sleep.
Completing each task like these and more requires the field worker to mark up the map sheet, send it to headquarters, and wait for someone to enter the change. The poor data-entry person might take a hundred change requests a day. When done, this person has to plot the new map sheet. The time from the original markup to getting a new map to the field worker’s hands can take days, even weeks. In the meantime, everyone relies on outdated map sheets.
When I worked for a power company, I used to drive around with the troubleshooters. One, whom we’ll call Paul, told me he never trusted the mapping department’s maps. The maps were always wrong or outdated. So Paul kept a set of medium-voltage prints showing his territory. He pulled them out from under the seat of his truck one day to show me. Paul’s maps had all kinds of notes and neatly drawn redlines. I asked Paul if we could give his maps to the mapping departments. He freaked out. Paul said he wished he’d never shown me his stash.
So I wondered: How many other workers hid their own markups under truck seats, in lockers, or stuffed under mattresses?

Adopting a Modern Mapping Strategy

Just the other day, a utility consultant asked me about mobile GIS. I asked him what his utility wanted to do with mobile GIS. The consultant looked puzzled and said the utility wanted to take GIS into the field. Obviously. They wanted mobile GIS.
But I repeated my question.
“Yes,” I said, “but what do they want to do in the field with mobile GIS?”
He didn’t understand.
My assumption is this consultant’s utility wanted to create GIS plots on mobile devices (e.g., laptops, tablets). Plots. Get it? The suspense was killing me.
“Yes,” I said once more. “But what specific work will your field crews do with mobile GIS?”
“All kinds of field work,” he said. Then he gave in. He didn’t know what kind of work specifically. But his utility needed field workers to access all the information in the GIS. That was the trouble: Nobody needs all the information in the GIS to perform a task.
Simply recreating a map sheet on a Galaxy or iPhone doesn’t make the technician’s job any easier or faster. Knowing a field worker is inspecting wood poles, on the other hand, we can serve him a web map that accesses all information about wood poles. His phone won’t be inundated with information about underground transformers, for instance, from the utility’s whole GIS. In the old days, you couldn’t serve up targeted GIS information like this. Utilities had limited ability to maintain maps, so to stay efficient, they jammed maps with as much information—about poles, transformers, and your cat’s static electricity if they wanted—on their limited map sheets. They didn’t have the staff to maintain more targeted records. If you wanted to inspect a wood pole, you had to take out the whole big map and sift through the irrelevant data.
GIS lifts that burden completely.
Today, a utility can produce an infinite number of targeted information products on infinite scales with GIS. Each map can focus on helping a worker complete a particular task. GIS is no longer a plotting machine. It’s an information system, a platform for collaboration, and a problem solver.

Rip Up those Paper Maps

Paper no longer restrains your GIS. Avoid approaching maps like that. As mapping professionals, we labor to get the right annotation font and angle. But who needs annotations anymore using modern technology? Just hover over a feature symbol on your GIS display and get all the information you need in a click or less. Need to change a map scale or pop-up information? No problem! Pan, zoom, click, and enter updated information in a few clicks, taps, or swipes. Not only are digital maps from a modern GIS platform more malleable. They also connect to your existing systems electronically. So your map no longer needs to be a static document that can’t pull in the latest information from a work-order system, business-information system, or customer-information system. Maps that display on your smartphone or tablet can pull information from a GIS that integrates with data from anywhere inside or outside the company.
So forget folding plots. Use GIS to serve targeted, focused, up-to-date information. Improving the work at hand starts with deciding how you look at the work at hand.


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