Today’s GIS Forecast: Partly Cloudy

Firewalls protect web-based GIS from the dangers of the cloud
When I was interning at a power company, the utility industry had just adopted a revolutionary technology: SCADA. Today, SCADA is so common most people don’t even bother to spell out the acronym (supervisory control and data acquisition system). But back then, SCADA was controversial. It eliminated the need for substation operators.
Utilities staffed operators who could act immediately in an emergency. They closed breakers, put out fires, and called for help. They checked fluid levels and did maintenance, cleaning, and inspections. They made the rounds, took the readings, spoke to the dispatchers, and made sure everything ran smoothly.
Then SCADA came along, and electric companies didn’t need substation operators. With SCADA, they installed remote terminal units in substations. These faceless, nameless boxes communicated the status of breakers, took readings, allowed dispatchers to open and close breakers remotely, and sent signals across telephone lines. Old-timers warned of the number of concerns.
What about a cyberattack?  (Although they didn’t call it cyberattack then.)
What if the telephone lines failed?
But nothing ever happened.
The same fears follow any new technology.   It happened with GIS.
GIS was a transformational technology. It’s the foundation for a utility’s business functions and critical mission functions. Today, though, many utilities use GIS only as a departmental engineering system. They use GIS to produce maps and to document the network. There’s a greater vision here, but actual practice has been spotty.
Now cloud—or web-based—GIS has come along and changed everything.

Web-based GIS is the New SCADA

Yesterday’s worry about SCADA is today’s worry about the cloud. Back then, utilities built backup systems, alternate sites, and emergency procedures in case something happened to the SCADA. Most importantly, they didn’t avoid implementing SCADA.  The business case—the operational advantage—was too great.

The business case for cloud GIS is also too great not to implement. Sure, the cloud introduces risks. Here are three very good reasons to worry about cloud GIS: security, availability, and privacy. Hackers may delete or corrupt data.  A hurricane could knock out the power. A utility’s asset base may erode. (Utilities don’t have to invest as much in computing assets, so their asset base for rate increases won’t be as high, regardless of savings.) Nevertheless, there are backup systems to mitigate the risks of emergency systems. Utilities will even figure out how to adjust their asset base to account for the virtual investment in cloud infrastructure.
They will do it because the cloud is worth it.
The cloud has revolutionized geospatial technology. Web capabilities are moving GIS from a department-specific computer application to a platform available to the whole enterprise. Past critics who argued GIS was too complex, expensive, difficult to roll out to the masses, and specific only to engineers now have a way to unlock GIS for all employees, who benefit from GIS even if they don’t know it.
Does the call-center representative need to know the tensile strength of each pole? Certainly not. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be helpful if everyone in the call center knew which streetlights were broken or reported dark? Does the accountant need to know the class of a wood pole? Nope. But the idea is that web-based GIS brokers just the right amount of information (and no more) to the right device. To the right people. To help them do their job right.
Web-based GIS enables data collection from multiple sources—many of them external, such as crime data. An employee knocking on doors to urge a delinquent customer to pay his bill could stand to know the current status of crime activity in that neighborhood, for instance. Web-based GIS could reveal minute-by-minute crime activity on a web map. The map could tell the door-knocker where the nearest police cruiser is. On the other hand, the police department that uses web-based GIS could also be alerted when a utility worker has entered a high-crime neighborhood. The possibilities are limitless.

Keeping Web-based GIS Secure

So what about security? Utilities can take steps to protect their web-based GIS just as they did with SCADA. They are building backup, standby systems for emergencies when Internet connectivity is lost or wireless coverage goes down. They backup GIS and basemap data regularly.
Most importantly, they use a firewall.
A firewall puts an extra line of defense between the world and your GIS. The firewall knows which users are supposed to access which data, and it protects the data from corruption, deletion, or use by unauthorized people. This ensures privacy and security. In addition, the firewall adds the benefit of compliance with the North American Energy Regulatory Commission’s (NERC’S) Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) regulation. CIP requires that critical infrastructure data, like that in the GIS, be protected above and beyond the same data in commercial settings. The firewall satisfies this need.
In addition, not everything has to be stored or managed in the cloud. Most information—including streets, pole locations, streetlights, and so on—can be stored in the cloud. Meanwhile, sensitive customer and infrastructure data can—and probably should—remain on premises and editable only by select employees.
So that’s the forecast for GIS. Tomorrow is looking partly cloudy with a strong chance of fire.


Learn more about Portal for ArcGIS, Esri’s firewall solution for web GIS.

Next Article

The Science of Where for Sustainable Development Webinar Series

Read this article