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Spring 2004
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Online Only Article Confronting Deregulation

Brownsville, Texas, Utility Streamlines Data Sharing With Enterprise GIS

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With the ArcFM extension providing a common, utility-tailored interface, additional applications-such as a designing tool for engineers, a work order management system, and a property records system-are currently being implemented.

Spurred by Texas deregulation, the Brownsville Public Utilities Board (BPUB) knew that to remain competitive with private companies its highest priorities needed to be increasing and improving department communication, customer service, and efficiency. For many years, BPUB lacked the economic resources to delve into applications such as GIS, and justifying the creation of a GIS department was difficult. However, leveraging GIS capabilities to serve core organizational functions provides solid return on investment, and with competition from private companies inevitable, BPUB translated and upgraded principal systems to GIS.

This translation serves BPUB's main goal: By updating and strengthening its customer service capabilities while keeping prices down, BPUB hopes to retain consumer support, remain "opted out" of deregulation, and remain a public utility owned by the city of Brownsville. Therefore, in late 2000, BPUB began the process of planning an enterprise GIS from the ground up.

After forming a team to evaluate a number of software options, BPUB found that Esri software was the best choice as its nonproprietary architecture fell in line with existing financial and customer service systems. By integrating the ArcGIS products with numerous management systems, the utility planned to weave these processes into a communicating and interwoven whole. Property records, work orders, outages, customer information, call center, and engineering design would all receive a boost in efficiency and power from the upgrade.

To build this enterprise system, Brownsville began implementation of ArcGIS, including ArcView, ArcInfo, ArcSDE, ArcIMS, and the ArcFM extension from Esri Business Partner Miner & Miner (Fort Collins, Colorado). Using ArcSDE as the interface to the organization's Oracle database, the GIS Department aligned the database and its associated maintenance with the rest of the organization. The integrations are proving to be challenging but worthwhile because of the economic gains in terms of increased effectiveness and efficiency.

Developing the Data

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By working together prior to implementation, the Brownsville GIS community was able to remain on the same page with respect to projection, accuracy levels, and content requirements.

The highest priority in developing a full-featured GIS is implementing an accurate basemap, and BPUB chose to acquire both orthophoto and planimetric data. BPUB plans to supply the city of Brownsville with the procured data sets, because such a strategy allows project information to be effectively passed back and forth while minimizing duplication of effort.

Visible utility assets were located with GPS collection devices (submeter accuracy), and these data sets were completed using as-built paper plans where required. The water, wastewater, and electric data sets were brought into a series of industry specific data models, conforming to the requirements of both existing as well as planned applications. Additional data sets were compiled including city limit lines, extraterritorial jurisdictional boundaries, BPUB's certification areas, and customer address locations.

GIS and the Community

Delineation of GIS responsibility within the local GIS community also served BPUB well. By working with community GIS users, duplication of effort was avoided and more time was freed to focus on organization specific projects. After all, if each of the organizations using GIS maintained or attempted to maintain all relevant data sets, little time would remain to develop new data sets or expand capabilities. By working together prior to implementation, the Brownsville GIS community was able to remain on the same page with respect to projection, accuracy levels, and content requirements.

In addition to data sharing between Brownsville city and county organizations, an up-and-running, accurate, and full-featured GIS helped lure federal projects to the area. The city of Brownsville and BPUB successfully teamed with a number of federal agencies including the United States Geological Survey, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Highly accurate basemap information decreases the cost of area federal projects such as a recent revision of FEMA floodplain data. Such an upgrade in floodplain information will in turn lead to upgrades in the city's drainage system, ultimately decreasing the number of BPUB wastewater overflows. In addition to such indirect benefits, data sets acquired from these projects included vertical information in the form of digital elevation models, as well as contour information, all at a level of detail neither BPUB nor the city of Brownsville could afford to purchase.

Implementing Applications

To leverage this wealth of data in day-to-day activities, BPUB has rolled out a sophisticated customer information system (CIS) tightly tied to its GIS. Built by Cayenta of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, CIS launches an ArcIMS application based on customer address. When a customer applies for utility services, this application provides the service representative with a wide range of detailed information related to that address and neighborhood. Additionally, consumption and payment data is sent from CIS through an XML data pass to ArcSDE and the GIS database. As this information is linked to specific meters, it is available to feed water and electric modeling applications.

With the ArcFM extension providing a common, utility-tailored interface, additional applications—such as a designing tool for engineers, a work order management system, and a property records system—are currently being implemented. These systems will automate paper processes and are braided together, feeding information from one area into another. While each system individually will boost organization efficiency, their combination brings BPUB dramatically forward, a quantum leap past the effectiveness of a paper-based system. With all pertinent information up-to-date and easily available, the intention is to weave these specialized applications so tightly that they appear as a single tool set, facilitating data maintenance, viewing, and data validation using BPUB specific business rules. Additionally, by using a data warehouse approach, all required fields for the applications are maintained in one stable location.

One hidden advantage of BPUB's approach is the melding of disparate departments and divisions through closely linked applications. By looking at this increased communication, the implementation of GIS has already had a positive impact on the way business is done at BPUB.

For more information, contact Eddy Hernandez, director of Customer and Information Services, Brownsville Public Utilities Board (tel.: 956-983-6130, e-mail:

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