Leading Water and other Utilities are constantly innovating to optimise their operations and improve customer service. The latest advances in technology are enabling these initiatives and leading to an emerging ‘Operation Intelligence’ approach, driven in particular by a technology called Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
GIS comprises interactive maps and apps which are able to provide real-time visualisations and analytics for an entire water network. A GIS platform becomes the ‘single point of truth’- the system of record - for network asset data and provides stakeholders with intuitive centralised access to not only the asset data but also contextual data about the environment around and affecting the infrastructure, roads, networks, customer and office locations.
However, that is just the start... For water utilities companies with a large mobile workforce, vast infrastructure to run and maintain and large numbers of customers, the GIS platform becomes a system of engagement, connecting field staff with office based operations managers and allowing them to interact in real-time, keeping the field staff out in the field, fully informed, able to receive job allocations, and capturing information that streams back to operations managers in the office.
The field workforce are equipped with devices running apps that connect back to the central GIS platform. The office can then allocate tasks direct to the mobile device. Progress with undertaking maintenance tasks, inspecting damage and resolving customer complaints is then reported back to the office through the device, providing a near real-time operational view.
Water companies face a variety of operational challenges, for example tracking and managing water leaks, and GIS can help significantly in rising to these challenges. In the office the technology allows the nearest appropriately skilled field team to be identified and for them to be sent the job through their mobile device. Once the cause of the leak has been identified, the field engineer can report the details back, including the exact location, via the app rather than recording paper-based notes and traveling back to the office. GIS technology can also pinpoint customers that could be affected in the area as a result of the leak. This is extremely beneficial for water companies as it allows them to communicate to customers about the issue, before a complaint is lodged, thus demonstrating a more sophisticated level of customer service whereby an issue appears to be being resolved before it is even reported by the customer.
GIS technology also enables water companies to be more strategic and proactive in their approach to maintaining their network. Data can be collected about asset types and in particular the materials that pipes and other infrastructure are made from. The GIS can then cross reference that with data on the soil types, terrain and weather conditions to create a predictive model which informs prioritisation and timing of pre-emptive maintenance.
An example of a water company successfully using GIS technology is Thames Water. Serving up to 15 million customers, Thames Water is the UK’s largest water and wastewater services company. It supplies around 2,600 million litres of tap water and removes and treats more than 4 billion litres of sewage every day.
Thames Water faced the challenge that it relied on a wide number of systems and tools to enable employees to perform different tasks, in different parts of the business. To address these issues, Thames Water invested in the ArcGIS platform and, as a result, the company has been able to significantly improve the efficiency of its processes. It allows employees in the field to work more productively as they are directed to the right location straight away and don’t have to waste time looking for assets that have been moved. Engineers can instantly see the locations of Thames Water’s own assets and the property of other utilities companies and make decisions that can speed up repairs and minimise public inconvenience.
Alongside the efficiency savings come some significant cost savings. For example, now that asset update information flows directly and automatically from workers in the field to the central asset database, fewer administrators are required to process the data. Similarly, in the IT department, it is more cost effective to manage a single solution rather than multiple separate systems.
A significant factor in the success of this approach is how operations managers can best manage, filter and interpret the influx of high velocity data, make sense of it and use it to best advantage. GIS has an essential role to play here, using location information to correlate all incoming data, applying configured business rules to work out what is most important and filtering the content that’s actually visualised so that the essential information is highlighted.