Building a Knowledge Infrastructure for Utilities

Esri's Bill Meehan

Like much of the world, Australia has an aging population and an aging workforce. As many utility staff edge closer to retirement, will they take wisdom with them? This is the question that Bill Meehan, the Global Director of Utilities at Esri, will pose to senior executives at the Smart Electricity World Conference  on Thursday 23rd of June (at 12.10 to be precise!).

Bill, who prior to working at the world’s leading GIS Company held senior positions within the energy industry, asserts that it is critical utilities implement systems to retain knowledge. We gave Bill a call to get a sneak peek of what we could expect from his presentation next week…. 

EA: Hi Bill. Thanks for your time. We’re looking forward to seeing you present at the Smart Electricity Conference. Talk to us about the role of GIS in utilities…

Bill Meehan:
Most utilities have collected an enormous amount of data that can be used for spatial analysis within a GIS. While GIS has traditionally been used for making clearer maps of the electrical system, it can be so much more. We should be seeing it used more as the IT framework and foundation for a knowledge infrastructure.

For utilities, this knowledge infrastructure is as much an asset as the actual pipes, wires, and hardware of the electrical or gas system. The more knowledge that a utility has about its assets, employee experiences, customer behaviour, and the world around them, the better decisions management will make.

GIS is more than making maps and visualisation. It’s really about discovery – having access to something new that you haven’t seen before.

EA: You speak about the importance of ‘building a knowledge infrastructure’. What does that mean?

BM: I think the best way to answer that is with this story. When I ran an electric utility operations division, one of my favourite employees was a guy named Stanley. Stanley started as a line worker, climbing poles, then became a foreman and a supervisor. Finally, Stanley managed all the crews in the region. I remember how Stanley worked.

In the northeastern United States, the hot, humid summer months present a particularly serious storm threat – much like what you see in Australia. The severity and location of the thunderstorms were never predictable and these violent storms could cause significant damage to the electrical system, which in turn would result in many outages.

So, Stanley’s challenge was this: as the crews rolled back into the service centre after a day’s work, Stanley had to decide whether to keep workers on overtime in case trouble hit or send them home and hope nothing bad would happen.

Stanley had a routine. He would carefully check the latest weather forecast to see where a storm was likely to hit. He also knew which areas of the system were more vulnerable than others. He listened to his crew chiefs telling him where poles were leaning and wires were frayed. He knew where trees hadn’t been trimmed in a while and where the fussy customers lived. Stanley then stood outside and smelled the air. After his routine, which only took a few minutes, he would walk back into his office and call the union steward and tell him exactly how many crews to keep on overtime. If Stanley kept too many crews and nothing happened, he would have wasted overtime money and be shorthanded in the morning. If he kept too few workers, or none at all, and something bad happened, he’d have to scramble to get people back to work, which was difficult and sometimes even dangerous. Yet in all the years I knew Stanley, he rarely made the wrong decision.

Then Stanley retired.

Thousands of workers like Stanley will leave the industry over the next several years. In the US, the average age of utility workers is nearly 50, and more than 148,000 utility employees fall in the 55- to 64-year-old range, with another 26,000 employees over age 65, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I know you are facing a similar skills shortage in Australia, with a workforce that is very quickly coming to retirement age.

Imagine all the wisdom and analytic power that will be missing when these workers retire.

EA: It sounds like a serious threat that utilities, all over the world, will be facing in the coming years.

BM: It certainly is. People like Stanley know where infrastructure problems exist. They know where the utility has not trimmed trees. They know the location of old and frayed wires that are just waiting to fall down. They remember where storms generally hit and the problems that storms cause.

What many utilities are missing is an ability to capture as much of that wisdom as possible before the Stanleys of the industry retire.

What they need is a way to share what retiring workers know and how they know it. This is where Enterprise GIS is so valuable.

The common denominator of that knowledge is location.

EA: GIS isn’t new to Utilities. How is the Enterprise GIS you are talking about different?

 BM: Utilities have been capturing facts in GIS for years. Today, GIS can capture observations and predictive information, collect data from all kinds of sources, and help utility staff make better risk predictions the way Stanley did. GIS can create geoprocessing models that document the data sources, run analyses, and produce results in the form of a map.

The key is to have these models validated and supplemented by experienced workers before they leave, so that utilities can truly build a knowledge infrastructure.

There are notable concerns that accompany the idea of moving information from the mind of a subject matter expert (SME) to a tangible, accessible database. How do we best approach the task? What questions do we need answered? How do we compile and utilise this information once we have it?

I’ll be talking more about this and how to best approach it at the Smart Electricity Conference.
EA: What about Smart Grid? Will you be discussing that at all.

BM: Yes, I’ll be talking about Smart Grid. To implement smart grid, utilities must have the sturdy foundation of a healthy Enterprise GIS for data management, planning and analysis, workforce automation, and situational awareness.

Utility operators will need a GIS-based view of their utility in order to make the best decisions about key issues such as managing meters and customers, and incorporating renewable energy. Field crews will depend even more heavily on GIS for implementing an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and keeping current with data collection.

My presentation at Smart Electricity World will explore why enterprise GIS will make it possible for utilities to build and operate a smart grid.

EA: Thanks for your time Bill. See you next week!

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