Northeastern REMC field personnel use mobile viewing applications to speed outage response, thus meeting customer expectations.
For More than 50 Years, Linemen Navigated their Service Territories by Memory, armed with a handful of paper maps. This was the default or legacy way of doing things. Northeastern Rural Electric Membership Corp. (Northeastern REMC; Columbia City, Indiana, U.S.) used to operate in this manner because, back then, it was all that was necessary.
However, over the years, a once sparsely populated service territory has become a heavily populated suburbia. With the addition of the suburban customer demographic came new expectations. Today, this customer base demands fewer outages, shorter outage durations and informative, timely outage updates.
These expectations required Northeastern REMC to equip field personnel with better information. A mobile geographic information system (GIS) filled that need.
FIRST CAME MAPPING
Northeastern REMC began the GIS project in 2001 by remapping its entire service territory to include every customer meter. Before the GIS project, not a single meter had been mapped.
In 2003, the utility took the GIS mapping system to the field. ESRI's (Redlands, California, U.S.) ArcMap, using an Oracle (Redwood Shores, California) spatial database engine, is the foundation of Northeastern REMC's GIS. The goal was to incorporate an end-user application that would coexist seamlessly with this core system.
With that in mind, GO! Sync Mapbook by TC Technology (Carlsbad, California) was deployed. The application is enterprisewide at Northeastern REMC, with approximately 50 users on different devices, in several departments and in many environments. GO! Sync enables a data-extraction process that automatically copies GIS data from the mapping server to the mobile viewing application Mapbook. Since some features do not need to be updated as often as others, different data sets can be extracted at different intervals. Once extracted, the data is sent to the end-user client viewer through a file transfer protocol (FTP) sync process. Syncs can be initiated manually or automatically run at defined intervals.
The Mapbook application enables the right information to get in the right hands at the right time. Field crews can view and search GIS data, establish redlines, revise GIS data, create inspections and use a GPS for facility locating and routing.
VIEW AND SEARCH
The ability to view and query data are necessities for a mobile GIS application. In fact, the way data is presented and accessed can make or break a mobile GIS. The challenge is to empower everyone throughout the enterprise to access the information they need. It is difficult to give the same tools to staff with differing needs, in differing departments, with differing job responsibilities and with differing computer skills. Features that are of no use to some can be the most important features to others. Application flexibility is essential for an enterprise deployment.
Optimizing PC-screen real estate is important to field personnel. By using just a handful of buttons and toolbars, as much screen area as possible is preserved for the actual map. To ensure users see what they want, when they want it, each individual user has total control over which layers will be visible or invisible, and the order in which those layers will be presented.
Mapbook has the ability to display all GIS data. However, the ability to show all this data is not a justification for doing so. Some data might have a very small audience, while other data might have a much larger audience. With quick server-side configuration changes, Northeastern REMC's GIS staff can simplify the data offered to individual end users based on their needs. Needs are determined by the end user's role and responsibilities. Making administrative changes and granting access rights to information can be done in a matter of minutes.
In addition to the flexibility of data availability, there is also flexibility in symbolizing data in different ways. Often, enterprise implementations can make it difficult to meet all of the wants and needs of many different users. Field personnel might want to symbolize or label a meter differently than customer service representatives. Everyone wants to see the meters; they just want to see them differently.
In the Mapbook application, symbology is defined by an ESRI MXD file type. Thus, anyone comfortable with creating an ArcMap MXD file can customize the Mapbook display. This flexibility and simplicity provides the ability to quickly tweak data display to better satisfy end users. To keep things aesthetically pleasing, Mapbook uses customizable labels and map tips to provide core data and also enables user-initiated detailed attribute inquiries.
Northeastern REMC's GIS staff creates basic data searches. A simple XML file defines searchable GIS attributes and fields. User-requested searches and other customization can be created with basic XML code and distributed enterprisewide in minutes by the sync process. The user interface also allows advanced users to create their own structured query language inquiries.
REDLINING AND INSPECTIONS
Northeastern REMC thought it was important that the GIS viewer not only take office information to the field, but also bring field data back to the office. Redline and inspection tools provide this communication link.
Redlines are created with the pen-tablet PCs in the field. Once the client PC syncs with the GIS server, the redlines are sent to all the other Mapbook client PCs as well as the GIS server. Once synced, the redlines are viewable within ArcMap by the GIS staff. When this staff encounters a redline, changes can be executed immediately. The quick exchange of field information helps keep the GIS data current.
Another tool for communication at Northeastern REMC is the inspection tool. Not all users are able to use inspections because an inspection initiates GIS data changes without review by the GIS department. The idea of data changes without review may cause administrators to hesitate. However, in reality, often administrators blindly enter attribute information based on what they are told exists in the field. In select cases, why not allow the field user to enter the information while they are in the field looking at the structure?
The Northeastern REMC inspection module allows efficient inspection of poles, fuses and reclosers. Data is standardized and errors are reduced with the use of drop-down-style menu-selection options. The inspection tool also documents the inspector and date of each inspection. After the sync, GIS features are automatically updated with the new data. Mapbook inspections have greatly reduced paper usage and inspection turnaround time. Information that once took weeks or months to be updated is now being updated and distributed enterprisewide in less than two days.
Maximizing the investment
Using the GPS device built into their laptops, crews can search for a facility and then initiate the Mapbook application to generate a driving route to the facility. This routing functionality is made available by road centerline data acquired from local counties through a data-exchange program. The GPS-integrated laptops also come in handy when crews are searching for hard-to-find pieces of equipment.
A mobile GIS implementation can be expensive, so the system must be used frequently and be well integrated for the most return on a utility's investment. Once core mobile GIS needs were being met, Northeastern REMC started discovering other uses.
Other forms of data can be distributed. Using the sync process, load switch information is distributed in a PDF format to all Mapbook clients. Each client has a desktop shortcut to the PDF, and each time a user clicks on the shortcut, the most recent load switch information opens. The sync process also has been used to mass distribute new orthophotography.
The mobile GIS viewer also was used in Northeastern REMC's advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) deployment. Integrating the meter-status information from the utility's Tantalus (Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada) AMI system enabled creation of a network health report map. The map is used as a troubleshooting aid and helps ensure the network is reporting the expected configuration.
The system also uses hyperlinks to attach more detailed information and support documents to features. JPEGs, Word documents and PDFs are just a few of the file types used to provide more information to end users. Attached reference documents can be very helpful for large outage restoration.
The GIS electric network data also contains intelligence on power source and feed direction. By symbolizing the source and feed information, directional arrows are created for every piece of primary and secondary wire, showing how the wire receives power. Tracing functionality enables the field worker to quickly determine tie points and load information during outage situations.
The entire system was installed and configured on the server and 40-plus client PCs in less than one week. Once installed and set up, very little administration time was required. Initial user-training sessions took 30 minutes. After training was completed, users were tested to ensure basic comprehension of and efficiency in using Mapbook. Every user was required to answer 90% of the test correctly. Out of 45 employees, only two needed training beyond the original 30 minutes to pass the user test. The efficiency test proved the system's ease of use that Northeastern REMC had sought.
It is easy for administrators to get excited about technology projects, but the real success is determined by the end user's acceptance and use. The end user is the ingredient most overlooked in GIS implementations. End-user demands are the demands the GIS administrator must ensure the application software can meet.
Steven Weber (email@example.com) is a GIS professional certified by the GIS Certification Institute. He has been employed at Northeastern REMC for 15 years. Weber is responsible for the planning and implementation of Northeastern REMC's GIS system, which includes defining and ensuring GIS data standards and GIS integration with other data systems. He is also responsible for the implementation, training, support and management of Northeastern REMC's mobile deployment.