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A Fast Changing Landscape

The major growth in Web and mobile applications is starting to have significant impact in the utility sector. But, will this disruption in the technological environment help the utility sector in simplifying their solutions?

The geospatial industry is currently going through substantial changes, and these are starting to have a significant impact in the utility sector, as well as other industries. Clayton Christensen talks about the idea of “disruptive technologies” in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma. He describes examples from many industries of how technologies which were initially regarded as too “low end” for mainstream users improve in functionality and performance over time, to the point where they can meet the needs of users in the mainstream market, and can start to displace the previous generation of more complex solutions, typically with a simpler and lower cost approach. Google Maps is a prime example of a disruptive technology in the enterprise geospatial market: it was initially focused on the simpler consumer market, but it, and other similar systems, have grown in capability and now have many applications in the enterprise.

Another way of looking at changes happening in the IT market is the idea of consumer-led IT. It used to be the case that technology innovations would happen first in enterprise systems and then later these would flow to the consumer. But the consumer technology market is now so large that innovations tend to happen first there. Google Maps is one example, as just mentioned. Another is the huge growth in smartphones and tablets which was driven by the consumer market, and while adoption in the enterprise is growing, it still lags significantly behind.

The Web mapping revolution

Google Maps: Launched in 2005, Google Maps dominated the consumer web mapping space due its ease of use and performance, together with an easy mechanism to incorporate it into third party websites. A common complaint I have heard from utility GIS users is “why isn’t our expensive GIS as fast and easy to use as Google Maps?” In recent years we have started to see more use of Google Maps, and other similar modern Web mapping technologies, in utility environments. This is typically in addition to a traditional GIS: the Web application makes that data available to a much larger number of users.

The ease of use and familiarity of a Google Maps style solution is extremely important in being able to roll out this type of solution to many users in an enterprise, who typically are not familiar with GIS. A key aim should be that users can use at least basic features of the system without any training. A danger is that “GIS experts” sometimes have a tendency to add too many features and too much complexity to web applications, which can overwhelm the typical user.

▶ Open source software: There are various alternatives to Google Maps that provide a similar style of simple Web map, including Bing Maps and MapQuest. There are also multiple open source software solutions, including the Leaflet and OpenLayers JavaScript libraries, which are very widely used by Web developers. In general, there are lot of geospatial open source software components available now that have the capabilities and robustness to be used in serious enterprise applications — widely used server side components include GeoServer and the PostGIS spatial relational database. In some cases, utilities are directly implementing solutions based on these components, in others third party software vendors are building utility focused solutions on top of them.

Enterprise mashups: Web applications commonly make use of lightweight integration techniques to pull data from multiple websites, an approach that is often known as a “mashup”. Similar techniques can be used in the enterprise to visualise many different datasets on the same map. Examples in utilities include jobs, outages, crew locations, customer information and more. Location provides a link between these different datasets that can provide insights that would not otherwise be apparent. For example, an electric utility might look at how its recent tree-related outages relate to vegetation management operations over the past year.

Example of electric network data overlaid on
Google Map backdrop, and integrated with
Google Street View
Example of electric network data overlaid on Google Map backdrop, and integrated with Google Street View

In general, it is much simpler to share data between different geospatial systems than it used to be, which makes it much easier for enterprises to implement solutions from multiple geospatial vendors. In many cases the large established GIS vendors may not have a strong incentive to embrace disruptive lower cost web solutions from Google and others — this is part of the classic “innovator’s dilemma” that Clayton Christensen wrote about.

The mobile revolution: Mobile geospatial applications in utilities are currently undergoing substantial change. Widely available wireless network communications enable real-time communication to and from field workers, which opens up many possibilities for significantly improving business processes. When combined with the growth in smart network- connected devices on utility networks (smart meters, intelligent switches and sensors, etc), everyone in a utility, either in the office or in the field can have a near real time view of the current state of the enterprise. Many of the established field mapping solutions at utilities pre-date Google Maps and modern wireless networks, and are geared to downloading data periodically and working offline, rather than working with real time data. Of course, the ability to work offline when needed is a key requirement, but newer systems are designed to work either online or offline as needed. Managing large amounts of offline geospatial data remains something of a challenge — there is just inherently quite a lot of administration needed to keep hundreds or thousands of offline copies of a large geospatial database in sync.

A new technology that shows promise for offline working is HTML5, the latest Web technology which is supported across all modern browsers. This provides the ability to store a moderate amount of data offline in the browser — not enough for large portions of a typical utility’s territory, but enough to store data for a small number of electric circuits say, or a typical day’s worth of jobs. HTML5 offline capabilities are still somewhat immature and differ across browsers, but over the next few years as this technology develops and wireless network coverage continues to improve, it is likely that the role of HTML5 offline storage will grow, relative to the traditional download and sync of large data volumes.

One thing worth noting is that Google terms of service specifically prohibit use of either its data or code offline, which limits its applicability for utility field applications. The open source libraries Leaflet or OpenLayers are alternatives that can be used offline, and for basemap data, OpenStreetMap provides a good alternative.

Another key trend in mobile applications is the use of tablets and smartphones, rather than laptops or quite limited PDAs or GPS devices used in older generation field applications. With high-quality touch screens and built in wireless communications, GPS and cameras, modern tablets are excellent devices for field applications. A challenge here is that the mobile market is quite fragmented in terms of operating systems, with Android, Apple’s iOS and Microsoft all having a reasonable presence in the enterprise market. No clear winner has yet emerged in this space, and there is also a trend towards “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD), where employees can use their personal phones or tablets for business applications.

All of these factors combine to make a cross-platform mobile strategy, with applications that can run across all these operating systems, a desirable approach. Web-based applications work in this regard of course. Handling offline work in a cross platform way is a little more effort. There are some cross platform development tools such as PhoneGap, or its open source equivalent Apache Cordova, which enable applications to be compiled from HTML and JavaScript into native applications on all of these platforms. Phonegap also provides a means to have greater access to the mobile device, including local storage, than is available via a web application.

Utility mapping application running on an iPad
Utility mapping application running on an iPad

Crowdsourcing: Another interesting development that has grown primarily in the consumer space, but increasingly has application in the enterprise, is the use of crowdsourcing for creation and maintenance of geospatial data. The best known example is OpenStreetMap, a map of the world that is free to use and can be edited by anyone. In many parts of the world its quality is as good as or better than commercial equivalents.

One impact of OpenStreetMap is simply in its potential for use as a basemap layer in enterprise applications, especially offline where alternatives like Google Maps cannot be used. But it is also significant in that it has shown that good quality map products can be created by non-specialist users without any special training. The lesson for enterprises here is that it makes sense to enable more users of the data, especially users in the field, participate in contributing corrections to data if they find errors. In the past it has generally been assumed that most field workers did not have the skills to do these sort of updates, but OpenStreetMap has shown that this is not the case, especially where users have a vested interest in seeing the data improved, which utility field workers do.

Another good example of crowdsourcing is for damage assessment, after a storm or other incident. All smartphones now have the ability to take geotagged photos, that have a GPS coordinate stored with them indicating where they were taken. It is easy to load and display such pictures on a map, either by asking people to email them, upload them to a website, or by pulling photos from social media sites like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. This can provide a very rich source of data for quickly evaluating the extent of damage.

Summing up
Currently, the most active area of change in the utility geospatial market is in web and mobile applications, leveraging the major technology changes that have been seen in these areas in recent years. Major benefits can be achieved with a relatively small incremental investment, by expanding use of geospatial data to many more users and many more business processes. Technology originating in the consumer market, both software and hardware, is having a major influence.

There is not major change in backend traditional GIS platforms — in general these are well entrenched, with a lot of customisation and integration with other systems. There is little obvious benefit to changing, and a lot of cost to do so.

As smart grid technologies roll out over the coming years, there may be more change in backend systems, as there is more pressure to handle real time data. Currently network applications are handled by a mix of GIS, OMS (Outage Management Systems), DMS (Distribution Management Systems), EMS (Energy Management Systems), SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquistion), and MDMS (Meter Data Management Systems), with varying degrees of integration between them. It seems as though there should be opportunity to rationalise the number of systems involved, but this is a complex challenge both technically and in terms of organisation and process issues.