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When the lights go out: How to use Web maps for outage communications

In this blog post, Brian Bell, Esri Canada’s utilities industry manager, discusses the drivers utilities must consider when adopting more progressive programs around how they communicate outage information to the public. He describes the ideal framework for delivering proactive outage communications, which leads to increased customer satisfaction and improved operational transparency.

The occurrence of severe weather events is on the rise at an alarming rate. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, extreme weather events that used to happen once every 40 years now occur as frequently as every six years in some regions; severe weather is expected to become even more frequent over the next four decades due to the effects of climate change. These events often leave a trail of devastation and loss affecting thousands, if not millions, of people.

In 2013 alone, the year-end severe weather insured loss in Canada amounted to $3.2 billion, primarily as a result of the December ice storm that battered southern Ontario and eastern Canada.

Due to its broad impact, severe weather often dominates the news. Without a single, credible source of real-time outage information, it could be very easy for media outlets to misconstrue information about power failures and deliver news that is counter to the truth, to the detriment of utilities. Therefore, the question becomes, “how can utilities communicate outages effectively and promote a more informed and knowledgeable public, rather than simply a more opinionated one?”

Advances in GIS technology now make it possible to disseminate up-to-the-minute information on power outages using dynamic Web maps, which are easily accessible to utility staff and the public through their smartphones, tablets and desktop computers. Web maps allow utilities to convey more accurate, timely and compelling information easily through a medium that customers already understand.

Leverage the benefits of the cloud Typically, customer inquiries to utilities increase exponentially during times of severe weather. This occurrence can be costly if utilities rely primarily on call centers to answer customer inquiries about outages, and resources are often outstripped during times of need. Outsourced call centers typically charge an average of $2 to 4 per call received during the day and in some cases, up to as high as $15 per call at night. These charges can easily result in thousands of dollars in call center costs during a major outage.

Web maps are a cost-effective outage communications tool and it is critical that they perform consistently—especially during major outages. Adopting a cloud-centric approach offers virtually unlimited scaling, reliability and redundancy for hosting an outage mapping solution. When Web maps are managed in the cloud, the technology infrastructure behind that system is managed for the utility across tens—or hundreds—of servers. As usage of Web maps increases, additional infrastructure is applied seamlessly. Single points of failure are eliminated by automatically sharing processing tasks among clusters of servers, ensuring a consistent end-user experience, which aligns with the public’s expectations.

During severe storms, utilities can use a dynamic Web map to efficiently communicate outage reports to the public. Hosting the map in the cloud ensures that it can support sudden surges and spikes in customer inquiries.

Enabling proactive outage communications Communicating proactively with the public and appropriate stakeholders is one of the keys to effective utility outage operations. To enable this, utilities must integrate key operational systems with cloud-based GIS capabilities to support automated mapping, publishing and information distribution workflows. Furthermore, this ideal outage communications framework enables utilities to disseminate real-time information to both internal and external stakeholders so that both groups can make effective decisions.

A well-implemented outage communications framework includes six components:

  1. A public outage map – that provides timely updates on outage locations, outage causes, restoration progress and expected restoration time
  2. An internal outage map - a more detailed Web map that includes information on grid infrastructure and assets, live crew locations and incident prioritization. This provides staff with a broader operational perspective and better decision support.
  3. An internal operations dashboard – for monitoring outages and restoration activities, and analyzing their regional effects, impacts to key performance and macro-scale indicators
  4. Real-time integration with key operational business systems – provides a direct view into the utility’s operational monitoring systems and connects to a customer information system to enable the delivery of text and e-mail outage alerts
  5. Automatic notification services – pushes out alerts to customers via e-mail, text or through the utility’s social media channels
  6. Continuously updated basemaps – ensures that basemaps for the outage maps are current, accurate and provide essential context to operational information

When an outage occurs, utilities must move beyond solely restoring service; providing status updates to customers and stakeholders through the channels and devices they use in their daily lives is equally essential. By establishing this framework for proactive outage communications, utilities will be able to effectively communicate with customers before, during and after power outages and ultimately enhance customer service, improve operational transparency, and provide significantly improved value to their shareholders and customers.

To find out more about how to use Web maps for proactive outage communications, read this article I wrote recently for Electricity Today magazine.

About the Author

Brian Bell is the Director for the Utilities sector at Esri Canada. He is responsible for providing strategic leadership and vision for advancing the use of Esri technology, as well as maintaining and developing relationships with customers and business partners, in the utilities and telecommunications markets. He advises utilities across Canada on GIS & enterprise system implementation planning strategies. Brian holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Queen's University and a post-graduate GIS Applications Specialist certificate from Sir Sandford Fleming College. He is an accredited member of the Project Management Institute (PMP) and is Esri Canada’s representative for various industry associations including the Ontario Electricity Distributors Association and the Canadian Electricity Association.

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