The emerging role of GIS in operational technology and OT implementations

July 13, 2017 Gordon Plunkett

Operational technology is rapidly replacing analogue and manual systems for monitoring and controlling physical assets in the field. An essential component to effective use of operational technology is the specific geographic location of each deployed asset. Read how enterprise GIS and Web GIS are essential tools for managing operational systems.

Anyone who belongs to the GIS or Web GIS community is familiar with the term, “information technology “and its short form “IT”. The term IT is used to describe systems and technology for storing, retrieving, and communicating different types of digital information. Similarly, GIS is a system that lets the users visualize, question, analyze and interpret geographical or spatial data to understand relationships, patterns and trends.

GIS and IT have always been interconnected. In fact, GIS requires a solid IT infrastructure to operate correctly and efficiently. In particular, Web GIS is dependent on a modern and robust computation and communication infrastructure for optimal performance.

A term that is becoming more prevalent these days in the geospatial community is “operational technology” or OT. OT is a technology used to detect or cause a change in a physical asset or system through direct monitoring and/or control of physical devices such as a water valve, an electronic switch or even a traffic light.

Operational technology is being used for controlling many systems within many fields of work. The Internet of Things and Web GIS are essential to the efficient operation of OT.

OT is commonly used for the efficient operation of electrical power utilities, water networks and transportation. It is a key enabling technology for Smart Grids, Smart Cities and even Smart Cars. OT implementations are sometimes considered as a disruptive technology because they transform modern enterprises by making traditional infrastructure and operational workflows obsolete.

Now that we have understood what OT is, let us delve into the role of GIS. What makes GIS an important component of a successful OT strategy?

 Well, if you are opening a water valve, shutting down part of the electrical grid or changing traffic light durations, it is critical that you make these changes to the correct equipment at the correct location.  The moment you need “location”, you need GIS. GIS is increasingly gaining importance because modern OT systems are being implemented via a communications network as opposed to previous implementations that were hard wired and often activated manually by a switch or a button.

Modern operational technology implementations are often fully automated processes and are programmed like a feedback control system, where some physical change is initiated and the system senses the effects to make sure that the desired outcome ensues. But what if the physical change was made at the wrong location? Would the system be able to detect this error? Would the error cause an inconvenience or an emergency?

It’s extremely important for these OT systems to be fully aligned with the enterprise GIS system. Not only should the enterprise GIS provide the most up-to-date information on location but also about equipment maintenance, construction activities and in/out of service information. Imagine a railway worker or OT system changing the position of a rail switch without checking for the location of trains along that route or without finding out if staff are working on that route.  The role of GIS in operations technology can’t be underestimated.

Rail systems have been using sensors and actuators to manage rail network. The location of OT equipment along the lines is essential to maximize performance.

OT becomes particularly tricky to manage if the network, equipment or infrastructure are owned or managed by different enterprises. Other than data sharing and interoperability processes, good governance and legal agreements regarding the procedures to follow are also essential to ensure OT expectations are met with.

If you are using OT in your enterprise for controlling your networks, traffic or power, make sure that it is closely and effectively integrated with your enterprise GIS to give you a clear idea of the big picture.

About the Author

Gordon Plunkett

Gordon Plunkett is the Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) Director at Esri Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in GIS and Remote Sensing in both the public and private sectors. He currently sits as a member of the Community Map of Canada Steering Committee, GeoAlliance Canada Interim Board of Directors, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Technical Committee, the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) Committee on Geomatics, the University of Laval Convergence Network Advisory Committee and the Advisory Board to the Carleton University Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre. During his career, Gordon has worked on projects in more than 20 countries and has contributed to numerous scientific conferences and publications. At Esri Canada, he is responsible for developing and supporting the company’s SDI vision, initiatives and outreach, including producing content for the SDI blog.

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