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GIS patterns of use for water utilities

Location matters to almost everything you do as a water utility. Whether you are responsible for customer service, managing a capital plan, or operations and maintenance, applying the geographic approach to your decision-making has huge impacts.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of speaking with a group of water and wastewater professionals in Ontario. The theme of my talk centered on best practices for utilities that want to extract maximum value from their investments in GIS. The fundamental message I conveyed is that once you apply location to all aspects of how the water utility operates—this could include people, assets, communication, and planning—you are effectively connecting the enterprise where all things become relatable.

Think about main breaks as a simple example. Invariably, these questions will be asked (and usually in this order): Which street is it on? What or how many customers are affected, and are any of them critical services? How do I keep them informed? Is there a flood risk because of the topography of that area? Where are the nearby valves that need to be operated? Which crew should I send?

Location underpins every answer to these questions. It is the baseline for how you put problems and opportunities into context with the rest of your business.

Almost all water utilities started using GIS as a tool to create a basic digital representation of their in-service plan. You need to be efficient, and you need to be mindful of how you are spending public funds to maintain operations. Yet, many utilities have risen to the challenge of pushing their GIS beyond this legacy use case. In this post, I highlight some of the examples I shared on the various ways water utilities are using GIS in their business, calling out a few organizations I consider to be leaders.

GIS to streamline processes between organizations

Toronto Water needed to maintain a digital twin of their infrastructure to support the construction of the city’s Eglinton Crosstown LRT, a major construction project spanning 19 kilometres in an extremely dense urban environment. During construction, many Toronto Water assets were temporarily or permanently moved to accommodate construction activities. They used GIS to represent the as-operated state in addition to the as-designed state of the water system. This involved real-time updates from the field via apps on mobile devices that fed data directly to the GIS. This method created an authoritative dataset in an everchanging construction environment.

GIS provided the ability for Toronto Water to represent the current state of the network (shown in blue in the image), the locations of all temporary or abnormally controlled infrastructure (in red), and the locations of operable valves being used to control the flow of water in the area. The map was made available via a portal for Toronto Water staff and all of their construction partners on this major project.

GIS to connect IT systems for smarter decision-making

GIS has helped companies build a more flexible, resilient, and sustainable organization. I highlighted Central Arkansas Water as a great example of a mid-sized water utility that leveraged GIS to modernize not just how they manage their assets, but how they ran their entire water utility enterprise. “GIS provides a lifeline from the workers in the field to critical information to help them on a daily basis. Whether it's being able to quickly locate a valve, isolate a main break, or find a meter to assist a customer, GIS enables us to have this information literally at our fingertips,” said Blake Weindorf, Director of Distribution from Central Arkansas Water.

Central Arkansas Water’s strategy was based on a robust product integration approach between their asset and work management systems. They connected their asset registry, GIS, Cityworks platform, and hydraulic modeling tools to enable their field staff to seek real-time pressure information on their Apple iPads to immediately correlate repairs required with maintenance history.

On the engineering and billing side, Central Arkansas Water used GIS as a hub for their design, construction, and as-built process. As soon as infrastructure is in the ground, those services are connected to tax parcel ownership and organized to support the new account creation process, providing everything their billing system needs for debt servicing, districting, sanitation, sewer planning, and of course, actual billing of their customers. I think of Central Arkansas Water as an excellent example of an organization that is using GIS to support not just the core operational functions of a utility, but also making the utility smarter overall through integrating their systems.

GIS to support better communications

When I think about how a utility interacts with other organizations and the public, I think about how GIS is used to support timely communication of vital information. When done in a programmatic or process-driven way, effective communication becomes a highly repeatable, low barrier path to increasing customer satisfaction.

I talked about another great customer example here, which is Denver Water. Like all water utilities, Denver Water has a commitment to water safety. In 2012, they identified an actionable level of lead presence in their service lines. Denver Water immediately sprang into action and made a commitment to the citizens of Denver to help replace thousands of lead-based service lines over a 15-year period.

Data analysis revealed that there were about 80,000 lead service lines that served roughly 120,000 customers. Denver Water designed a replacement program using a variety of factors, including sociodemographic variable analysis, to produce a timeline and schedule that optimized crew planning. Denver Water also deployed a publicly accessible dashboard to keep the public informed on the progress of the program and launched a story map to communicate details of the program. All of this was made possible by GIS and location intelligence.

What are some best practices for moving your utility forward?

Hopefully, you relate to some of these patterns of use. You might be thinking about how you could help move your utility forward. My recommendation is to think about what's realistic to do tomorrow, next month, and next year. The image below outlines a logical sequence of common maturity points in the use of GIS for water utilities, to help you plan your progression.

I want to encourage you to think about where you can take the next step, how we can help you progress along this maturity scale, and look for quick wins to generate support within your utility.

Focus on outcomes that will benefit the business and work towards those incrementally. The important thing is to start, regardless of where you are, and to have a plan. It doesn't have to be an opus, but you should have some guiding principles that you can revisit and update as you progress. For those of you who are looking at projects at a wider scale, I want to direct you to our consulting services for applying geography as a business strategy.

Above all, act in a way that acknowledges that location matters to how you run your business. Take the time to reflect on your own current state, and then focus your attention in areas where you can really help the business most. Finally, champion your successes, big and small, both within your Utility and with your peers. Sharing your successes with your community will help them learn from actions, but you will also get essential feedback that will help you determine your next steps. And if you ever want to speak with folks here at Esri Canada who work actively in that same community every day, we always welcome the opportunity to work more closely with our customers.

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.

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.

Profile Photo of Brian Bell