Ian Davies, UK Country Manager for Motion Computing looks at the importance of GIS to the utilities field and what we need to consider if we are going to get it right...
The utility worker today
Within the UK, approximately 473,000 people are employed in energy and utilities and approximately 30% of them are mobile workers. This is hardly surprising given that there are over 13,000 energy and utility locations. But what is less widely known is that these employees, both in the office and out in the field, deliver some of the greatest added value to the UK economy, often far in excess of other sectors.
Consequently geospatial and GIS data is indispensable to utilities. From the back office the data provides essential views and information about the service territory on which critical value-added decisions are made. Leveraging that data out to the field provides even greater benefits like streamlined regulatory compliance, operations and maintenance. There is no real argument on whether or not to empower utility field crews with GIS – the question is how to empower them.
Technology has a key role to play in answering this question within the UK. The energy and utilities sector is very capital intensive industry and much future success depends on its ability to adapt to new requirements through the introduction of new technologies. This is creating demand for skills at the intermediate level in terms of operation and maintenance - those roles most typically found “out in the field”.
The right tools for the job
So from a technological perspective, the right hardware and software will make a big difference on getting the most of utility field crews. In order to select the right hardware and software, businesses must start by taking a look at how the utility worker performs his work.
For hardware, this is critical. Mobile workflows vary greatly - what environment is the worker primarily in? How remote are employees? Can they rely on “an always connected” application, or do you need “store and forward”? Do they need a higher amount of power, specific carrying case or a vehicle mount? Is a barcode scanner or camera needed? What operating system is needed to run all the software systems? Can data entered more easily with a keyboard, a stylus or by touch? How sensitive is the work being performed and what level of security is needed?
Among all these variables, there are some characteristics to a “typical” mobile workflow - the requirement of a mobile device that can be easily docked and undocked in a vehicle, easy to carry and use, but rugged enough for the field environment. In addition, utility workers regularly use bar code scanners, RFID readers and magnetic stripe readers to complete their work. Hardware will also need to include external battery chargers and wireless connectivity as well as run an operating system that supports the software.
That software also needs rigorous assessment. It can have a huge impact on how the field worker actually works. What features will truly enable field teams to get the most out of the GIS? Is it intuitive, quick and simple to handle? Does it need large, frequent updates? Is it based on real world experience? In addition to being easy to use on the front line, the application should provide automated data replication, have a seamless interface and deliver both high performance and configurability for the teams back at base.
Getting GIS right
Applied to GIS, this means better maintenance of assets that have a rapid and profound effect upon the bottom line of utility companies and can improve customer service quickly. Utility assets are often very expensive and GIS can substantially increase the return on this investment. As part of the business case to justify GIS - and secure these benefits - the right mobile tools are a powerful part of the optimal solution.