GIS: Mapping the Modern Water/Wastewater Utility

Prince William County Service Authority?s (Va.) Geographic Information System (GIS) departmentAggressive GIS development and system integration plans are leading to improved customer service, more informed decision making and improvements in operational efficiencies.

GIS Basics

In its most basic form, GIS is an advanced database that allows users to access data in a geographical or spatial context, like a map. This is especially important for utility operations where assets are spread across large, mostly underground areas. It also assists users in understanding, spatially, how assets are related to each other, as well as the history of each. With GIS, users can view assets, interact with a map to access additional attributes, create cartographic products and perform powerful spatial data analysis queries.

For example, by clicking on any mapped asset in the Service Authority GIS, such as a water main or manhole, users can access attributes such as construction date, asset material and asset type. Users can also bring up engineering plans, photos, field notes and engineering reports for a project by clicking on the appropriate ?marker? on the map. This gives users more information at their fingertips so they can do their jobs more effectively.

However, even more important is GIS?s ability to integrate with other IT systems and ?map? their data in the same geographical context. For example, GIS allows utilities to map the location of maintenance activity and condition assessments, customer call information and financial costs.

?When organization-wide data is integrated around GIS and that same data is mapped in a spatial context, the value of your utility?s existing data grows exponentially as the number and types of queries and analyses you can perform expands,? stated GIS Program Manager Brandon Pfleckl.

Prince William County

In the case of the Service Authority, a key mission of the 12-person GIS team is to integrate information from all divisions into the GIS, primarily the Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS), Customer Information System (CIS) and financial system. Additionally, the Service Authority is working to disseminate that information as reliably and usefully as possible while creating analysis toolsets, all through the use of web-based GIS applications.

?We have made tremendous progress integrating our systems into GIS. Our existing focus is on bringing that information to those who need it,? stated Pfleckl.

Through the use of Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and Open Data Protocols (OData), the Service Authority aims to provide staff not only reliable and accurate GIS data, but also data from across the organization in a variety of desktop and mobile applications.

?This dramatically expands the type and breadth of data analysis we can perform, which helps us make better decisions,? stated Pfleckl. ?Additionally, it will save our employees time in the office and field and allow collaborating and sharing information in real-time.??

Through use of the GIS, users in the office or field can access historical data on individual customer accounts in real time, determine the type and count of work orders performed in a particular neighborhood, or, with the help of GPS, literally pinpoint within a few inches to a few feet where a water valve or other asset is physically located in the field, Pfleckl said.

In the future, the Service Authority will be able to use the GIS system to help run ?what-if? scenarios of water outages, catastrophic storms or other major events; help understand patterns of work orders and customer calls more effectively; and assist with the evaluation of critical risks and plan for preventative maintenance.
Additionally, the Service Authority will be able to put more detail into planning efforts through the use of spatially-linked financial information.

?We?ll be able to give our planners and decision makers more information by mapping our project costs, so they can make future predictions more accurately,? Pfleckl said.

Ultimately, the technology will go mobile with integration into smart phones and tablets used by Service Authority employees, improving access to information and simplifying certain workflows for field personnel.

The Shift? ?

The seeds of the improvement plan were sown in early 2010 after completion of a new Information Technology master plan. That vision entailed the Service Authority transitioning away from a CAD-based system into a more GIS-based system.

While the CAD system was effective for querying the material type and construction date of a manhole, for instance, other Service Authority systems could not be integrated into the CAD system like they can with the GIS, nor did the CAD system support robust data analysis or mobile and application development needs.
?Our modern GIS program enables really innovative data analysis and tool development capabilities that we could not do in the past,? Pfeckl said.

The GIS department is nearly two years into its multi-year improvement plan, and the Service Authority has reason to be proud of the progress the GIS program has made. Pfeckl said the program?s spatial accuracy and system integration is one of the strongest in the industry.

?We?re not quite where we want to be, but we?re making great progress and have a solid plan moving forward. Having other people from around the country calling us to see how we?re doing things is a great feeling and we always enjoy the opportunity to learn about other operations,? said Pfleckl.

Pfeckl credits his team for doing great work and for laying a solid foundation for exciting things to come. One of several talented GIS team members, Technician Karen Hogan has played an instrumental role in the changeover. A former intern, Hogan was responsible for geocoding more than 83,000 service location addresses ? each representing one Service Authority customer. Now, she updates that data set with new customers and performs special projects for various Service Authority departments.

Going back 10 to 20 years, the Service Authority did not have adequate resources or the proper workflows established to capture all asset information into its then-CAD system. As a result, some attributes were overlooked and some sources of information were never entered. Additionally, spatial accuracy standards were more relaxed.

An Efficient Workflow

Today, the Service Authority?s spatial accuracy standards are significantly improved. The utility has undertaken a large-scale Historical Records project, managed by Records/Scanning Technician Tracey Beaver, to review more than 15,000 pieces of historical information that may or may not have been entered into the mapping system. These include old development plans, field sketches and handwritten notes, inspector markups and other documents. Under Beaver?s guidance, the project is reaping tremendous rewards in terms of improving the overall accuracy and usability of the GIS system.

In addition, GIS Coordinator Maureen Knight is serving as the department?s quality control inspector and workload manager. Knight ensures high quality data input and keeps the large volume of tasks within the GIS department moving efficiently. The Service Authority also hired a spatial data expert, Technician Yeoanny Venetsanos, to help refine workflows associated with data collection, input and maintenance.

?At times, we would notice areas where assets in our GIS did not align properly with real-world circumstances,? said Venetsanos. ?In these situations, we would study the root cause of the problem, perform data collection with a GPS device to correct the coordinates in the system and refine our workflows to prevent additional errors.?

Over time, the Service Authority?s workflows have evolved to prevent data input mistakes. As a result, the Authority is making big improvements in the quality of data related to its more than 2,000 miles of water and sewer pipes and hundreds of thousands of other infrastructure components that play a crucial role in preserving the health and safety of its customers.

?The GIS team has done exceptional work pushing the Service Authority into the forefront of GIS technology and data quality,? Pfleckl said. ?While we have work left to be done, we are on the cusp of an explosion of GIS-based applications that give employees more resources in their toolbox. The entire SA has helped make this all possible by helping us make corrections to our data, taking time to provide feedback on user needs, and for being open to change that impacts their routines.?

Kipp Hanley is a copywriter for the Prince William County Service Authority in Woodbridge, Va., and serves as the organization?s social media administrator.

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