Q&A: Laying the Groundwork with GIS

Esri ArcGIS

Can GIS Provide the Foundation for the Water Industry’s Digital Transformation?

With all of the digital technology available to water utility professionals these days, it’s important to remember the basics – and their capabilities. But there’s hardly anything basic about Geographic Information Systems (GIS) these days. Most people know water systems may use GIS to map their system and store system data, etc. But what’s new? Are there any new ways utilities are using GIS today? What are some of the unique challenges they’re addressing? What about integration with other software systems?

To get some insight, we sat down with a couple Esri experts with water utility experience to walk us through some of the current trends.

Christa Campbell, director of industry solutions, water, for Esri, is an experienced water industry professional with 20 years of success using and promoting technology to solve problems in the water industry. She has implemented GIS workflows at water utilities, developed water system plans and supported technology initiatives.

Finn Swann is water Industry Specialist with Esri. He previously managed the GIS department for a small rural water district, where he used the technology to transform workflows and improve operational efficiency. He also spent time working in operations and maintenance, replacing and repairing water distribution infrastructure.

Water Finance & Management: In general, what is new in the world of geographic information system (GIS) software as it relates to managing water/wastewater utility operations? Have there been any notable advancements in recent years?

Christa Campbell

Christa Campbell: Modeling and managing networks in GIS have advanced over the past few years. GIS enables organizations to model assets in real-world detail, perform system tracing, and visualize network information using next generation analysis tools. This functionality is now available on mobile devices as well, giving field staff an up-to-date and accurate operational view, enabling more efficient workflows and better decision-making. Accessing network information on mobile devices was not always easy to configure and use. I spent many hours trying to get a digital map with asset data to the field when I worked at a utility. Now it can be done very quickly, enabling increased collaboration and streamlined workflows.

Advancements in 3D visualization and integration with CAD and BIM are providing strong solutions for vertical asset management. Using GIS as a foundation, treatment plants are shifting away from a tabular inventory of asset types and moving to a detailed inventory of individual assets that are spatially contextualized.

Finn Swann

Finn Swann: The biggest advancements I have seen have been in mobile device use and GNSS Receivers, the ability to use your phone or tablet to view and capture asset information in the field. When I was locating and mapping assets, I had an all-in-one GPS device that required a lot of steps and usually a 24 to 48-hour waiting period to get GPS points into a map. I had my distribution network map on a separate device or in a paper atlas book. Now you can capture asset locations in the field while viewing the distribution map in the same device, with incredibly high accuracy, and update the organization GIS in real time. I went through this transformation as a user, and it saved me countless hours collecting data.

WF&M: What would you say is the most common way water/wastewater systems use GIS?

Campbell: GIS is well known for providing a system of record for assets, providing an authoritative source of information. This is still true, but GIS is so much more. Utilities today are using GIS to integrate various data and share information across teams, breaking down silos. Maps and apps make information easily available to those who need it. GIS provides a holistic view of the system as well as the status of work in near real time which keeps everyone on the same page. It’s very common to see GIS paired with high accuracy GNSS receivers. Many organizations want to update or collect the location of assets, and today’s technology makes it very easy to integrate receivers with GIS, providing a seamless workflow for field staff.

Swann: As a system of record for assets: To map and track their existing and planned linear assets: transmission, distribution, collection and force mains, service laterals, valves, hydrants, meters, air vacs, blowoffs and more.

As a system of engagement: To share and view asset information with employees and stakeholders using maps, inspiring discussion and collaboration.

As a system of insight: Having accurate and robust asset data in a GIS allows water utilities to visualize and understand their networks in a different and more effective way. Spatial analytics using GIS can reveal important patterns in assets, for example: Where are main breaks happening? Where are the areas at highest risk of a break?

As a system of action: Increased understanding of the system leads to more effective decision making. Accurate asset information in a GIS facilitates asset management programs and project planning. For example – Where should we start replacing mains first?

WF&M: Does GIS allow utilities to import historical data about public infrastructure assets or does GIS need to be integrated with another asset management software in order to accomplish this?

Campbell: In many cases the GIS is the system of record. If data isn’t in the GIS, it can be imported from almost any digital format. If location (address, APN, XY coordinates) are part of the data it is fairly easy to import, although the locational accuracy may not meet the needs of the utility. If the historical data is paper based, it’s a much larger project. The information on paper documents can be digitized into a GIS but some organizations are choosing to integrate data collection into their daily workflows instead of digitizing data that is most likely outdated. Historical documents are often scanned and made available in the GIS as a supplement to digital data.

Integration with asset management software is very common. There are many asset management solutions that have been developed to work in conjunction with GIS.

WF&M: Do utilities that use GIS to map their system generally map stormwater assets, as well? How has GIS assisted utilities in stormwater and floodplain management?

Campbell: Absolutely. Stormwater utilities benefit from using GIS in similar ways to water and wastewater. They aren’t just mapping assets, they are using GIS to coordinate work, make data driven decisions, and ensure regulatory compliance. With an increase in extreme weather resulting in floods, I’ve seen a greater interest in GIS solutions. Recent advances in GIS technology, water modeling, and data availability provide ArcGIS users access to the basic tools and datasets required for forecasting the potential extent and the impacts of flooding for any place on Earth — potentially saving lives and helping prevent damage
to property.

Swann: Yes definitely. Not every water utility maintains a stormwater system, but those that do can map their systems. Many stormwater assets are linear in nature and can be mapped just the same as water/wastewater assets. Floodplain data can be viewed, analyzed, and used for planning and management purposes. Form based asset inspections workflows can be streamlined in a digital platform. Managing stormwater using GIS allows stormwater managers to achieve compliance and receive permitting. Esri offers solutions specific to stormwater utilities, including a data model and a catch basin and outlet inspection solution.

WF&M: Do utilities have any new or notable challenges they are trying to address through modern GIS practices? What capabilities are they generally looking for?

Campbell: Utilities are facing many challenges. Aging infrastructure is one of the largest. The American Water Works Association identifies renewal and replacement of aging infrastructure as the water sector’s number 1 challenge. Utilities can’t afford to replace all their infrastructure and are looking for solutions that will help them to prioritize spending and work more efficiently. Powerful analytics within GIS as well as web maps, apps and dashboards are helping with this.

A recent challenge facing water service providers in the United States is compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule Revisions. Collecting lead service line information, showing it on a map, and sharing it with the public are tasks that Esri’s ArcGIS system can help with. Our team has developed a service line inventory solution that helps utilities meet requirements under the Lead and Copper Rule Revisions.

Swann: The EPA Lead and Copper Rule is probably the most recent and notable challenge water utilities are facing today. They are required to create and maintain a service line inventory to ensure there is no lead in their drinking water systems. They must make the data available to the public in some situations and the deadline for having this done is October 2024. Some of these water systems have assets with little to no documentation leaving utilities guessing what is underground. Predictive analytics using GIS to find lead and copper is something utilities are turning to when facing this challenge. They need to be able to identify lead in their systems without potholing every single line, so using every piece of information available to provide a likelihood of lead in the system allows for more informed and efficient project planning for removal.

WF&M: As the water utility sector continues its shift into incorporating more digital technology solutions, what role will GIS play?

Campbell: GIS is uniquely suited to serve as the foundation for digital water transformation, for several reasons. GIS can intake, display and analyze data from all manner of digital hardware and software, from flow meters and water quality monitors to billing and work order management systems. Web maps and applications have made it so that anyone can access GIS, at any time, whether they are in the office or the field or at home. Many water, wastewater and stormwater utilities already use GIS in some way, making it an ideal point of departure for new digital water investments and initiatives. Technology has advanced rapidly in the last decade, making it easier and more affordable for utilities to implement or extend the use of GIS in ways that support their goals.

Swann: As water utilities incorporate more digital technology solutions and more advanced hardware (smart meters, smart manhole covers, smart hydrants, etc.) GIS is the perfect environment for viewing the location and attribute information of assets, as well as consuming all the real time data from the sensors in those devices. Real time data viewed and analyzed in a GIS allows for informed decision making by staff and management, whether its responding to an emergency in the field or planning an expansion of the system.

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