Next-Generation Geospatial and Big Data Strategies in Action for Utilities

Published on March 11, 2014

In the days and hours before a February snow and ice storm hammered Georgia and the Carolinas, then went all the way into the Mid-Atlantic states and New England, utility work trucks were on their way from the Florida and Midwest regions not threatened by the weather. They staged in localities anticipating snow and ice on trees and power lines that would turn off the lights and, more important, heat for hundreds of thousands of customers. That preparation shortened the impact on customers, and possibly saved lives.

The trucks’ movements were guided by geospatial data from maintenance history, assets capabilities and weather forecasts on maps that could be overlaid on utility diagrams to anticipate trouble spots. Those outage management systems were the progeny of technology put in place more than a decade earlier when military intelligence processing, exploitation and distribution pods learned to layer intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data on platforms using Google Earth and Maps to present a picture that units in Iraq and Afghanistan could use for missions.

The keys to developing this awareness are that all data has geospatial qualities and that, with some imagination, when applied, can be presented so that recipients can visualize it. Analysts can put themselves into the data as a Fifth Dimension.

Companies like Thermopylae Sciences & Technology have used those Google Earth and Maps platforms as springboards into developing solutions to help utilities marshal resources to react to trouble, companies to direct and control assets, energy concerns to explore, develop and manage raw materials.

With mobility expanding daily, workers in the field are able to take pictures of trouble spots, send them to a central area and know that help is on the way. The utilities’ reaction to the February storm demonstrated how critical it is to have that data close at hand. Social media too, is becoming a greater part of a process that has fostered need for the kinds of capabilities TST has developed. With smart apps, social media becomes a real-time input for creating malleable solutions that can change with user needs.

All of that calls for technology development driven by an understanding of the need for agile solutions to react to what is often a fluid situation. “Agile” also describes an approach to solutions development used at TST, where we’ve adopted its principles and the Scrum method of teamwork in rapid release of new features.

That approach is recognition that -- like the weather -- software doesn’t stand still. While some see parallel evolutionary paths of ideas and solutions for using geospatial data, we recognize that they are on a single path, and that measurable progress can come only when the solution takes the idea to reality.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of doing more with what you already have, of leveraging existing investments to get more out of them.

At Distributech 2014 in San Antonio in January, Duke Energy, the largest electric power utility in the U.S. with 7.2 million distribution customers, reported an approach toward big data analytics in which it gathered 30 GB of data that it presented to vendors to mine. Duke also offered six use cases to prime the pump. The vendors came back with 150 new cases.

That will mean 150 solutions, in many cases using technology development to visualize existing data in new ways to address problems – much as problems were addressed in getting families back on line before the snow and ice melted after the massive February storm.

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