Capturing Water Utility Knowledge with GIS

A widely recognized challenge that water, wastewater and stormwater utilities face is capturing the knowledge of workers before they retire.  Over the past few months we’ve had many conversations with water utilities that are losing a high number of their most experienced workers due to retirements over the next few years.  It seems like small and medium sized water utilities are particularly anxious about looming worker retirements and are proactively taking steps to capture knowledge now.

GIS has always been a system that water utilities relied on to capture individual knowledge, institutionalize it and make it available to all within the organization.  So we thought it would helpful to explore some of the ways GIS can help preserve an organization’s knowledge.

Why is GIS an ideal system to capture information at a water utility?

That’s an easy answer – because you interact with GIS data in the form of a map.  A map is one of the easiest ways for human beings to understand information and water utilities are very map centric organizations.  With a quick look at a map, water utility staff can see where data is missing or incorrect.  Simple interactive mapping applications give water utility workers an easy and intuitive way to add their knowledge.

Even if GIS isn’t the system that a utility wants to permanently store some of the captured information in, you can still can and should use an interactive GIS map as a simple method of capturing information.  Utilities can store information captured via an interactive map in a variety of systems such as CIS, CMMS, EAM, workorders etc.  By spatially enabling these systems with GIS, you can give them a map based front end.  So workers enter data via the map interface and through the integration with GIS the data is stored in the system you want.

How does GIS capture knowledge at a water utility?

Utilities can deploy a multitude of GIS applications using a variety of clients that can capture information and store it in a centralized data repository called the GeoDatabase or send it off to another system.  In plain language – all utility staff can access a shared set of GIS maps and data through whatever is the most appropriate way.  So everyone can contribute their knowledge.  Of course you should only enable staff to edit data that they posses knowledge about.

So your staff can either use the map to contribute new knowledge or can edit existing data on the map. To make it easier for staff to contribute or edit data we suggest you deploy simple to use role based applications.  For example if you want field staff to contribute knowledge, give them a mobile GIS application that is designed for field use – better yet replace their paper field maps with a mobile GIS application.  To make data edits simple for field crews you could just give them the ability to edit a few pieces of information like valve open or closed and create redlines where more complex edits are needed.  A GIS data editor in the office could review incoming redlines and make the appropriate edits.
If you wanted to deploy a web browser based GIS application for office staff in your Maintenance  Department you could let them make some simple edits like setting dates when valves should be exercised and also give them the ability to create redlines where more complex data edits are needed by GIS data editors.

In our example above, the water utility’s GIS is sharing the same centralized GeoDatabase through both the mobile GIS application to field users and the web browser based GIS application to office users.   So everyone is interacting with the same shared data sets.  Each user is contributing knowledge specific to their role because the GIS application they use only let’s them edit data that their department is the steward of.  Both the web and the mobile GIS application allow creation of redlines so a GIS data editor can review the redlines and make edits if necessary or can commit the redlines to a map note layer for all GIS users to see. Now everyone at the utility can contribute their knowledge and it will be stored in a utility wide system that is accessible to all.

How does GIS enable knowledge sharing?

We’ve already covered the fundamental way GIS allows captured knowledge to be shared above. To reiterate – through GIS applications and maps you can enable everyone at the utility to interact with a centralized source of data in the way the best suits their daily work.

Change management is a key to success

In our experience with water utilities using GIS to institutionalize knowledge, the hard part is change management and not deploying the technology.  Some water utilities have a culture where employees are primarily concerned with maintaining their personal information (ie. “my field book”) or their departmental information.   Sometimes this is because there was no centralized place to store information, sometimes this is due to a perception that not sharing information results in job security (“If I’m the only one who knows this, I’m indispensable” ) or increases the chance of getting hired as a consultant after retirement.  So it can be a radical shift in thinking to get everyone bought into the need of maintaining a shared source of information that is accessible to all.

For some water utilities it can be a very radical change to go from a climate where workers are responsible for just their individual information (ie “my field map book”) or their departmental information to being bought into the need and recognizing the benefits of creating and maintaining a shared source of data for all.  So here are some lessons we’ve learned from the water utility community to manage the change:

Get buy in – Sell the importance of building a centralized system to capture knowledge to each department.  Engage with each department, draw out their pain points around creating information or accessing information from other parts of the utility and explain how you will solve that problem.  Point out the benefits to the staff roles in the department, the department as a whole and the entire utility.

Demonstrate the technical solution – after you’ve gotten buy in, go back and demonstrate the technical solution and solicit feedback.   Just by the simple fact you are demonstrative interactive maps, you will put staff at ease.   Through soliciting feedback you’ll most likely end up building a better solution and staff will now have some ownership in the technology and process.

Perform a pilot – Pilot your applications and workflows.   Choose who participates in your pilot project wisely.  Select staff that have a high level of comfort with technology and will champion the benefits to others.  Once you go into production have the staff that participate your pilot be a resource for those around them.

Train your users – No doubt you’ll be deploying applications that are intuitive to use, but human beings like training.  Don’t assume that your apps are so easy to use that everyone will just get it.

Support your users – Establish a formal means of support, such as a person to call, an email alias, etc.  Also printing out a one page user guide is helpful.  Laminate the user guide for your field crews.

Build the proper workflows – If you don’t have the proper workflows to support deploying GIS to capture knowledge from around the utility you will fail.  Pay particular attention to workflows that take information contributed by staff and drive data edits.  If you can’t keep up with data edits staff will stop using your system.

Close the loop – If you don’t allow users to edit data directly (for example they create a redline) than when someone acts on a redline and makes an edit let the person who made the redline know action was taken.  This could be as simple as an email back to the person who created the redline.

Recognize your knowledge contributions – Publicly recognize and reward staff that contribute new knowledge or enhance existing data.

Want to share your thoughts on using GIS to capture and share knowledge at a water utility? Please leave a comment.

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  1. spencej6 says:

    I’m part of a student team that is building a water distribution network for our campus facilities department. This might not be the right place to post this question, but we’re wondering if anyone has modeled flow in a looped network where the direction could be one way or the other depending on where the demands are. Any help you can give would be appreciated.

  2. lingliuingis says:

    can i install the ArcHydro toolbox with ArcMap10.1