Tag: customer information system

Location is fundamental to the water smart grid

Esri recently participated in the 1st Smart Water Grid Conference in Incheon, Korea.  The focus of the conference was the current state of smart grid water technology, the future of the water smart grid and fostering collaboration between key smart grid companies and technologists.  Repeatedly discussion about the water smart grid hinged on the importance of geography and the necessity of a location platform to bring together the various pieces that comprise the smart grid. Continue reading

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Using Maps to Communicate with Water Utility Customers

In late March I was at AWWA’s combined Customer Service & Information Management & Technology (CS/IMTech) Conference in Portland, Oregon.  Since this is a combined water utility technology conference and a customer service conference I had some very interesting discussions with customer service professionals about technology.  We had a good number of customer service folks stopping by the ESRI booth either because they saw the value of sharing information with their customers via web based mapping or because their utilities had invested in an enterprise GIS (often begun to support asset management) and they recognized customer service could easily leverage this investment for additional benefit.  We also had some people stop into our booth that had seen or heard about our Customer Interaction Template – http://waterutilitiestemplates.esri.com/customerinteraction/  (a big thanks to Lisa Ragain for spreading the word about using the template for boil water notifications to the customer service community).

This dovetails with the trend we’ve been seeing of increasing interest in GIS from customer service and public outreach staff at water, sewer and stormwater utilities.  I wanted to focus this blog on some thoughts on using interactive browser based maps for public communication and outreach.

Challenges for public communication and outreach

We’ve heard from utility customer service and public outreach professionals that some of the challenges they face in communicating with stakeholders (ratepayers, the public, environmental groups, local media, and other government entities) are effective communication, authoritative communication and rapid communication.  A browser based interactive map is a great tool for utility customer service and public outreach staff to overcome these challenges.

Here is a great example from Twitter that illustrates why customers benefit from an interactive browser based map.  This is a series of tweets during a recent boil water alert in a major city.  Incidentally, if you want some great insight into how your technology savvy utility customers think, search twitter for main breaks or boil water alerts, it’s a very enlightening exercise.


Effective Communication with Customers

Effective communication hinges on being able to easily convey information to your customers and have them understand it and draw the proper conclusion.  When communication happens around a safety issue (boil water alerts for example) this heightens the need to provide clear & concise information so that it enables customers to act properly and also to manage their fears.

A large reason why maps are so much a part of our lives is because they are an easy way for human beings to convey and understand information (that’s a fundamental premise of the “The Geographic Approach”).  Also we are in an age where society at large has gotten comfortable with visualizing spatial information in an interactive map in a web browser.   So it should come as no surprise that utilities can use maps to better communication information with the public and the public understands this medium of communication.

For many utilities sharing map based information with the public on their external webpage is nothing new.  But historically this was done with static maps (meaning that they were a PDF or an image file like a .jpg).  Good examples are utility service area maps or maps of future capital projects, often times done as part of a report or study and then re-used as content for a utility website.   Because these maps are static you can’t explore them (zoom in or out, see street labels, determine your location relative to the data on the map, etc).  As interactive web based maps are increasingly part of our daily lives no doubt some utility customers are unsatisfied and unimpressed with static map content on utility websites. 

With a GIS you can create your own browser based web maps.  These can be interactive and dynamic – customers can zoom, pan, look up by address, etc. so they can freely explore the data you are sharing with them via the map.  Since the utility is deploying the web based map, you can create the map (choose the data you are sharing and the cartography) to convey the information the way you want.  You can also take advantage of scale dependencies for layers and dynamic labeling.  So no more complaints about not being able to zoom a map in to determine your location relative to the information on the map or and no more issues with street labels.

If a utility is already deploying browser based GIS maps for internal use, then they have some of the data, knowledge and IT infrastructure in place to use the same GIS technology to provide browser based maps to the public.  Of course you need to take into account IT and data security and shouldn’t share any information with the public that could make your water or sewer systems vulnerable.



Authoritative Communication

One of the tenants of the internet and specifically social media is that it gives anyone who wants to share information a platform to communicate.  This includes water utility stakeholders.  Sometimes stakeholders are creating and sharing information on the internet about a utility that the utility also maintains for its own internal use.  So stakeholders are creating information for their use (often to support a point of view) that a utility already has and does not share.   In this scenario the utility is the authoritative source of data and the data the stakeholders are creating and sharing may not be correct or up-to-date. 

These two links are examples of stakeholders using maps to share information about a utility (in this case identifying where main breaks have occurred) – LA Main Breaks Map from the Los Angeles Times & LA Main Breaks Map from Southern California Public Radio.  No doubt the utility is the most accurate source of information on main breaks in their service area, but in this example stakeholders have created their own versions of this information and are sharing it on a map.

The internet also allows well-meaning stakeholders to step in and fill what they perceive is an information void.  Here is good example of using a map to do this – Are you affected by the boil water advisory? Use this map to find out

Please keep in mind that neither of these examples are a criticism of a utility or the entities that have put this information onto the internet.  It’s just meant to illustrate the point that information about utilities is being created and shared on the internet by stakeholders, often times in the form of interactive maps. Also by no means do I want to suggest that volunteered geographic information isn’t valuable for utilities. But information that a utility is the only true authoritative source of should be shared by the utility, not managed by the stakeholders or the public.

So how can browser based GIS maps help overcome the challenge of authoritative communication?  Quite simply the utility can publish interactive browser based maps through their GIS, becoming the only credible source of this data and eliminating the need or temptation for stakeholders to create and share data that may not be correct.  A utility could make their published interactive map accessible only through the utility’s webpage and can include their logo to let stakeholders know the information is directly from the utility.  A utility can also include some form of metadata (information about the data on the map) and a disclaimer on the map to let the public know the appropriateness of use.

Timely Communication

Increasingly customers of all businesses (including utilities) expect information on the internet to be up-to-date.  This is especially true in an emergency situation. 

A utility emergency usually has multiple pieces of information that have a location.  These locations may be an exact point – a water main break, maybe a series of points – customers experiencing basement backups, or could be a polygon – a boil water area.   The same concept holds true for planned utility operations that affect customers such as hydrant flushing or valve exercising activities that might disrupt traffic or make their water cloudy for a short time.

So even though these emergency situations are defined by locations (and may change rapidly) some utilities might only use textual descriptions to convey location information to stakeholders.  For example you may see at the top of a utility’s web page “Boil Water Alert in Southwest Area of Service Area” with some streets given to bound the boil water area.  We’ve heard from some utilities that the way the implemented their external web page leaves them with the ability to rapidly change only certain text items on their landing page.  Unfortunately it’s hard for many people to translate a textual description into a mental map, especially during an emergency.

Utilities may also give a link to a static map of the affected are in a PDF or image file (odds are that static map was produced with GIS).  While commendable that a utility is using a map to convey this information, a static map can frustrate stakeholders as well, because (like the Twitter example at the top of the blog) they don’t get enough information from the map.

A browser based GIS map can also help overcoming this challenge (and can also help you comply with increasingly stringent emergency notification laws).  A utility can simply publish an interactive map with the layers of data that describe the event on a simple base map.  That is exactly what the Boil Water Event Viewer in the Customer Interaction Template is intended to show you how to do.  Once the map has been published you can put the URL for the dynamic GIS map onto your webpage.  So if you only have the ability to rapidly change text in your utility’s webpage, than you can just the URL with your textual description of an emergency event.  As the event unfolds and you need to change the map, you can just edit the data layers that you published on the map and the map is automatically updated.    When the event is over, just remove the URL and take down the map service.  With ArcGIS you can quickly publish these web maps and update the data you are displaying.   Because the interactive map is published by the utility you are the authoritative source of map based information during the emergency.

No doubt you’re starting to hear a lot about ArcGIS in the Amazon Cloud at the ArcGIS 10 release.  This type of public notification scenario is a perfect use case for an elastic GIS publication environment that is stored in the cloud and won’t impact your internal GIS publication environment behind your firewall.

Have any thoughts on this? Please share them.

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Template Updates Part 2

We just posted two more updated templates, The Water Utilities Operations Dashboard and the Water Utilities Customer Interaction(formerly Citizen Service) template. You may have noticed we changed the names of the templates slightly. We switched to Water Utilities because these templates now cover more than just the Water Distribution network.

In the new version of the dashboard, you will find an updated basemap document with improved cartography. All the operational map documents have been updated to include layers for sewer and stormwater. You will also see a new set of widgets, some configured for the new data and some that were included in the most recent release of the sample flex viewer. Take some time and explore the new widgets and give us your feedback. We’re really happy about how user feedback is shaping this template into a true utility dashboard.

The Citizen Service template, now called the Customer Interaction template, underwent a big overhaul. The first release of this template was focused on getting information from the public. In this release, we wanted to expand how and what information can be captured. In the submit request web page, you can now overlay a map service from your utility. A user can click on an asset in that service and use the selected asset to power the request. The selected assets ID is silently submitted with the request, allowing you better identify the asset the request is tied to.

Not only did we want to provide a better way of capturing information, but we wanted to help you share information with your customers. There is a new web page allowing you to do just that. You can list any layers that you want to share with the public in the configuration file. We included two different configurations of this web page with the template. One that share main breaks, out of service hydrants and location of capital projects, the other is used to share boil water notices. The web page can also be used to summarize information by area and then display that to the public, so you can give the public a high level view of information by an operating district or administrative area. As they look closer, the overview will fade away and have access to the detailed feature locations.

Again, we are very happy and pleased with being able to roll out these enhancements. Which, came from all of you. So, please let us know what you like, do not like, what enhancement requests you may have, etc. You feedback drives the development of these. Thanks

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Where Are Your Customers?

At first glance, that might seem like a silly question to a water, wastewater or storm water utility.  After all, how hard is it to find your customers…. they are in your service area, connected to your infrastructure and you have an address to send them bills.  But do you really accurately know where you are providing service to?

We are seeing a trend where water utilities are recognizing the importance of accurately knowing where they are providing service to (your real customer locations) and also understanding that there are many facets to accurately establishing your customer locations. 

So what do we mean by customer location and how do you store that in your GIS?

For the purpose of our discussion here, by customer locations we mean the location where you as a utility are providing service to. This is the location where you are distributing flow to in a water system or where you are accepting flow in a sanitary sewer system

There are some common approaches that we see utilities using to store customer information in their GIS.  Just like any GIS data model, you should pick an approach to store your customer locations that fits your utility’s specific needs.

For water utilities we commonly see customer location stored as a meter feature class (if you have meters) or with a feature class called customer, premise location or service location.  With a geometric network, these feature classes are snapped to lateral which are snapped to mains.  An important distinction for many utilities is that billing location of a customer, where the bill is sent to, is often different than the location you are serving that customer (premise or customer location). 

For wastewater utilities we commonly see customer locations stored with a cleanout feature class, a customer or premise feature class or if a combined water/wastewater utility then water and wastewater both may use the meter feature class from the water distribution network.

Of course if you don’t have your water or wastewater networks in GIS yet, or don’t even have a GIS, customer locations are a great starting point for building a GIS system.  It is relatively cheap to record them and you’ll immediately get high value from having those location accurately measured. 

Some common attributes we see for customer location feature classes are: unique ID, customer type, active, customer name, premise address, customer phone number.  Unique ID is should be an ID that will allow you to join your customer locations with your billing system so you can visualize consumption patterns. 

Benefit of accurately locating your customers:

Some of the ways we’ve seen water and wastewater utilities benefit from accurately knowing their customer locations are:

  • Reducing non-revenue water – We’ve seen accurate customers as a critical data component to reducing non-revenue water.  A simple example of reducing non-revenue water with accurate customer locations is to create a map that shows all of your customer locations and then to look for where places (such as a buildings) that should be a customer location but are not.  Another way to use customer locations to reduce non-revenue water is to join your billing data to customer locations and visualize customer consumption by creating a thematic map of graduated symbol sizes or colors.  In this case you are looking for active customers that have abnormally low consumption and may have a defective meter.  Anecdotally we’ve heard from a number of ESRI customers that the simple actions above have made significant reductions in non-revenue water.  We’ve also seen some very sophisticated analysis using consumption data linked to customer locations and metering data to try to identify zones within a water distribution system that may a high amount of water loss due to leaks.
  • Allocating demands – More accurate customer locations will yield better demand allocation for hydraulic models, especially when linked to consumption data.
  • Estimating flow – For wastewater utilities, more accurate customer locations can be used to better estimate flow through being able to more precisely calculate the EDUs flowing into pipes from upstream. 
  • Better Customer Service – For example you can gain better insight into how customer complaints and customer service requests track back to the actual infrastructure that they are served by.  A good example of this is water utilities that are using their customer locations in GIS to track the location of water quality complaints over a multiyear period back to common pipes or water sources that could be the cause of an issue.
  • Improved routing – More accurate customer locations will yield better routes for field crews, saving fuel and time.
  • Validating premise addresses in other utility systems – We often hear from utilities that while they have very good billing address data for customers in their CIS or billing system, that premise locations (stored as an address) in these systems is often wrong.  So better premise address locations generated with GIS can be used to fix bad premise locations in your CIS (you should have one system of record for premise locations, but we’ll save that discussion for another day).
  • Better emergency notifications – We’ve heard a number of horror stories from utilities that have an emergency notification system that has not notified customers during an emergency because their customer locations are bad.  2 common ways to notify customers during emergencies are doing a broadcast notification (notifying all customers in a service area or a municipal boundary) or doing a target notification based on the pipes that serve a customer (just notify customers that are affected by a broken main because you know they are served by that main).  In both of these examples accurate customer locations are key to being able to perform emergency notifications.  

So how do you get your customers located accurately?

The most common way that utilities initially get their customer locations into a GIS is through geocoding their billing roster.  When geocoding any address data, the 2 critical components that determine the quality of your geocodes is the input address data and the dataset that you are geocoding against. 

We’ve heard from a lot of water utilities that the premise locations in their CIS or billing system are of dubious quality and often time there is not a lot of consistency in how the address fields for premises were used.  So while billing address data is usually of high quality (otherwise you’d never get paid) premise location is not accurately stored because it was perceived to be of less importance.  In this case, step one would be to try and fix some of the issues in the address data you are trying to geocode before you geocode the address data.  This may include trying to standardize the input address data (street abbreviations, data structure, etc).

You also want to use the best dataset available to geocode against.  Increasingly we are seeing water utilities licensing commercial dataset for geocoding.  Particularly they are choosing to license datasets that frequently updated and have the ability to geocode down to a rooftop level.

We somtimes see water and wastewater utilities use parcel centroids as the first step to establishing customer locations.  So if you can get a good dataset of parcels in your service area you can use GIS to calculate the centroid of each parcel as the first step to establishing customer locations.

Also we are increasingly speaking with water utilities that are GPSing their meter locations and curb stops during meter replacement projects or wastewater utilities that are GPSing clean outs during field data collection projects.

No matter what automated process you use to get your customers on the map initially, no doubt you’ll have to do some data clean up.  For example, you will probably have to do some manual data creation and editing to establish customer locations at commercial and industrial locations or for multi-unit housing.  Also you must develop a workflow to keep your customer location dataset in GIS up to date.

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