"It all comes down to ensuring fewer interruptions to our service. And, if there is a problem, getting customers’ electricity back on as quickly as possible. Cost comes next after these two issues. The Autodesk GIS solution for our electricity distribution network division makes certain that all three of these demands are met," says Phil Clark, head of asset data records, United Utilities.
United Utilities manages and operates the regulated electricity distribution, water and wastewater networks in north-west England for a population of around seven million. But, the company’s reach doesn’t end here. As well as contracts in Scotland, Wales and the south of England, the company is also active on four continents, serving 27 million people globally.
United Utilities was created in 1996 by the merger of water services provider North West Water and electricity provider Norweb. At the time, North West Water was already a long-term Autodesk customer using Autodesk geospatial technology to manage its water network assets. Implementing GIS across all areas of the business has been part of an overall five-year strategy to build on the synergies of being a multi-utility provider.
Now the roll out of its £20 million electricity GIS programme is complete and the company and its customers are now reaping the benefits. The next project to kick in will be a new multi-utility geographical system (or MUGS), also based on Autodesk geospatial technology, for United Utilities’ customer contact centre where the real advantages of having easily available integrated information will become apparent.
United Utilities has estimated that it could save around £800,000 per year in efficiency gains thanks to the complete multi-utility operation.
"Ultimately our GIS is helping us meet our regulatory targets and remain in the top 25 per cent in the utility league tables for performance and this, in turn, impacts on the value of the company. But importantly, it enables us to pass on real, practical benefits such as a faster service to the customer," says Phil Clark.
Consequently it could take days – weeks even – to answer and send a response to queries. It was also difficult to put together any accurate network asset statistics to enable informed management decision-making and to measure performance against regulatory guaranteed standards.
The network asset details of United Utilities’ water and sewage network had been captured on an Autodesk system since the early 1990s and it was decided to take the same path for the electricity assets. This would not only improve the asset management of this division, but it would also result in synergistic cost-savings across both businesses.
As Brian O’Neill, project and data manager, United Utilities North West explains, the project was broken down into three areas. "We had the GIS application and hardware requirements. Then we had to effectively redraw our paper-based network from the 210,000 paper drawings and recreate in a digital format onto new digital mapping. At the same time we had to capture the many attributes of the assets and create the associated network connectivity all in the GIS data format.
"Alongside, we had to define and manage the business change, including the move from four drawing offices to a new multi-utility GIS data operation and the subsequent development of new processes to ensure we maximised our investment."
The first stage was relatively straightforward. United Utilities chose to stay with Autodesk technology as the two companies had built up strong relationships over the years. It also employed Autodesk Consulting to define, develop and deploy the solution and give support to the ongoing project.
Autodesk’s open, non-proprietary technology meant it would be simple to feed data extracts from this corporate system into any other desktop and mobile GIS application used throughout the company and in the field. It also gave extensive capacity for future integration with other applications.
The solution runs on an Oracle database extended through the use of an Autodesk GIS Design Server providing the functionality and transaction management capabilities necessary for such a large, distributed GIS implementation. A single object model, based on the appropriate data model, defines and manages all facets of the asset data such as spatial, attribute, connectivity and other relationships
At the front end is Autodesk MapGuide which enables users to access, view and query GIS data. Autodesk Map allows the edit and update of this data.
Capturing the information on United Utilities electricity assets - including 45,000 km of underground electricity cables 14,000 km of overheard electricity lines, and 18,000 electricity substations – was a more complex matter. After going to global tender, the contract for digitisation was won by AMEC to be undertaken in Malaysia by Baymont, with third party quality control by Autodesk partner Cad Capture.
The scale of this side of the project was immense. At its peak it involved 740 staff offshore and 30 in the UK. In total 12 million asset features were captured and the work completed amounted to a phenomenal 850 man-years.
"We also wanted to populate the data held in the Autodesk geospatial system with as many attributes as possible so the offshore teams had a mix of colour-scanned paper records and database information from other systems. In the end we captured an average of eight attributes (such as size, type and so on) per asset and this resulted in more than 100 million attributes captured," says Brian O’Neill.
To make this data capture process manageable it was divided into 282 batches and these were slowly fed into the Oracle database on a regional basis rolling down from the Scottish Borders to the Peak District.
This two and a half year exercise was finally completed in May 2005.
The result of the project has been a complete transformation in the way United Utilities’ information can be maintained, accessed and used. For a start, all information is centralised in one location freeing up a huge amount of office space.
There has also been considerable savings from the streamlining of the management of these systems and of Ordnance Survey maps - and from reduced printing costs and the closure of all microfi che and CD distribution processes. Also, the fact that the information has been digitised and can be accessed round-the-clock from any location means that data maintenance can be carried out anywhere with a PC connection.
But the main benefit must be that users throughout the company now have fast and easy access to current, high-quality and accurate data via Autodesk MapGuide. "There’s far more power in the information," says Phil Clark. "It can be used for a wide variety of purposes from regulatory reporting and analysis to helping maintenance activities become more efficient.
"For example, in a matter of a few seconds we can find out how many cables of a certain type and size we have. This was something we could never do before with paper records – we would have had to go through every piece of paper and add them all up, which would have been extremely time-consuming.
"We can now make much more informed decisions and plan our budget more efficiently. We are due to spend around £640 million on updating the network over the next five years and now we have a much better understanding of our assets we will be able to use this far more wisely."
He also describes how richer and more easily available information can help raise the quality of the network as assets can be proactively replaced. "Rather than waiting for something to fail before we replace it, we have a record of the age and condition of all our assets so we can plan better maintenance and replacement schedules."
It’s clear that having accurate data literally at your fingertips can bring widespread benefits. Phil Clark and Brian O’Neill describe:
How the solution helps manage environmental risk:
Oil is sometimes used as an insulator in electricity cables and occasionally this can leak. "Before, it was a long, manual task to search through paper records and locate the oil-filled cables and supporting tanks etc. Now in a relatively small project we have improved the data completeness and accuracy in GIS and established the connectivity for all underground and above ground oil-filled assets.
"We have also added environmental risk management data to help prioritise work on assets that may leak and would be close to a watercourse and we can share this information with the Environment Agency so that they can see our proactive approach to environmental risks," says Brian O’Neill.
How it helps community relations:
Recently United Utilities was asked by the police to identify electricity substations at risk from vandalism. It was able to take data from external sources such as the police themselves and match it together with its own information. Substations at risk were identifi ed within a couple of hours. Before this, the exercise could have only have been done with a thorough knowledge of the local area and a very lengthy trawl through paper records.
How it helps other companies maintaining infrastructure:
Phil Clark tells of how United Utilities was asked by Network Rail to identify which overhead lines and how many metres of them crossed the railway. "In the past this exercise would have taken weeks. In fact with the new system it was done in one hour."
How it helps to improve customer service:
One of the main benefits of the system is that helps to reduce the number of customer minutes of electricity lost through a break in service. Using the new MUGS system, based on Autodesk web mapping technology, United Utilities customer contact staff are able to view all assets against an OS map background. This means they are able to see immediately where a problem lies when a customer phones in and get an engineer out quickly to the right place to fix the fault.
"Using this information, alongside our specialist Low Voltage Fault Inferencing software, we are able to identity where the actual fault is on the network, based on where customer problems are reported.
"This is a major improvement. Nobody wants to be without electricity! But sometimes it’s unavoidable. It’s reassuring for customers to show we are aware of the situation and are doing something about it," says Phil Clark.
How it helps cut overheads:
Because information on United Utilities water, wastewater and electricity assets is centralised, users can get layers of information on the same screen. Local authorities and other external developers can now even get this information over the internet, saving considerable time for everyone when they want to check an area is safe to start digging.
"This is another great efficiency saving for us. We used to have to make paper plans available for anyone digging in the area which really added to our overheads. Now the external website takes all this administration away and allows people to focus on their job of maintaining the GIS records."
And as Clark remarks, the efficiencies create a virtuous circle. Customer service is enhanced and so the company meets regulatory targets.
"It’s all about knowledge," he concludes. "And being in control of what you have."