Utilities - Planning and Management

Utilities is the collective noun for the disparate variety of services that includes water supply, wastewater and sewage disposal, electricity, gas, telecommunications, TV and cable. These are all characterised by the need to service the population via a complex distribution network. Organisations, government or commercial, providing these services need to understand and respond to the existing and likely requirements of an unevenly distributed customer base.

Powerful, sector specific tools based on innovative methodologies and technologies are increasingly being adopted by utility or service providers to facilitate both the management and planning process. These sophisticated computer-based data handling technologies allow for the preparation of the attribute databases and digital maps integral to the collation, manipulation and presentation of the diverse data sets that decision makers need to effectively synthesise.

In all utilities there are essentially two key areas that need to be continually addressed; these are the maintenance of existing assets on the one hand and the planning of new infrastructure on the other. For service providers the distribution network constitutes the assets while the location and distribution of the population represents the planning framework.

Asset Management and Facilities Mapping

Networks consist of a series of links and nodes with discrete characteristics. As an illustration of this, consider sewage and wastewater disposal. Such a system has a network of individual waste-water and untreated sewage outlets (from residential and industrial areas) that feed a progressively larger network of piped transportation to the treatment works or outfall. This system must also be designed to accommodate surface runoff in storm-water drains.

Effective supply of this service demands that leakage is minimised and that the system transports material safely and efficiently from source to destination. This demands that maintenance and management teams are able to monitor and service the network - pipes, drains, pumps, joints, valves, stop-cocks, stilling ponds, treatment works and so on. Every component of this system has specific characteristics - location, diameter/capacity, throughput, chemical composition, material, age etc. - that determine maintenance requirements such as lubrication, replacement, servicing and cleaning. Integral to the effective operation of this service are annual rainfall characteristics, water consumption patterns (not necessarily the same as supply where stand-pipes are involved), industrial effluent output, land use, existing hydrology and legislation.

Service providers in Europe and North America have responded to the complexity and demands of such networks through the establishment of sophisticated information systems that permit the network to be monitored (where real-time or regular data are obtained within the network), maintenance needs to be met and problems responded to.

To establish the data set does require considerable investment of time and resources in data capture. While the details of the network, both location and asset description (attributes) represent the key data capture need, street layout, topographic data, drainage, soils, land use/cover, existing, planned and projected infrastructure, other utility networks (to avoid dangerous or inconvenient disruption to consumers) as well as up-to-date census data, development projections are all vital to the establishment of an effective asset management and facilities mapping (AM/FM) resource. Existing sources of data need to be identified, relevant data extracted and pertinent data gaps addressed through systematic data collection strategies that reflect these objectives.

Once the database is established system supervision, pro-active servicing, emergency response planning (for flooding or accidental hazardous material release) and long-term maintenance scheduling are dramatically improved. Engineers are able to retrieve information about the network, display it and produce site specific maps in response to individual problems or requirements.

Expansion Planning

Any planning programme must address and be able to respond to the human dynamic - the capacity for growth and migration in particular. Both these elements are difficult to estimate in number let alone location even with accurate censuses and forecasts; the result is pressure on urban services, notably utilities.

The Accra Planning and Development Programme used GIS to illustrate that infrastructure development, land tenure and the supply of adequate services could be effectively planned and monitored. While a planning agency can collate and even disseminate such relevant information, utility agencies are usually separate entities with a substantially better appreciation of the intricacies of system development.

In adopting a spatial or map based approach to service provision utilities are able to use population and socio-economic data to estimate current and future demands and to visualise this in terms of distribution network development. Such modelling permits much improved financial and infrastructural planning management.

The vital precursor to all these scenarios is accurate data capture. In terms of asset management where traditional drawing methods have been used the adoption of digital drawing tools such as AutoCAD or Microstation is not difficult as similar conventions including coordinate systems (for location) are used. Extensions to these tools allow link and node attributes to be attached to individual objects such as pipes and valves; these databases are the basis of a maintenance and management system.

More complex is the planning process where acquisition of demographic and associated socio-economic data is often very difficult. GISL have initiated a new technique for population estimation in urban area that minimises field data collection and exploits the spatial (and associated socio-economic) homogeneity evident in urban planning (and visible in satellite data) as a means of service requirement estimation.

Airborne videography uses conventional video technology for data acquisition but then uses the most recent advances in hardware and software to extract the relevant information from the data. While it is essential to acquire field data for each homogeneous area, representative samples only are required. The spatial resolution of the video permits identification of individual households; extrapolation of the characteristics of these households within each zone allows for population estimation. With national or global standards applicable for many utilities supply and also infrastructural development cost estimation is then relatively simple.

In essence GIS is a decision support tool that allows the planner to visualise a real-world situation and to develop and evaluate options to achieve objectives and satisfy goals. For a utility these may include asset management, facilities mapping, expansion planning and emergency response procedures. This might entail the integration of historical data with ever-changing data from systems monitoring both the demand and the supply of the relevant resource. It might also require that the seasonal and diurnal variation in demand of the population be understood as much as those of physical and environmental factors in order to establish an effective management information system. Further it may be necessary to adopt innovative data acquisition techniques to best address the demands placed on utilities by urban populations.

The GISL Group brings together the resources, skills and experience to offer a "one-stop" consultancy solution to the client. As a focal point GISL can provide the full range of expertise and resources including technical assistance, system specification and installation, pilot studies, additional manpower from our specialist register, in-house data processing and output as well as offering fundamental GIS roles such as needs assessment, systems analysis and training.

By adopting a solution based method within which client objectives are clearly identified GISL retain a highly flexible approach that works with and for the client. Thus, individual components of the project cycle evolve from institutional evaluation, external pilot studies that include data capture, processing and output production through training and sub-sectoral based implementation to institution wide installation without incurring excessive risk and allowing continuous appraisal of the costs and benefits.

This way of working is well-suited to utilities where the ability to control the management and development of utility infrastructure is vital to economic and social development.

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