Power play

Geographical Information Systems (GISs) are enabling the region’s utilities authorities to enhance their customer service and to better respond to emergencies.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  October 28, 2002

I|~||~||~|The region’s electricity & water authorities are turning to Geographical Information Systems (GISs) to speed customer services and to make the masses of information held in their databases more accessible. Furthermore, these applications are becoming core systems and the main entry point for many end users, who just need to click on a map to access a host of data.

GISs work by displaying the geographical aspects of a body of data, and they enable end users to query or analyse data and receive the results in the form of a map. The map can display information using geographic coordinates, such as latitude and longitude, or in terms of a street addresses and postcodes, or a combination of the two. Specific points on the map, such as, houses or electricity substations, can then be tied to information stored in a database.

This has been done at Sharjah Electricity & Water Authority (SEWA), where a significant GIS system has been developed using a suite of products from ESRI. For instance, customer information stored in a Microsoft SQL 7.0 database has been linked to a GSI interface using ESRI’s ARCSDE (Spatial Database Engine). The integration means that staff are able to quickly cross-reference customer details and locations on a map, which is particularly useful in the emirate.

“In Sharjah we have no addresses, so we have to ask people which market or mosque they are near. This makes it difficult to find a specific location,” says Atif Ahmed Karrani, GIS planning engineer, SEWA.

Finding a location is particularly important in the event of a power cut, as staff need to react as rapidly as possible. “If a substation fails you can have 50,000 unhappy customers, so you have to respond quickly,” Karrani adds.

“When the first call comes in, you have to decide if it is a domestic fault or a fault in a substation and implement the right process,” he explains.

The GIS system is central to responding to such an emergency, as it enables a fast response to customers’ calls. Emergency call centre staff can quickly find the customer’s house on the GIS system by entering in the customer’s number. A map then opens up, which shows the location of the substation connected to the affected house. A further click brings up information about the substation, such as its maintenance schedule and the type of transformer it contains. The engineers then know what spare parts and equipment they need to take with them to fix a problem at the substation before they leave their headquarters, which greatly reduces the downtime.

Similar applications are also being used by Abu Dhabi Water & Electricity Authority (ADEWA) to monitor its water pipes and electricity network.
“The GIS initiative is an effort to increase our efficiency and enhance customer service — it provides mapping data on the physical network and physical assets. [For example, we] are able to locate [assets] quickly if there is a burst pipe,” explains Dr. Mohamed Baka, ADEWA’s IT director.

To detect a power cut or water leakage requires real time information. This data is captured using a series of flow meters installed along the cable or pipe. The meters are connected to a central database, either using a direct analogue cable link or via a remote link using transmitters in the flow meters, which then enables dynamic modelling of the network.

||**||II|~||~||~|Alongside these sensors, any GIS system requires geographical information. To create the digital maps needed for its system, SEWA’s GIS team converted the authority’s existing paper maps using a high end scanner. Currently, any updates are entered into the system in a similar manner, after maps have been manually redrawn. However, the mapping department is set to switch to an all digital process this month.

SEWA is also using the mapping capabilities of the GIS to accelerate the process of issuing No Objection Certifications (NOCs), which is a mandatory part of all planning applications. The authority has to issue a NOC certifying that there are no power lines near a proposed development before any building work can begin.

Prior to the deployment of a GIS application — which was developed in house using Visual Basic 6.0 and InterDev 7.0 — engineers had to visit each site and manually check that there were no power lines there. As SEWA receives at least 10 planning applications per day, this was a time consuming and resource intensive operation.

Using the GIS system, however, allows the planning department to quickly find the location of power lines without leaving their desks. They first open a map of Sharjah in ARCView 8.2 and then enter the number of the plot where the proposed development will take place. The system then shows the electrical layout around the site and, if there are no problems, it prints out a NOC. This certificate shows a map, the date, the name of the engineer and the electricity points around the site.“The process used to take a week… now it is just four clicks,” observes Karrani.

Further improvements to customer services come from GIS logistics tracking applications, which allow utilities’ service personnel to better plan their maintenance visits. The application records where the engineers need to go, which could be as many as 15 different sites, and maps out the most effective route.

Aside from reducing travel times, the RouteSmart application also enables engineers to more accurately predict when they will arrive at a given location, which again improves customer service.

“The application reduces the customer’s in house time down from nine or ten hours to just a couple,” comments Miles Flynn, regional manager, ERSI.

“Instead of saying ‘we’ll be there between 7:00 am and 7:00 pm,’ crews can say ‘we’ll be there between 9:00 and 10:30’,” he explains.

A similar application is used by SEWA to re-route power supplies when a substation is closed for routine maintenance work. Before a shut down, the system tells engineers which areas of the network will be affected by the shut down. The output of neighbouring substations can then be increased and re-routed for the duration of the work via the GIS interface.||**||

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