GIS: All mapped out

Geographical information systems have been around for a long time with some historians tracing back their use to Dr John Snow’s discovery of the source of the cholera outbreak in 1854 to the Broad Street pump in London’s Soho by noting distributed incidents on a map. However, the modern iterations of these systems have failed to become as widespread a phen­omenon as they might have done. At a roundtable organised by GIS software leader ESRI UK, CIO sat down with five IT leaders to talk about their successes, frustrations and hopes for the technology.

Phil Pike, Director of IT and procurement at gas distribution business Wales & West Utilities

“GIS is core. We have assets in the ground over a very dispersed geography and a field force to service and maintain them. When the company formed a few years ago, we had an aggressive timeline to replace all the IT systems we needed to run the business. It was a fantastic opportunity because large utilities don’t often get a clean sheet of paper to transform their IT, so we looked at best practice to reengineer our business processes and saw GIS as a great front end.

“We got down to five or six key systems for all our business processes for things like emergency gas escapes or planned repairs, tying it to an SAP-centric single asset repository on which we could add visualisation for asset data, schedule & dispatch and so on. In the old world you would have a field service where assets described in CAD systems would be printed off and field staff would mark up changes and send them back to update the record. So why not draw it direct in the GIS like an acetate layer? You press a button and the design record gets promoted to a live asset. In our business it’s incredibly important for data to be as accurate and up to date as possible.

“We also integrated GIS into CRM and where previously we would have manually put a quote into the CRM system, we now just draw a line on the map and the system automatically calculates the quote.

“We do envisage GIS further enhancing business performance going forward although a lot of potential future opportunity is still constrained by technology: performance, networks, connectivity etc.”

David Felstead, Director of IS at the Forestry Commission, the largest provider of outdoor recreation facilities in the UK

“I suppose we could run without GIS because once upon a time we had to, but the business is dependent on it now and it’s very efficient – we spend less money ­because of it. We use it for visualisations, showing what the landscape could look like, for building roads and so on. We couldn’t run the business without maps.

“The thing I’m quite frustrated about is that there’s been a lot of using GIS to solve specific problems but I’d like to get to the point where we mould the application around the data. We have some challenges. The user base are not natural computer users, and we still have offices where BT is quoting us several thousands of pounds to run relatively low-bandwidth lines.

“One of the areas where we haven’t yet gone is using the GIS view of the world to index the nest of data we’re sitting on.  We’re probably still guilty of putting data into silos and we need to find ways to make it mainstream and ask whether there a GIS approach to unlocking that data. People are getting very excitable about carbon footprints, what electricity is being used where and so far we’ve put it into an Oracle­ database but we could use GIS to better depict sources of carbon consumption.

“Something like Google Maps does make some of this stuff feel clunky but we have a lot more integration requirements with demands coming from different directions, internally and through various government and EC initiatives that move at different speeds. That’s great but they are all very different so which direction are we being pulled in? We also want to make public data public and there’s a lot of pressure to integrate very quickly. We’re trying to make everything [that is public-facing] browser-based because it has to be publicly deliverable. Utopia would be a single, central Great Britain map. That would be fantastic but it’s not going to happen in the next few years.”

Martin Smith, Director of group technology and innovation at Manchester Airports Group

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“We’ve focused on ease of use and enhancing the customer experience for all our services. Our use of GIS has come from a different position than utilities because airports are big but not so geographically dispersed, so the case for everything being geo-labelled is not as great.

“Historically we have been most interested in areas like measuring and displaying noise contours to help with planning permissions and minimising the impact of our operation on our neighbours. As our airports develop, we need to know what the noise contours are and who’s affected.

“GIS opened up a whole raft of making sense of things for us and it’s fundamentally easy to grasp for outsiders too. We’ve grown that basic approach to include community relations and expanded into marketing support to discover deep data on where passengers come from – that’s information the smaller airlines won’t necessarily be able to do through their own market analysis. These are the sorts of things we could get a consultancy to do but it’s very hands-off, the data is disconnected from output, you can’t do what-ifs and it’s cheaper to keep in house.

“What we’re recognising is that ESRI sits alongside the business intelligence layer­ in our information management structure. I’m seeing the stack as being the data, with GIS sitting on top of middle­ware and applications, and alongside our existing­ sophisticated BI capability. I see the GIS as a parallel to the BI so we can look at customer­ information by postcode, use BI to drill down and then use GIS to create heat maps from the data.

“In a typical airport the operator itself only employs 10 per cent of the staff. At Manchester Airport there are over 300 companies on the site, so you need co­operation. It’s a challenge but it’s undoubtedly also an opportunity. For example, the biggest sell for asset management right now is mobile and the guys who get the data in have the best chance to capitalise. GIS captures the location of the asset, gives the information to the operator at the work area, and then allows updated information to be captured through the mobile device.”

Richard Walsh, CIO of British Waterways, which is currently involved in £10.2bn worth of waterside regeneration

“GIS has been fundamental to the IT strategy which I wrote almost­ 10 years ago. It was based on a vision of a map-based front-end being the key point of entry to our systems. In our industry geography is very important. Dealing with long linear assets over distances presents challenges and it helps if you can represent these geographically. That was what the board could latch onto.

“We bought ESRI in 2001 and it spreads across the business activity. We have a mobile application to inspect assets which utilises GIS as well as SAP. Integration with our SAP ERP system is very important and GIS provides the visual interface to our main business application. Some of our assets are over 200 years old so it’s something that we’ll never stop working on.

“Our big challenge is consolidating data and there are opportunities to integrate with Microsoft Office SharePoint Server. Having that sorted will really help us meet what the next challenges will be around cloud computing and what that means for cost cutting. There will be big pressure to look at software-as-a-service and how that could be appropriate to us.”

Charles Kennelly, CTO of ESRI UK, a supplier of GIS solutions

“There’s stuff that can be done with GIS that can’t be done in any other way and my frustration is that we’re still mainly using it for things that we could have done on paper. Before we were here there was data and after we’re long gone there will be data, but we need to make best use of that.

“The consumer sector has made people more aware of the potential for mapping and location and set a level of expectation around speed and ease of use. Customers expect to see slippy maps [dynamic maps that respond to changes in live data feeds] using their data, while in reality it can take minutes to process each frame. With Google it’s a picture, but with GIS the user may have 200 different information sets coming in from sensors to create that map or picture. Our challenge is to find ways of achieving the same sort of feel – matching high level consumer expectations — while dealing with the realities of real time business data.”