Improving planning with GIS technology

The utility sector is increasingly using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to better manage and deliver their services. There is an increasing amount of innovation in this sector and much of it is transferable and useful to the public sector.
Traditionally the main role of GIS in utility provisions has been as an asset management tool. Utility companies have a considerable amount of geographically disparate assets many of which may not be easy to access. A≈GIS system allows the utility companies to combine datasets like site assessments and maintenance records with a spatial location. This allows for simple efficiency savings like better routing of inspecting engineers. However the addition of the spatial element also makes it easier to asses risk and model the impact of the failure of any given asset. Being able to combine data on the location, state of repair and surroundings of a given asset enables the implementation of a much more targeted and efficient maintenance schedule.

Clearly the challenge faced by the utilities sector in terms of asset management has strong similarities to the challenges faced by both central and local government. Both are required to maintain large, complex and often geographically disparate networks whether this is a water main or a local road network. Secondly failure or reduced performance of any particular component of these networks can have significant negative effects on both the economy and the citizen.

A GIS solution for Manchester
Manchester City Council faced just such a challenge with managing flood risk throughout their administrative area. The council wanted to create a register of structures likely to have an effect on flood risk if not performing properly (such as culverts, debris filters, storm drains) and then assess the potential impact of a failure. The overall aim was to enable better informed decisions to be made about relative risk and therefore budget allocation and maintenance scheduling. It was decided that a GIS solution would be the best option as this allowed a more effective way to model and visualise risk and visualise the location of the assets.
The council contracted out to JBA Consulting to collect the data and integrate it into a GIS solution. The result was a collection of maps for each structure modelling different water depths, velocities and return periods. This enabled users to easily assess the impact area and therefore the risk for any given structure and this has since been used to schedule maintenance of the structures in an informed way making better use of resources and improving the management of risk. It is important to note that the solution was delivered as a series of linked .pdf documents allowing users to drill down from the ward level to the specific asset. This made the solution accessible to a much wider range of users as no hard GIS knowledge was necessary.

Making information accessible
Alongside the general principle of creating geospatial asset registers (in this case with additional layers for risk), which has long been prominent in the utilities sector, this project raises two other interesting points. The first is that the output of this project was deliberately designed to be as accessible to as many potential users as possible. The linked .pdf format chosen allows users with little specialist knowledge in the field of GIS to access the information. This drive to increase access to geospatial information is something that is increasingly seen in the utility sector. The desire is to put this kind of information into the hands of the technicians and engineers in the field maximising its value right through an organisation.

The dangers of outsourcing
The other point of interest is that this project was outsourced to an external consultancy rather than carried out by an internal GIS team. Reports from the public sector members of the AGI (Association for Geographic Information) suggest that the current budget constraints faced by central and local government agencies mean that internal GIS services are being reduced. These organisations are increasingly contracting out to small and medium sized GIS companies for the necessary expertise. Interestingly the observation about the increasing drive to output geospatial information in a more accessible way could be a symptom of a reduction in GIS literate staff. The danger is that GIS is seen as an area for reduction rather than an area that can help deliver efficiencies and reduce costs. Of course on a project by project basis it is possible to contract out for the expertise but this puts a holistic and joined up approach at risk.

Innovations in smart cities
Another innovation in the utilities sector is smart metering which will soon be rolled out across the UK. This will provide utility companies with a huge amount of real time data with a spatial element to it (the location of the meter). The utilities sector (particularly energy) also already uses smart monitoring to produce real time data on the condition and status of their assets. The principles of smart metering/monitoring, basically real time data collection have been taken up by the public sector to help manage complex urban environments. Real time spatial data such as traffic flows, air quality and noise pollution come together in the form of smart cities, often considered to be the logical extension of GIS and geospatial information generally at a local government level.
Smart cities are the next big innovation and present an opportunity and a challenge for GIS in the public sector, particularly within local authorities who manage urban areas. Smart cities are all about integrating different data streams and information sources to provide a unified and comprehensive set of information about an urban area. This in turn allows the authority managing that area to make better decisions informed by this data, to the benefit of the citizen. The concept of smart cities can also empower the citizen both by providing them with information (traffic flow, status of public transport networks etc) and allowing them to help collect information (for example reporting on the state of pedestrian and footpath assets).

Focusing on the citizen
Glasgow City Council (GCC) have been chosen by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) to champion the Future Cities Demonstrator project and have received £24 million funding to support this. Key to the winning bid was that the project would bring together expertise from the private, public and academic sectors in order to deliver real day to day benefits for the city. GCC have decided to focus on four key areas, Travel, Energy, Health and Public Safety. At the heart of all these areas is the creation of a Big Data Store. This connects information from previously unconnected data sources allowing it to be more easily analysed and accessed by different organisations. Outputs from this will include a data portal and a map portal making a large number of datasets open to any interested parties.
Another key element of the Future Cities Demonstrator project is its focus on the citizen. One of the major outputs of the project will be a city wide dashboard that contains real time information like traffic flow, weather alerts, accident and emergency waiting times, rail and bus services and roads gritting. All of this will be accessible by the public through web and Smartphone applications. The public will also be heavily involved in data capture particularly on the transport project. The map portal will also encourage the public to contribute to better data by annotating and amending spatial datasets.
The Glasgow project is an ambitious one but one that highlights well the potential benefits and challenges of the changing technologies and practices available in GIS. It combines real time data gathering, interpretation and display (as seen in the utilities sector) with a holistic approach to data and spatial information and a focus on the citizen.

Meeting challenges
The technologies and practices displayed in the Future Cities Demonstrator and other smart cities around the world represent a great tool in meeting the challenges of managing finite resources in growing urban areas. However this is not to say that they do not come with challenges of their own. Integrating datasets requires consistent data standards and well maintained metadata, collecting and analysing real time data requires significant resources. Finally a project like this needs clear leadership, expertise and most importantly clear goals. As with any new technology or methodology there is a danger that it will be implemented simply because it is new without a clear plan as to the benefit it will deliver. GCC have started their project with clear limited (but still ambitious) aims and clear goals for what this will achieve for the city and its inhabitants.
With these requirements in mind a major challenge to adoption of smart cities practices could be the loss of internal GIS staff discussed earlier. Whilst contracting out to SMEs for expertise can be a good value solution for specific projects like the Manchester City Council flood risk assessment this model can become problematic when running a major long term scheme like the Future Cities Demonstrator. In house GIS expertise is important for the organisation to be able to identify the goals and develop a strategic vision for the project. There is a danger that the potential of GIS to benefit the public sector and improve service provision and efficiency will be hampered by funding restrictions and a loss of expertise.

Further information

Please register to comment on this article