Make GIS More of a Strategic Tool in Your Organization's Arsenal

Mujib Lodhi, CIO, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC)

The Global Position System (GPS) originally con­ceived for tracking satellites during the cold war in the late 50’s has arguably become one of the most important technologies produced by any government throughout history. It is such an in­tegral part of so many industry sectors globally that there are many parallels in its ubiquity with our own water sector.

As one of the largest water utilities in the United States, WSSC’s customers have lost touch with what it takes to deliver fresh clean drinking water to their homes, let alone where the wastewater goes. The same goes for GPS where we turn our Smartphones on and almost instantly have very precise coordinates as to our loca­tion globally and now those coordinates play into so many day to day activities that we may or may not know of. Like water, the infrastructure is hidden from view so “out of sight, out of mind” applies and we quickly forget its hidden relevance to our daily lives.

Another interesting technology that has arisen as a result of GPS is Geographical Information Systems (GIS). This has also become widely used in many sectors from farming to real estate to our own water sector. Where we have all heard the cliche, a picture is worth a thousand words, GIS technology provides such pictures in geographic context by combining operational and environmen­tal data with GPS. All so we can more easily visualize, analyze and interpret data as we seek out meaningful relationships and/or trends.

"This GIS driven approach enables an enormous amount of data compiled by dozens of participating government agencies and private sector companies to be more easily and efficiently digested"

While GIS has been around for quite some time, it is only in recent years where it has been adopted in a strategic sense that is transforming the way organizations do business. Our GM/CEO, Carla A. Reid shares this vision - “WSSC recognizes the value of this technology and has taken the industry lead in utilizing it as a strategic component in meeting the demanding challenges facing the sector laying the transformational groundwork for changing the way we do business to serve our 1.8 Million Customers better.”

The Agency Project Coordination System provides an excellent case study. In a nutshell, this system eliminates redundant systems and technologies with overlapping responsibilities between various governmental entities at all levels as well as relevant pri­vate sector organizations. It does this by integrating these normally disparate systems into a centralized net­work of collaborative and/or coordinated activities for more efficient handling of any issues that might affect the public interest.

It is primarily a web based service consisting of a number of underlying elements and activities including mechanisms of near real time data sharing at minimal effort to participants. It uses GIS as the driver to quick­ly enable users to view only that information that is of geospatial relevance.

“WSSC has taken the lead not only on the local stage but the national stage as a leader in the water sector for not only promoting integrated collaboration and co­ordination but provided the testimony and proof that led to such strong partnerships with Montgomery and Prince Georges County to participate at these more tightly integrated levels with all public services” says Thomas J. Street, Deputy General Manager for Admin­istration.

It is easy to see how benefits might accrue particu­larly where the cost of infrastructure maintenance or improvement can run into many millions of dollars per mile. A significant proportion of these activities are re­dundant for the various agency objectives such that costs can now be planned, mitigated and shared among all participants. With billions in infrastructure improve­ments required over the next decade, it has great poten­tial to help resolve the conundrum facing almost any agency servicing a large geospatial constituency - how to achieve infrastructure improvements without severely impacting customers and stakeholders. With Americas aging infrastructure rated a D+ by the American So­ciety of Civil Engineers, this benefit stands alone in its long term social and environmental value.

There is also a safety impact relative to management of these infrastructure assets. For example, coordination with local fire departments over the 1100 square mile area has resulted in a 25 percent performance improve­ment at significantly lower cost for inspection and repair of fire hydrants.“Anytime WSSC can expand its available resources to find, inspect and coordinate repairs without adding additional cost, the benefits are priceless to the local communities. Additionally, the business benefits realized through this simplified connectivity extends to all participants, both public and private.” says Reid

By sharing infrastructure project activities many en­vironmental benefits are realized such as reduced traffic congestion and minimized environmental runoff associ­ated with digging more than once for separate projects. Other benefits include reductions in use of paper, print­ing, travel, and associated time and costs. For every 100 site utility plans submitted, 80,000 sheets of paper, 5 tons of paper in total and 13 trees are saved.

Scheduled activities and simulations for future growth impact analysis is another benefit not yet real­ized but is easy to envision as having significant business benefit across the board. For instance, if WSSC was planning to install a 5 inch main but through the fore­sight of the system could see trending project growth via the system, we might change to a larger supply line to accommodate that growth trajectory rather than having to upgrade it later.

This GIS driven approach enables an enormous amount of data compiled by dozens of participating government agencies and private sector companies to be more easily and efficiently digested. By allowing par­ticipants to specifically target their own interests in a more concisely defined and highly integrated geo­spatial assessment, the inevitable result is vastly im­proved operational efficiencies, environmental man­agement and customer/stakeholder relationships. It constitutes a revolutionary change not only in how we do business but how we interrelate with other government agencies and commercial enterprises.

Start looking at GIS as a strategic tool for your industry. I am certain you will find significant value in doing so.