From documents to digital

April 2012 » Features » ENGINEERED SOLUTIONS
How one utility is saving money and doing more with GIS
Michael Cameron, GISP
To transition from paper documents to GIS, survey-grade GPS technology was used to build a database containing geographic information about the Joint Municipal Water and Sewer Commission’s assets.

The era of over-stuffed filing cabinets housing dusty record drawings of complex utility structures has, for many, come to an end. In the place of these antiquated methods of data storage, many utility providers are using GIS technology to create detailed digital maps of their systems, revolutionizing the ways in which they do business.

For utility workers, mapping the geography of the municipalities they service along with the locations of their assets is a vital part of creating and maintaining their utility systems. With GIS technology, individuals within this and other industries can rapidly create digital representations of these landscapes, allowing them to better document existing utility systems and giving them the information they require to more effectively plan for system expansion or repair.

Many GIS systems allow for field staff to access the information contained on their systems via smartphone apps, putting all the facts they may require to efficiently complete their jobs at their fingertips.

The Joint Municipal Water and Sewer Commission (JMWSC) of Lexington County, S.C., used to be one of many utility providers relying almost entirely upon paper documents. When JMWSC decided, in 2005, to transition from its current system of record keeping to a technology-rich GIS, it turned to WK Dickson & Co. Inc. At that time, the crux of JMWSC’s data was in the form of paper as-built drawings, making transitioning to a fully functioning GIS quite a challenge. The professionals at WK Dickson assisted JMWSC in the transition, enabling it to modify practices, reduce costs, and increase the overall productivity of those throughout the organization.

Starting from scratch
The advisers that guided the JMWSC through this transition began by discussing the JMWSC’s wants and needs, ensuring that the system they built was one that fit its unique desires and was customized to provide the features it needed. It became immediately apparent that what JMWSC required was a scalable system that could start small and grow as its staff became more adept at utilizing the new tool and as its needs changed over the years. To ensure that the system they produced was scalable, the representative working with JMWSC started by gathering information on the utilities’ long-term goals then working backwards, determining where to start to reach these end goals and creating a plan for doing so.

One of the first challenges the JMWSC and WK Dickson had to tackle was mapping out its sanitary sewer system. To do this, they utilized survey-grade GPS technology to build a geodatabase — a database containing geographic information about the assets comprising the collection system. While working to craft this geodatabase, the team determined that many aspects of the paper drawings upon which the utility had so long depended were incorrect. As they uncovered these errors, they were able to correct them, leading to improvement in the quality of information and, by connection, allowing the JMWSC to operate more efficiently and better service its customers.

The comprehensive GIS developed for the JMWSC was custom designed to allow for full integration of multiple information systems including billing information, work orders, and asset management decision support. Another useful inclusion in the system was the integration of an existing supervisory control and data acquisition system (SCADA), which the utility had already been using to control pumps and other components within its system via radio or telephone signals. To reduce workers’ needs to move back and forth between separate systems, this SCADA system was incorporated into the utility’s GIS, making the GIS system a one-stop-shop through which the utility workers do nearly everything.

A rapidly evolving aspect of the GIS world — mobile GIS — is further revolutionizing the way utility providers, including the JMWSC, do business. Many GIS systems allow for field staff to access the information contained on their systems via smartphone apps, putting all the facts they may require to efficiently complete their jobs at their fingertips and allowing them to complete many tasks via mobile devices. The system used by the JMWSC already allows it to test and monitor parts of its system via mobile apps, including assets such as fire hydrants and backflow prevention devices.

For utility workers, mapping the geography of the municipalities they service along with the locations of their assets is a vital part of creating and maintaining their utility systems

Still in development is a mobile app that will better connect workers in the field with clerks in the utility’s office — something that will be particularly useful on days on which customer water will be turned off for non-payment. For decades, the JMWSC has had to deal with these chaotic, once-a-month days as workers in the field turn off water at the same time as customers delinquent in their bills come in to bring their accounts up to date. This in-development app will serve as a real-time platform with an easy-to-read color coding system that those in the field and those in the office can check and update simultaneously to ensure that they are only turning off water for customers still owing on their bills and that, as soon as these bills are paid, water is restored with little if any delay.

Part of making the GIS more available extends beyond accessing data in the field. Using Web-based mapping applications, JMWSC staff are able to access the most current GIS information from a secure website anywhere they have Internet access. So when a member of the operations staff is notified of an alarm condition by the SCADA system, a quick check of the GIS information from their home can often answer questions and result in a faster and better response. A side benefit of deploying GIS information through Web-based applications is also a cost savings. Rather than installing software on each person’s computer to access the GIS, Web-based mapping allows anyone with a Web browser to access the data. A secure login procedure restricts access to only employees.

Making it all fit together
The fully integrated GIS the JMWSC has built is not one that was born overnight. For the last six years, each new development has been planned around one common goal — compatibility.

Each department within JMWSC follows unique procedures to tackle daily operations. As the procedures have been upgraded, or new procedures have been implemented, the GIS has helped centralize how information is collected and shared. This careful planning has virtually eliminated redundant effort and minimized expenditures on hardware, software, and training. As the GIS continues to evolve, JMWSC and WK Dickson continuously monitor and update the strategic plan that was part of the wants and needs initially identified.

Michael Cameron, GISP, is GIS program manager with WK Dickson & Co. Inc. He can be contacted at Guy Schmoltze, P.E., is engineering and construction manager with the Joint Municipal Water and Sewer Commission. He can be contacted at

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