Evolve or Die: a Municipal Sewer & Water article

This article is straight journalism, one of dozens of infrastructure articles I’ve written for Municipal Sewer & Water. I’ve really benefited from magazine writing, and my clients benefit too—magazine work keeps me in touch with the industry, and gives me valuable contacts. Other magazines I’ve written for as a journalist include CE News, The American Surveyor, and Professional Surveyor.

Evolve or Die: Gainesville, Florida continually expands and refines its GIS into a model for others

MSW-cover“In short,” says Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) Water/Wastewater GIS Administrator Steve McElroy, “our GIS has gone from an outsourced GIS comprised of infrequently updated paper maps, to an in-house, fully digital system that consists of a utility-wide GIS data viewing application, survey grade GPS equipment, mobile GIS data viewing, inspections and redlining, and an in-house work management system that is tied to our GIS… so yes, we’ve come a long way.”

Owned by the City of Gainesville, GRU is Florida’s 5th largest utility, and is unusually comprehensive, providing electric, natural gas, water, wastewater and telecommunications services to 89,000 retail and wholesale customers in Gainesville and surrounding unincorporated areas. The water/wastewater department maintains 1,069 miles of water line, 129 miles of sewer force main, and 593 miles of sewer gravity main. Like any big utility, GIS clearly has a role to play in administering the water and wastewater programs, but GRU’s initial GIS push actually began in the electric department in 1985, with an independent department initiative to build an Automated Mapping/Facilities Management (AM/FM) system on a mainframe computer. As early as 1988, facility maps produced by this system were being used in other departments, and in 1991 the mainframe system was migrated to an ESRI-based system with the goal of integration into all departments. In the words of GRU Supervising Engineer Larry W. Callis, the system that has evolved is, “… an integral part of nearly all utility functions and can now best be described as a successful and robust partnership between the operating departments and the planning, information technology, and administrative departments. Discipline-specific data layers are owned and maintained by the respective operating groups, but all data is corporately owned and maintained, and available to all segments of the utility and local government.” McElroy adds, “We don’t really have a GIS department, just GIS specialists like myself that support the different operational areas.”

By combining operational area expertise with enterprise-wide data availability, and by working with traditional support departments like administration, GRU has crafted an approach to GIS that serves all departments well and allows useful growth and evolution over time. They’re doing something right; the utility recently took home the 2008 Geospatial Information & Technology Association (GITA) Excellence Award, a major industry honor that recognizes “dedication, insight, and a high degree of initiative in the outstanding application of geospatial technology.”

“In general,” says Callis, “the concept, design, development, and funding of new GIS applications, or improved functionality, is centered within the operating areas. Deployment is realized through a partnership between the operating and information technology departments.”

For the water/wastewater department, this meant that during the mid to late 90s, much time was spent building digital asset and facility plans, and working with information technology and other departments to overlay these plans onto a common land base—by 2000, water and wastewater maps were routinely available, and included maps and views like alignments, facilities, manholes and conduits, and profile sheets. One-foot contours and high resolution aerial photography are available throughout the system. Since then, the system has become steadily more comprehensive, sophisticated, and useful. The department uses its own licenses of ESRI ArcGIS and ArcFM to update and produce maps, along with customized scripts and editing tools to efficiently enter as-built information. Map updating is now done at least weekly. To gather in-house and developer as-built information, the water/wastewater department now has its own robotic total station, and survey grade GPS RTK receivers. Custom ArcReader applications are used for enterprise-wide GIS data viewing. “All of our engineers, planners, scientists, etc.,” says McElroy, “have access to this system, which provides up to date GIS data viewing for any of their project needs.”

The ESRI-based system is extended with third party software. For example, Cityworks from Azteca Systems, Inc., is used for work and asset management, and ties directly to the ESRI database without duplication of data. And Bentley’s WaterGEMS and SewerGEMS are used for a modeling environment. The two programs integrate with ArcGIS and are powerful flow analysis tools. “I don’t deal directly with this,” says McElroy, “I just support the engineers and planners with any geodatabase issues.”

In addition to AM/FM, Callis lists the following work processes that are improved or enhanced by the current GIS: record keeping, standardizing symbols, standardizing materials and work practices, large and small scale project tracking, development review, system planning, system restoration and maintenance, underground facility identification and location, infrastructure information dissemination, and vegetation management.

As in any GIS implementation, achieving ‘buy-in’ was critical for success. Callis had a definite plan for building cooperation throughout the system: “Buy-in by peer groups, corporate support groups, and senior management was gained and maintained by continuous project championship by a senior operations manager, periodic showcasing of existing and envisioned methods of GIS with specific emphasis on real-world applications that would enable improvements to operating group’s effectiveness and efficiency, sufficient budgetary funding, sufficient staffing, trust of GIS staff by senior management, improved network resources, and improved relational database technology.”

By thinking about buy-in from the beginning, and by including traditional support departments, like administration, in GIS planning, GRU has been able to avoid many of the turf wars that often accompany the implementation of broad new technologies. And by leaving update and design of new GIS features to operating departments, while also relying on the information technology department to implement new features, GRU has been able to capture the strengths of its unique mix of utilities in addition to the traditional strengths of GIS. Both orientations have been keys to the growth of GIS at GRU.

Keeping it all together

Because it has developed over time, mostly by in-house development, GRU is still discovering new uses for the GIS, and new ways to integrate it into daily operations. Field access, for example, is still evolving: “Our IT department has set up several hot spots at strategic locations throughout our service area,” says McElroy, “and that lets field crews download or upload data via a secure FTP client.” But, he says, “As far as a nice dynamic system that pushes data both ways on the fly… we don’t have anything like that yet. Some of our field guys do use a remote desktop connection via Sprint broadband cards.” Still, when full field access arrives, it will likely be perfectly tailored to GRU’s needs in a way that an off the shelf system never could be.

Similarly, the utility’s CCTV setup is not yet integrated into the GIS, though McElroy has been thinking about it. GRU uses CUES’ Granite XP software to store and organize video data, and isn’t yet happy with existing methods for tying that data to the GIS. “It’s a standalone system that isn’t tied into our network, and therefore it isn’t tied to our GIS either. I spent some time looking into tying Granite XP into our work management system, Cityworks, but wasn’t too impressed with the interface of the plug-in. We also looked at tying the video files to the assets in the GIS, but the files are just way too big, so we bailed on that idea.” Again, the fact that hands on operators are making these decisions, and not outside consultants, means that GRU is ending up with the system that is right for them at the time, and isn’t being hurried into decisions that don’t need to be made yet.

Looking ahead, the water/wastewater department is currently focusing on mobile applications. “We’ve just implemented TC Technology’s GO! Sync Mapbook for field inspections, primarily storm response, and redlining—we’re right in the middle of configuring and optimizing the applications, and we’ve gone live with a few individuals.” And McElroy adds that the management team is hoping an enterprise asset management system will come online within five years or so, but “that will be a massive project, and is still in its infancy. Ultimately, we’re planning on the system, which will run on SAP, being tied into our GIS.”


Asked to estimate the overall tangible benefits to GRU that derive from the GIS implementation, Callis puts the figure at $3,000,000. He can’t put hard numbers to everything, but he does know, for example, that reducing the manual mapping staff is saving $360,000 a year, and he puts the annual figure for improved project planning at $25,000.

But he’s also quick to list intangible benefits. Superior customer service is “priceless!” and he likes the “trust by field personnel in the completeness and accuracy of our mapping products.” Other hard to quantify benefits include decreased network outages, marketing applications, and improved accuracy and detail of mid and long-term planning.

Having learned by doing, GRU’s homegrown GIS experts are busily giving back to the GIS community in their regions by addressing local groups on topics like, “Land Base Layer Maintenance”, delivered to the Alachua County GIS Users Group, and “Proper Procurement and QA/QC of Digital Orthophotogrammetry” delivered to the Alachua County Property Appraiser. By taking leadership roles, they’re raising the bar for geospatial information and products in their region, benefiting everyone.

GRU’s sense of satisfaction with the GIS that they’ve been able to grow and evolve to meet their needs is palpable. They’re proud of the recognition from GITA, but the tremendously improved utility of the system means even more. Callis says, “Demonstrated, measured, and continuous success has enabled GIS to evolve from an operating departmental effort in the mid-1980s with a grand vision, to that of an invaluable corporate resource of today, the realization of that vision.”

And when it comes to GRU’s GIS the nice thing is, it’s only going to get better with time.


Angus W. Stocking

Angus W. Stocking, L.S., is a licensed land surveyor who now prepares information marketing content for the infrastructure industry.


Angus W. Stocking, L.S.
P.O. Box 872
Paonia CO 81428
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