Systems Integration in an Evolving World

Senior Engineering Manager Scott Richards, PE, joins us as a guest blogger to talk about the changing world of data as it relates to utility system management and operations. With more than 12 years of experience, his background includes water and wastewater treatment systems, pump stations, and transmission/distribution systems design, in addition to hydraulic modeling, master planning, asset management, utility studies, bond reports, and equipment energy analysis.

Think about how quickly our world has changed in the past 10 years, especially the way we gather, store, and use data. Yes, it wasn’t that long ago that the iPhone or Android didn’t exist. Remember having a personal digital assistant, with a basic phone, and a personal phonebook or spreadsheet on your desktop PC, none of which “synced”? Data is now at our fingertips on demand. With smartphones that can provide instant access to email, maps, “the cloud,” synchronized contacts, and social networks – our phones know more about us than we do!

While more specialized, the same evolution applies to the business world, in particular for municipalities and utility owners/providers. Advancements in data storage, shared data, and mapping allows for the integration of multiple systems of data that were previously incompatible. Consider all the systems/tools we use, such as GIS & mapping, accounting/billing, system modeling, CAD, CMMS, asset management, and other database software platforms. More important, there is the significant institutional knowledge of owners, operators and maintenance personnel.

But with so much data available, how do we sort it, determine and capture what is useful, and spend money wisely? We need data to help us make better-informed decisions and provide a better understanding of our systems, not provide data overload. It all begins with developing a strategy that provides an understanding of the systems that are in place, and defines the stakeholders, and their needs and goals. Once stakeholder needs are understood at both the “macro” and “micro” levels, common goals can be realized, and this allows short- and long-term plans to be made and developed into a system/data integration strategy.

For a utility, consider GIS, smart meters, SCADA historian data, hydraulic models, weather history, and maintenance records. These are stand-alone data sets, and based on individual analysis only limited decisions can be made. However, integrating the data sets into a common platform, such as a map based GIS layout, creates a significantly better toolbox, and allows for a greater understanding of relationships, cause and effect, and operational trending/forecasting. This may include determining systems issues such as leaks, I&I, pump failures, closed valves, and hydraulic bottlenecks. Also, data can be utilized for improved predictability of system demands, maintenance needs, and system growth/expansion.

At the end of the day, there is no single out-of-the-box solution that applies to everyone. With systems integration strategies available from multiple sources (CMMS, GIS, modeling, etc.), a selection should be made to tailor needs, budgets, and priorities that result in the most effective use of existing systems and databases. Consider the options, making sure the system/method selected fits the needs of your team at all levels, and results in a collaborative effort to improve performance and efficiency. So, next time your smartphone knows you’re late because you haven’t left the office yet for a meeting, think about how your business/operational systems can be better integrated to improve your team’s performance.

For more information on improving performance at your utility or other issues impacting public works departments, contact Senior Engineering Manager Scott Richards at 407.423.8398

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