How the UK’s utilities are reinventing the way they work to enable them to sustain critical water and energy services.
Realisation is beginning to dawn that business as usual may not be possible again for quite some time. The challenges for all businesses during and following the COVID-19 pandemic are huge, but, for the utilities sector in particular, they are immense.
Water, gas and electricity organisations need to continue to deliver reliable services for all UK households and business premises, not to mention the thousands of hospitals, care homes and other front line services that depend on energy and water to care for the sick and save lives. Yet their day-to-day operations are impeded by limited access to homes and businesses, a depleted workforce and new social distancing rules. Business as usual is absolutely essential, but impossible – so new ways of working will have to be found.
Throughout the utilities sector, many organisations are successfully addressing the challenges that have arisen from the COVID-19 crisis and are maintaining their vital operations by innovating with geospatial information system (GIS) technology. Taking advantage of GIS dashboards, web apps and mobile solutions, utilities are reinventing business processes to make them more mobile, more efficient or more accessible to large numbers of employees. They are also adapting the way they work to accommodate social distancing and prioritise services for vulnerable customers.
Enterprising utilities are using GIS to:
Empower a home-based workforce
With just a few days’ notice, utility organisations needed to move vast numbers of office-based employees from offices and depots and give them the tools they needed to work from home. Solutions like Esri’s ArcGIS Online allow organisations to make data and core services available to employees via the Internet and enable them to rapidly deliver tactical cloud-based GIS solutions to help them sustain their core operations during the evolving COVID-19 outbreak.
Expand opportunities for mobile working
During COVID-19 Severn Trent Water has equipped its employees with rapidly-configured mobile GIS tools for capturing, checking and updating asset information. In this new agile way, the organisation has been able to make best use of the eyes and ears of employees while they are out on their daily exercise in their local communities to improve the health of its asset data and report issues. For example, employees can report leaks or asset concerns that teams can then respond to quickly enabling them to improve their services for customers and operate more cost effectively.
Understand risk and plan accordingly
As a pandemic of this type is unprecedented in our lifetime, utilities have needed to quickly gain a detailed understanding of the risks. A number of utilities have created ArcGIS dashboards to track the spread of virus hot spots using data from Public Health England, as well as analysing data from the Office for National Statistics about the locations of vulnerable people. With this insight, they have identified locations where there were high proportions of recorded cases, which ultimately directed the planning and scheduling of maintenance services to protect employees and deliver the best possible services for customers.
Support vulnerable customers
If an emergency were to occur during lockdown, such as a power cut or water outage, utilities would have a responsibility to provide priority support to vulnerable groups and healthcare providers, such as hospitals. Scottish Water has created a versatile app that enables its control room staff to quickly identify all the vulnerable households, hospitals, care homes, prisons and other vulnerable groups affected by an unplanned water outage in minutes rather than an hour. This ArcGIS web app accelerates the organisation’s emergency planning, enabling it to deliver bottled water or tanks of water to vulnerable groups much more quickly in the event of an incident. It now has the ability to deliver a faster response to priority customers not only during the pandemic but any time an incident occurs, any time in the future.
Operate with social distancing
Social distancing guidelines are forcing utilities to completely reorganise the way that jobs are planned and carried out. At the simplest level, two engineers can no longer travel together in the same van or work in close proximity in the same substation, but it is much more complicated than this. Using ArcGIS, utilities can view planned maintenance jobs in a geospatial context and over time to identify the best way to allocate employees, vehicles and resources to ensure that essential works can be completed in a safe way.
Limit the spread of the virus
Current scientific advice indicates that the COVID-19 virus can survive on some surfaces for over 24 hours. Consequently, some utilities are now considering using ArcGIS to help them plan work schedules to minimise the number of people who actually need to touch certain assets, within a specific period of time. ArcGIS can be used to help establish working teams that do not interact, do not visit the same substations or do not touch the same fuse boxes within a 72-hour period to minimise the risk of large numbers of employees having to self-isolate if a colleague contracts the virus.
In many ways, the utility sector is shining a light on the way forwards for other industry sectors. Using ArcGIS, it is rapidly introducing new, more efficient, socially-distanced ways of working and focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable in society. Most importantly, utilities are successfully overcoming challenges to continue to deliver the services that we all depend on. Within just a few weeks, they have clearly demonstrated that when business as usual is essential, business as usual evolves.
Craig Hayes - Esri UK
Craig Hayes is Head of Practice for Critical Infrastructure at Esri UK. In this role,he advises the UK’s water, electricity and gas utilities, telecommunications companies and transport organisations about how to optimise the use of GIS.