The Hidden Gem Sitting in Plain Sight

by | John Young

Originally Published on LinkedIn on January 17, 2019

It’s 2019 and today more than ever I am a passionate technologist researching and building helpful solutions for the facility and asset management community. I’m kicking off the year with a new lens to help organizations focus in on the hidden gem that’s likely sitting in plain sight. What is it?

Crescendo moment: mapping, location intelligence, and geographic information system (GIS) technology are the hidden gems for facility and asset managers. GIS is that critical pillar of technology that has likely been overlooked or is already present but underutilized and hiding in your organization. It’s a common thread and integrating technology that provides data organization, search, and discovery of mission critical assets regardless of where they sit -- indoors or outdoors.

What is the distinguishing trait? Location. A GIS knows "where" all your assets are located because geography is the fundamental principle or organizing mechanism used to store the data. This is especially helpful to organizations managing assets across a campus, plant, or installation environment.

In a GIS, graphic objects representing the natural and built environment are called "features". An electric line drawn on a CAD-based map is just that -- a line graphic. The same electric line drawn in GIS is a line feature with a known location on the earth and a row in a database table with attributes describing the asset. The old adage is "for every feature on a map, there's a row in a table".

GIS is and has been the best technology available to organize spatial data from many, often disparate, sources into a common "geo" database for almost two decades. Paper maps and designs, CAD, BIM, LiDar, aerial imagery, and other digital data formats can all be used to build up GIS feature "layers" of asset location data in a Geodatabase. Utilities, buildings, hardscapes, landscapes… typically any fixed asset that is being actively maintained or reported on can be included.

Once in GIS, these layers can be easily (read: EASILY) integrated with other asset and maintenance management enterprise systems. This is important because gaining rapid return on investment (ROI) for implementing and maintaining a GIS comes from the decision support applications one can quickly setup with GIS. These decision support "maps and apps" help stakeholders quickly search, discover, and learn about an assets location and key characteristics about the asset – characteristics directly tied to productivity, cost, and risk. In fact, here are several benefits:

  • Quickly access location and "type/status/condition" information about critical facility assets via digital map-based apps anywhere, anytime, on any smart device.

  • Reduce work planning and construction costs associated with unplanned utility "dig-in" and planned "pot-holing" events.

  • Perform utility network trace and isolation analysis during testing, incident, or outage events to quickly locate and navigate to utility shut-off values and switches.

  • Reduce time and material costs associated with project engineering, site evaluation, and environmental permitting studies.

  • Streamline outdoor and indoor asset inventory, inspection, and audit-related activities.

  • Locate and respond more quickly to incidents, service requests, and work orders.

  • Establish a critical facility asset location knowledge base and spatial data management system for improved coordination, collaboration, and information sharing among all stakeholders.

  • Easily integrate and take advantage of critical asset information stored in other enterprise business systems.

Bridging Gaps, Enabling Next Generation

GIS is the hidden "bridge" technology for your IT professionals. It’s a system that directly supports an organization’s transformation of its asset management technologies and business processes (i.e. going from reportable and managed to preventative and predictive capabilities) as well as a bridge between generations or ages of organization staff. I increasingly hear concerns from VP's of facility operations and facility managers commenting on what tools they will leave in place for the next generation to actively manage their facilities portfolio of assets. Navigating the variety of tools, gadgets, systems, and "platforms" (and eager sales people) on the market can be intimidating and overwhelming. I’ll simply suggest you take a close look at ArcGIS. For over forty years, it has been helping organizations achieve ROI -- increased productivity, reduced operations costs, mitigated risks -- while also putting in place a system that grows and scales in step with the organization and its asset portfolio. There are literally many thousands of examples and success stories.

It’s also quite helpful to know that GIS, specifically Esri’s ArcGIS, is a “big data” analytics and reporting technology. It natively stores and tracks the history of all changes to asset features and includes predictive analytics tools that utilize the historical information. This latter point is one I study and watch closely as the technology continues to expand on its machine learning, AI, and location intelligence capabilities. The growing implications for streamlining preventative and predictive maintenance are quite compelling.

Planting a seed: there are ArcGIS and related spatial technology tools that allow an organization to automate the processes of error detection and correction of CAD, BIM, GIS, and tabular records when updating one’s master design repository or asset management systems of record. Why is this important?

How often do you receive CAD files from your surveyor showing the latest updated utilities? And how often do these records get updated and placed in the correct geographic location and master CAD repository for future maintenance or replacement needs? Chances are, the current system involves managing multiple copies of CAD as-built data that often does not align with new incoming files in a poorly structured set of file-based directories. The result: the next time you want to search or locate those utilities in the field you pay $15-30K to have a survey and field locates contractor come back out (i.e. once again) to complete a survey and/or potholing exercise. The scenario above can be avoided by using GIS. There are fundamental business process time savings and risks that can be mitigated by utilizing its capabilities… and this is just one of many examples.

Grab the Hidden Gem: Learn More, Plan It, and Commit

So what is the hold up? After nearly 20 years in the industry, I could devote a tome to answering this question, but I'll boil it down to a simple explanation: lack of understanding and misinformation. It is common to hear, "GIS is not easy to setup, learn, and maintain" usually followed by "it costs too much and requires too much training". My answer these days is, "when is the last time you took a look at Esri's ArcGIS?" Today it's more affordable than ever, can be deployed and managed from a web browser or smart device in highly secure cloud environment (internal, external or hybrid), and presents a wide range of map-based analysis and reporting tools (read: easy-to-use, configurable apps) for one's stakeholders. Training options are mostly free or at low cost and Esri business partners – like Patrick Geospatial Services – are a great resource for ArcGIS solution planning, implementation, active system management, and training.

If you are interested in achieving both quick-turn and lasting value with a system and tools that will be embraced by your incoming "smart era" facility and asset management professionals, let's sit down and map out a plan for making it happen. Getting started and achieving results can happen in as little as 8-12 weeks.

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