Online GIS Applications: A low-cost Asset Management Approach

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) emerged in the 1970s and became accessible enough for deployment within local government and utility companies in the 1990’s. For the past 20 years, municipal authorities were sold on the power of GIS in asset management. But after investment in the hardware, software, and data conversion, many small water and wastewater systems found themselves with a system that is not living up to their expectations. Cost-cutting measures may have relegated updating and maintaining the GIS data to in-house operators with whisper-down-the-lane training. Hesitant to invest in a poorly-understood system, but eager to capitalize on the benefits, small utilities are seeking a low-cost, effective asset management approach. Recent advancements in web-based GIS applications, similar to Google Earth, have provided new means to create, store, and access GIS data.

Many water/wastewater systems use online GIS applications to transform their infrastructure data into an easy-to-use operations asset management system. This low-cost approach captures vital data within a secure geo-spatial database. By creating customized mobile web applications, field-critical data (material description, installation date, inspection reports and service history) is available when needed most and accessible to operators in the office or in the field.

Large water utility companies have invested significant capital resources in data capture, mapping, and management of their system assets. The massive amount of the data is contained within a centralized enterprise GIS database and made accessible by credentialed users. Operation and maintenance of large GIS datasets are conducted by a full-time GIS department. Small water systems would benefit from the same access to a GIS database, but are unable to dedicate the resources necessary to collect and maintain the asset data. An online GIS approach uses a similar data model, but scaled down to the appropriate size to meet the financial structure of the system.

The process of building an online GIS data system begins with the conversion of as-built plans to geographic data. Old paper maps are scanned to an image file. Through a process of georeferencing, the map is given a map coordinate projection. The features of the map are digitized to populate the geodatabase with geometry and attribute features. The geometry features are the geographic locations of the features, such as the exact location a fire hydrant or the run of a pipe. The attribute features are the information that is associated with each individual asset. Everything from the manufacturer and serial number to maintenance and performance history can be associated with an individual piece of equipment. Notes and annotation from the paper maps, such as “turns right” on valves, can be added to the attribute features to preserve institutional information about the system. The resultant geodatabase can be completely customized to the needs of the individual system.

Once the geodatabase is built, the data is presented in the form of online map applications. The locational data is visualized on a variety of basemaps, be it parcel street maps (as example below) or areal imagery. Selecting a feature brings up the relevant information regarding that feature. The maps are accessible to any device with a connection to the internet. That means an operator in the field, using his smart phone or tablet, will have the same access to the system information as a manager, sitting in the office at his computer.