Editor's note: I get a lot of article proposals from asset management software and equipment vendors. All make organizational change look effortless.

So when this unsolicited article landed in my in-box, I jumped at the chance to share a firsthand account. “I wondered if you’d be interested in the results of our new effort to map newly installed utility assets,” author Karen Zollman wrote. “It represents four years of work.”

I laughed out loud several times while reading her account. For that alone, she deserves recognition. She also explains, step by step, in plain English, how her Seattle Public Utilities team overcame internal resistance to develop and implement new surveying specifications.

“We need to start appreciating our asset data for the opportunity it offers: support for faster and better decisions, designs, and emergency response,” she says. “Opportunity’s knocking.”

Her article begins this month and continues for the next several issues.

The last thing I needed was another big project, especially one that would change the entire process for collecting and processing newly constructed infrastructure. So when the land survey manager said he’d sold me as the person to do exactly that, I cringed, said “OK,” and began writing a proposal for a system we call Real-time Asset Mapping (RtAM).

Seattle Public Utilities isn’t unique in its struggle to accurately and comprehensively map subterranean assets. We have more than 100 years of record plans of various accuracy and completeness. While topographic surveys done for preliminary design of new assets can provide good horizontal location of assets, vertical location (depth) has been difficult to ascertain and typically requires expensive potholing. Most of the vertical information shown on old plans is referential (depth of cover), essentially a measurement from some historical surface.

Many project managers were skeptical of a new technology. They wanted examples of projects where RtAM had been successfully used, to know what experience I had applying RtAM, and more.

Under this understandable barrage of questions I had to admit, “It’s just surveying newly installed assets before they’re buried, essentially a quality verification.” Then I would add, “And digitally uploading the data to designers and GIS asset managers.”

I was often asked, with some irritation, “Why didn’t you call your program Survey As-built Mapping”? Because over time the term “as-builts” has come to mean the activity of CAD drafters incorporating the red-line mark-ups from construction plans to create the archived record plans. What we were proposing was an entirely new process for incorporating accurately surveyed assets into the record drawings and then quickly getting the assets into our GIS.

To gain attention and momentum, we needed an unambiguous name. Branding is everything. I wish it weren’t true, but it is.

What are people thinking?

While promoting the proposal, I was surprised to discover that the conventional thinking — the group’s shared belief about what’s true — was uncharacteristically in sync. People at all levels agreed our asset maps weren’t current or complete.

But when asked about the accuracy and completeness of record plans (construction plans that incorporate the red-line mark-ups made by the engineer of record) conventional thinking didn’t align with reality (see Figure 1 above).

GIS managers use information from the record plans to map newly installed assets. If assets mapped in our GIS are incorrect or incomplete, it seems logical that the source of information (record plans) is also incorrect and incomplete. So why the disconnect?

Next page: Establishing credibility: beliefs vs. evidence