A new type of software enables users to gather and analyze data from programs used by various back-office functions to get a more complete picture of how the operation as a whole is functioning.
Adobe Stock/profit_image A new type of software enables users to gather and analyze data from programs used by various back-office functions to get a more complete picture of how the operation as a whole is functioning.

Many utilities are concerned about water loss from leaky pipes, but that was something Opelika Utilities, an Alabama operation serving 20,000 customers, had under control. Managers were more concerned about regaining revenues lost to dead meters -- units that weren't working -- which they estimated at $150,000 annually.

Identifying those units was painful. Every month, an office employee spent at least eight hours reviewing 14,000 daily readings on a spreadsheet, going through them line by line, to find extremely low readings. The utility needed a faster, less-error-prone way to analyze readings that would also, ideally, automatically generate work orders to check out and, if necessary, replace nonfunctioning units. They decided to deploy a solution that's becoming more common in all industries to integrate data from proprietary databases without having to merge everything into a single warehouse with a common programming language. Programs like Microsoft's Business Intelligence and Tableau Software enable users to tap into and analyze data from financial, computerized maintenance management, human resources, and other software. These tools are read-only, so users can't compromise data integrity, but they can drag-and-drop information to create and share visualizations. It's no longer necessary to get everyone on the same page in terms of information technology protocol. You don't need an enterprisewide solution.

Esri, the Redlands, Calif., developer of ArcGIS asset management software, joined the parade in December 2017 with Insights, an app that doesn't require GIS experience or coding ability. After importing information from the billing department, hundreds of thousands of records on service connections, meter usage, work order history, and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) data, the utility used the app's location capabilities to look for patterns. Managers could see meter manufacturer, model number, and installation date. The problem was bigger than they expected; more than 3,000 of 14,000 meters -- 20% to 25% -- were dead. This translated into an estimated $25,000-per-month loss in revenue, or $300,000 per year. Most meters were from a single manufacturer that were being installed in new housing developments and, luckily, most were still under warranty.

The app records workflows, so the utility can rerun the analysis monthly without reinventing the wheel. Esri calls its "business intelligence" solution "location intelligence," which makes sense because GIS is all about linking an asset's location with other information about that asset.