In this episode of The Broadband Bunch, we are live at the Esri GeoConX Conference 2019 in ETI’s hometown of Atlanta, GA — and it was so amazing that we need two episodes to share it with you! In part one, we speak with Jessica Valenti, Partner Manager, Telco & Utilities, Greg Babcock, Lansing Board of Light & Power and Wendi French, Wyndston Service (New Orleans Emergency Management).
Esri GeoConX is an industry-leading event for the electric, gas, and telecommunications communities. The event supports the growth and development of GIS professionals through case studies, sessions lead by Esri experts, and peer-to-peer engagement. More information is available here.
Brad Hine: GeoConX here is in Cobb County, Georgia at the Cobb Galleria Center. Cobb County presented yesterday. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Jessica Valenti: They use Esri as do many U.S. municipalities. Cobb County uses it in everything from planning where their parcels are. Traditionally in the assessor’s office, let’s look at a map of parcels across the community, managing roads, managing open space, and then all of a sudden, the fire chief comes and he looks at it, he says, “Wow. I could really use that.” So now it’s getting into public safety.
Where are crimes happening? Where do we need to have police officers? How do we best serve our residents? And part of that is also sharing information back to the residents. So they have this thing called a portal, where the residents can get in and see information about the county and how they’re being served and they can also provide information back to their government to say, “Hey. There’s a pothole on the street here.” Or, “This is a really unsafe area for a bicyclist or a pedestrian.” So let’s analyze that. So we’re right next door to the Braves stadium. So think of during game day, the hundreds of thousands of people that pour into this space off the highway. How do they safely get from their car into the stadium? How do the police officers manage the crowds in a way that they can keep the movement of people safe and be able to keep their eyes on the activity that may be happening. All of that is done through mapping technology and analytics.
Brad Hine: So, it’s not just internally used in these organizations. Now it’s public. It’s for people that live and need to use data every day in that geographic location. Throughout this week, I’ve heard a lot of comments about GIS. But the neatest thing that I continue to hear is just the phrase, “Cool. This is cool.” Everybody seems to come to these conferences and really dig all the different technologies being exposed through the industry. So congratulations on that.
Jessica Valenti: I think it’s the creativity too, that people are bringing to it. They’re really looking at new ways. I think that’s why the phrase “Cool” is coming in. They’re looking at new ways to use this and leverage it and yeah, that’s cool.
Jessica Valenti: What’s fascinating is this move from what Esri’s been traditionally known for, which is the system of record; where are my poles? my wires, points, lines, polygons on a map? To extending the power of being able to share that information with other people in your organization and the ability to analyze it. That’s really new to a lot of utilities, is taking the information and being able to make decisions. Analyzing all this information they have. Because they’re able to share it with people across their organization, make decisions and with changes in the utility market around renewables, people putting solar panels on their houses, people having Teslas and plugging their cars in, in their homes and having batteries. How’s that going to affect the grid moving forward? What’s the future grid going to look like and how are we going to manage that? Spatial analytics. We got to look at that on a map and know what it’s going to do to our grid in the future.
Jessica Valenti: What we want customers to do is think about how they can use analytics and mapping to be prepared for those events. So in the Southeast we have hurricane season, we’re just coming out of that. How are they going to restore power to their customers fast, efficiently, safely? And in the Northeast we’re heading into winter. We’ve got bigger snow storms, icing events. How are the utilities going to prepare for that so that they can restore power to their customers really quickly? That’s interesting and being able to really work together with the municipalities, be able to share information, not just with the customers they serve, but maybe the local fire chief who needs to know what’s going on. So how can a utility share that information with everyone that’s involved in emergency response is really going to be, I think, a focus moving forward.
Just by the nature of the amount of data that’s being collected and maintained by utilities. So they’ve got all of these sensors out there now. What are they going to do with that data? How are they going to make it useful? AI, ML, you need a platform to be able to analyze that data, make sense of the billions and billions of data points that are coming in. Certainly we’re seeing a lot of that and location’s a huge piece of that.
Brad Hine: Local connectivity, community connectivity, communicating to all your constituents and location is essential. It’s great to see how all these have converged and we deal a lot with high speed connectivity, fixed wireless and fixed line. How that’s progressing and moving forward to 5G?
Jessica Valenti: I’ve been either a customer or an employee of Esri for over 20 years now. But for the first time in about 50 years since the inception of our company, we’re really trying to get our brand out there and how people understand who Esri is and what we do and what we can bring to them. So, I picked up a Fast Company, in HBR, in the airport on my way out here, opened the first page and there was an advertisement for Esri. We are having our first ever TV commercials, sometimes being shown during NFL games, during your morning news show on whatever your network of choice is.
It’s pretty exciting times for us. Because people who never really understood what we did or brought, are saying, “Hey. I saw this commercial. It was really interesting. It was fascinating and it said, ‘Brought to you by Esri.’ What’s that all about?” See what others can’t. We’re trying to help people understand that through mapping spatial analytics, you can see patterns that you couldn’t see any other way looking at just a spreadsheet. Traditionally you look at a map and you analyze that data and you can see something in that maybe your competitors don’t. You can see what others can’t. Because a picture’s worth a thousand words. A map is worth a lot more!
Greg Babcock: As the Emergency Manager for a municipally owned utility company up in Michigan, I’m trying to bring us from paper to paperless and quick, and real time communications. I saw a chance to build that with the GIS and Esri. We are trying to do things quicker, better, and allow our general manager and our mayor to make quick decisions, critical decisions during an emergency.
Brad Hine: That’s great. That’s great. So specifically, what have you seen at the show in the last day or so that’s interested you and you think that you might be able to use for your organization?
Greg Babcock: Yeah. I’ve seen a lot of different uses. But the biggest one is how we can get field information during a damage assessment. We’ve had a series of tornadoes go through the area or whatever and that the field team can do an assessment, put it in their notebook, put it in their whatever they have, device, and it comes straight to us. So we can get it onto a storyboard, we can get it up onto a common operating picture, what I call and then hand that over to my General Manager or my Director of Operations and say, “Here it is. Here’s the ground truth. Now let’s make the decision of how do we prioritize repairs? How do we do this or how do we do that?” And we can do it all, almost simultaneously with the people in the field going, “Well. We have these 21 poles down.” Or, “We have this water main broke.” So I’ve seen a lot of ability to do that and I think my biggest challenge right there is being able to take it back and adapt it to our culture and how we do things now.
Greg Babcock: We have the water, steam, electric department and each of those break down into the production side and then transmission and distribution side. Then we have human resources, customer service, marketing and strategic communications departments. So we’re broke down into all these, I think we have a total of 18 or 19. I’m not sure about the number and is just trying to bring all that together and then we have all the different employees. We have union folks in the field. We have nonunion folks in the field and there’s different rules and different things that they can or cannot do.
So trying to bring all that together and bring it in and then externally, working with approximately 12 to 15 different agencies: law enforcement, township, city, state, federal. In our service area we have two large General Motors plants. So we deal with them a lot. We have the state government of Michigan is in our hometown, in our service area. So we’re always constantly dealing with them as well.
We’ve just started trying to get it incorporated, but I the impact on our teams. The more concentrated we get on real time information, the emergency management office, that I’m in charge of, we’re there to support. We don’t take over anything and so that’s a culture that has to be changed too, that we’re not here to tell electric how to do it or how many poles to do. But we want to be able to … And I think we’re making really good strides in saying we’re here to support you. Here’s the information. You didn’t have to go get it. We’re helping you get it. Now you don’t have to worry about all this analytical stuff. You can just go out and do the job.
Brad Hine: Yeah. So you made a comment earlier about switching from paper to digital, trying to get everything off paper. So centralizing data, visualizing data clearly is some common themes that we’re seeing at this trade show. How are you trying to change the culture and are you seeing that already, changing in some of the opinions that’s coming back to you from customers, employees, so forth?
Greg Babcock: A lot of it is a dashboard and common operating picture, everything. If taking it from five or six pages or a hand delivered note to a one slide, that I can shoot out to everybody, that’s got all the information on it, just so your brain can look at it all and make decisions, I’m getting good feedback about that. Because before it was, “Well, where’s the electrical damages? Where’s this damage? Where’s the water? What’s going on?” And they had to pull from a lot of different strings. Now it’s all in one can. But it’s still paper.
It’s still, if I want to take it to the city, I’d print it off. I put a nice cover on it. I run downtown and I give it to somebody. That’s the way it would work. Fortunately, since I’ve been on board, we haven’t had to do it in real life and we’re just getting ready for a large scale training exercise here in another three weeks, that’s going to practice some of that. Unfortunately, it will practice the old way, not hopefully the ways I’m going to bring back.
I know that I’m not going as fast as I want to because of challenges and issues. But I think we’re headed in the right direction to help the citizens around us and in our service area. So that’s what brought me here, was just the love of … I say love. But really the focus I have on emergency management and that type of field.