How Geospatial Software as a Service Aids Environmental Planning
Geographic information systems (GIS) have evolved into complex databases that allow for hundreds of data layers to be combined and analyzed for countless applications. The expertise required to design, implement and maintain an efficient and effective GIS is not always readily available in a traditional information technology department, and funding for extra staff might not be there either. As a result, accessing software and data that is managed by someone else via the cloud—an offering known as Geospatial Software as a Service (GSaaS)—can be an appealing alternative to an in-house system.
Pepco Holdings, Inc. (PHI), one of the largest power delivery companies in the Mid-Atlantic region, became aware of this solution several years ago. “At PHI, we realized that we needed a tool for groups to collaborate on geographic-based projects because there was a lot of overlap and we were duplicating efforts,” said Dana Small, PHI manager of environmental planning. “Geography is an important aspect for building new infrastructure and maintaining old. Our construction plan is always growing. We needed to be able to incorporate our system data with publicly available data, such as wetlands, roads, and housing, to evaluate our projects more effectively.”
PHI turned to Photo Science, a Lexington, Ky.-based, geospatial mapping and solutions company that offers a tool called EGRET, the Environmental Geospatial Resource and Engineering Tool. EGRET supports environmental planning and permitting, engineering, real estate, and project management functions. EGRET runs on Esri’s ArcGIS for Server managed by Photo Science staff, while PHI sees only the user interface that has been custom designed for its needs.
Environmental planning and permitting plays a key role in all construction activity. Before EGRET, PHI staff used an old GIS that was not user-friendly, and paper topographic maps, Google Earth imagery, and any publicly available geographic data they could find. Analysis was time consuming because the information was not contained in one system. PHI first experimented with EGRET on a large transmission project. Pleased with the results, it expanded to encompass the whole environmental planning program. Having a one-stop shop has improved efficiency and quality of information.
“EGRET allows us to work smarter and accomplish a lot more with the same level of resources,” said Small. “In 2005, we supported around $400 million worth of capital construction work, compared to over $1 billion in 2012. The total cost of projects more than doubled from 2005–2012, but we handled it with the same number of people, attributable in part due to tools such as EGRET. Currently 345 staff members are making use of EGRET.”
Implementation of EGRET is fairly simple from the client’s perspective. PHI outsources maintenance, data updates, and application enhancements to Photo Science, while users have the ability to view, query, analyze, author, and share geospatial content. Commonly used data queries are set up as templates so that PHI staff can independently run reports, and Photo Science assists with one-off reporting needs.
PHI intends to enhance environmental functionality by continuing to add datasets to EGRET and to integrate with other internal tools, while being careful to maintain the mobility and speed which makes the system so attractive. “We have created a mobile app device for EGRET, and we are investigating the use of EGRET as an effective public outreach tool at public meetings,” Small said. “The ability to present dynamic information allows us to respond to questions on the spot and communicate more clearly.”
Jesse Glasgow, a manager at Photo Science responsible for the GSaaS program, said it’s exciting to see PHI using EGRET in creative ways that the development team did not imagine. “The opportunities with GSaaS are endless,” he noted.
Another feature of EGRET is the project management interface (PMI), which was rolled out at PHI in October 2012. PMI allows the user to toggle between all projects in the queue and view data and information and the geospatial relationships. “The PMI allows us to quickly see issues and strategically view the entire portfolio to support good decisions,” said Small.
“PHI is really focusing on project management processes to improve productivity,” she added. “We are looking forward to adding connectivity to scheduling and budgeting in the future to provide even more transparency.”