In the beginning, Coles-Moultrie Electric’s GIS, or geographic information system, was for the birds.

In a good way.

Jim Wallace, director of operations and engineering at the Mattoon, Illinois, co-op, says they began working on GIS in May 2016 for avian protection.

“A few co-ops in the state had some eagle kills and other endangered bird kills, so it was becoming quite a topic at the statewide level,” he remembers. “They had developed a template on how to formulate an avian protection plan.” President/CEO Ken Leftwich had an idea to implement GIS to plot the location of avian sightings.

Coles-Moultrie leaders not only decided to implement GIS, but they also chose to build their own system using free, open-source software and working in partnership with Lake Land College, a community college in Mattoon. The DIY approach saved the co-op significant money over buying an off-the-shelf system while also allowing the co-op to adapt GIS to its specific needs, says Shaun Vester, Coles-Moultrie manager of GIS systems.

If protecting feathered friends was the spur for GIS, Coles-Moultrie quickly saw how the system could provide a range of benefits.

“It seemed like every week, every day, I would walk in and say, ‘Hey Shaun, can we do this?’” Wallace says. “We are doing so much more with our GIS than we originally planned.”

GIS, which is sometimes referred to as a geospatial (rather than geographic) information system, is digital mapping software that locates and identifies co-op assets like lines, substations, transformers, and even meters. Integrated with other software, it can provide a detailed picture of what’s happening across a co-op’s distribution network.

“It’s kind of the central IT system for engineering and operations of distribution utilities because every bit of planning and operational work you do is on these assets,” says David Pinney, NRECA program manager for analytics. “It’s just the intuitive way to understand what’s going on. I think it’s been revolutionary in the sense of situational awareness.”

GIS can benefit both planning and system analytics, Pinney says. “It has definitely increased the resolution of circuit models for planning. It used to be people did circuit modeling on pen and paper. Now we can do it for a hundred-thousand line sections.”

In addition, “the core analytics problem is planning power flow. To do that, you have to have a good description of a circuit, and that’s what’s in GIS,” he says. “So if you have the data set, you can do all this analysis around interconnection and upgrading line that can be critical.”

Despite GIS’s advantages, a recent NRECA study found that 20 percent of electric cooperatives are still relying on paper maps for planning and operations. Wallace says the cost of an off-the-shelf GIS platform can be a barrier to adoption. It played a significant role in Coles-Moultrie’s decision to build its own.

“Prior to [deciding on open-source], all we knew was that we were probably going to spend three-quarters of a million dollars to put in a system,” Wallace says. “But once we got into discussions with Shaun and the college, we thought maybe we’ve got an opportunity here, and pretty quickly we were going the open-source route.”

Using open-source software, Vester adds, meant the cost of installing GIS was largely confined to personnel time and expenses. “In terms of software costs,” he says, “we have none.”

Data collection

One of the more laborious parts of moving to GIS can be transferring data from old paper maps and records or, in cases where those records are incomplete, sending personnel into the field to locate and identify key characteristics of system components. Coles-Moultrie had the advantage of paper records that were in good shape.

“We did 99 percent of our data collection from records in-house, which was a huge savings,” Wallace says.

Translating the handwritten notes that tend to accumulate on paper maps and records can be particularly challenging.

“We worked pretty closely with the engineers here to help educate us on what their notes meant,” Vester notes.

Github, a social network for developers and coders who share tips on working with software, was one of the initial sources Vester drew on. His research led him to four open-source programs as key components for the system. All are free digital tools with established histories of use:

  • PostgreSQL—a relational database management system
  • PostGIS—a “spacial database extender” that adds support for geographic objects to PostgreSQL and allows the users to run location queries on the SQL
  • QGIS—an open-source geographic information system to create, edit, visualize, analyze, and publish geospatial information on Windows, Mac IOS, and other operating systems
  • Leaflet—a library for the programming language Javascript that includes segments of prewritten code that makes it easier to create mobile-friendly interactive maps.

Vester says it took about 10 months to get the initial iteration of the co-op’s GIS up and running. Interns from Lake Land College worked on getting the plotting data into the system. Cleaning up and checking data is an important part of any GIS project, and identifying the phase of equipment is a particularly critical step. The co-op checked the phasing of equipment in the field against the digital maps, and Vester designed an algorithm that provided clear visual tracking of phasing throughout the co-op’s lines.

A needs-based approach

Rather than try to figure out and implement every possible use for GIS before implementation, Wallace says, Coles-Moultrie took a needs-based approach to the system, building capability as different requirements and possibilities arose.

The GIS’s functions include map layers, different views and images, legends identifying components, and spatial analysis and map-production tools. Personnel can zoom in on specific areas and click on icons for additional information. The GIS uses MultiSpeak to communicate with billing and accounting data, allowing crews to access meter data, including change-outs, without tracking down paperwork. Co-op personnel can also pull up member account data, including phone numbers and addresses.

The system also integrates outage information. “When an outage occurs, a yellow triangle shows up with the information inside, so our guys can see where that area is and try to troubleshoot it,” Wallace says.

For crews in the field, the GIS is web-based, using a map like Google Maps. Coles-Moultrie has mobile hotspots and 4G to provide connectivity throughout its service territory. The GIS is integrated with the co-op’s automated vehicle location system, allowing crews to see the location of one another as well as their proximity to line sections or other components in the distribution network.

“We’ve given a lot of capabilities to the guys in the field,” Wallace says. “So they’re not calling in as much and trying to get information.”

Wallace says the GIS that Coles-Moultrie developed is adaptable to other electric co-ops and a broader range of utilities, such as water systems. The co-op has created licensing agreements so other co-ops can use the software.

“We’ve been in discussion with a local municipal,” he says. “And we’re at a point where they want to move ahead on some GIS work. … They have a water system and a sewer system for which they’re interested in this.”

‘A bit of a hurdle’

Wallace, Vester, and Pinney note that adopting GIS does come with challenges. Pinney says one of the biggest is the size of the data sets GIS can incorporate.

“Even in the average co-op, they can have hundreds of thousands of components in that data set,” he says. “So keeping that data up to date and figuring out how to organize it can be tricky.”

Wallace says switching over to GIS can also be a challenge for co-op personnel.

“There’s been a learning curve both for me and for the people who are using it,” he says. “A lot of people working here didn’t know what a GIS was, and they’d been doing things the old way for a long time, so it took a while. Pretty much everybody’s adapted now, but it was a bit of a hurdle.”

Vester points out that Coles-Moultrie’s approach also requires having IT personnel who are comfortable with open-source software and developing their own system.

“I don’t think it’s something that every co-op wants to do or has the capacity to do,” he acknowledges, but the approach can give a co-op more freedom to tailor GIS to its specific needs.

With everything Coles-Moultrie’s system is now being used for, the co-op hasn’t forgotten the concern that hatched its GIS effort.

Staff now use data from Cornell University’s website to track bird sightings, and if they’re doing upgrades or repairs in an area where endangered species have been identified, they take steps to decrease avian risks, including covering equipment.

It’s still for the birds, Wallace says. “But we’re doing so much more than we originally planned.”