The purpose of a software interface is to share data between different applications. A properly implemented interface is vital to streamlining business workflows in any business, but it is particularly important for utility organizations. Utilities have several different skill sets from field crews to engineers and Customer Support teams that need to manage sophisticated infrastructure for continual dynamic flow of resources such as gas, electricity and water. Underlying all of this is a very well understood requirement for a high level of reliability in the interest of customer service and public safety.
Most interfaces are good at sharing data. This, unfortunately, does not address the advanced requirements of many utility interfaces. This paper describes the concept of an “Intelligent Interface” and how it can support advanced integration within a utility.
Information scientists often use the concept of an Intelligence Pyramid to explain the value of information in the intelligence process. This same concept can be a useful way to explain intelligent interfaces. There have been many versions of the Intelligence Pyramid over the years, but the particular representation shown below works well to convey the concepts of this paper.
Data is the basic building block for establishing intelligence. As data gets assembled and enhanced it ultimately turns into valuable information which can then be used to establish knowledge. The proper application of this knowledge is manifested as wisdom.
Similarly, intelligent interfaces are about more than sharing data. They are about structuring information in a manner that creates knowledge to support intelligent business processes. As users apply this knowledge in their use of software applications they can act with wisdom. Wisdom is particularly important in utilities. The consequence of an aging workforce has had a major impact on the need to automate utility business processes without compromising the effectiveness of experienced utility operations.
While most interfaces share data it is usually not enough to meet the advanced needs of a utility interface. Intelligent interfaces need to support the principles of the Intelligence Pyramid. Intelligent interfaces are about structuring information in a manner that creates the knowledge necessary to support intelligent business processes. How do they work? Here are some capabilities necessary to create an intelligent interface:
Data Becomes Information
An intelligent interface assembles the pertinent data sources to create the necessary information to support an intelligent approach to integration. This can be best illustrated by the integration requirements of utility work management. To support a typical work project, such as the expansion of a utility network, many systems can be involved. For example, it is necessary to assemble customer data from the customer information system (CIS), land and asset information from a geographic information system (GIS), design data from CAD and other engineering systems, and financial and materials data from the work and materials management systems. There are obviously many more sources that can be required, but these systems tend to be key data sources.
Business processes can be notably streamlined when the work request can be automatically located, supplemented with current imagery and enhanced with detailed engineering information. The intelligent interface also supports consistent practices in project costing, optimized material management and a very accurate current operational picture of the network, which is critical to support advanced operations support.
Due to the different representations of the data in the source systems, the data may require a staging process and the necessary transformations to ensure it can be used to support the business requirements of the interface.
Analysis Creates Knowledge
Intelligent interfaces also need to perform the necessary analysis to interpret the data to meet specific application requirements. This is particularly important when performing engineering analysis of utility networks. Most systems have different ways of representing the physical network. GIS products typically use a Link-Node network model, CAD systems use To-From models. While a GIS can portray different network configurations, analysis packages often need to have the data structured to support the unique requirements of the analysis engines.
The “Wandering Lateral” problem in electric utilities is an example of this kind of issue. In this case, GIS supports merging of information from joined conductors. This can be seen in the diagram below, where AB merging with C creates a downstream ABC conductor.
While this configuration can be easily expressed in the GIS, the network analysis tool will experience issues when dealing with the merge of AB and C. This can create errors which require manual intervention to interpret the data. In an intelligent interface the network export utilizes an independent trace engine to detect the problematic configuration and convert it to a construct that is supported by the analysis package. This form of intelligent analysis allows the users to simplify their source network representations and eliminate the need for manual cleanup.
Wisdom Solves the Tough Problems
In many cases, the addition of intelligence to the source data can resolve nearly all the problems that are encountered. There are occasions, however, where human intervention is required. This occurs when insertion into the target system is data driven. The most common instance of this is integration of GIS and CAD design systems. An intelligent interface interprets and corrects the differences between the data models when possible, and the remaining data issues that may exist are then presented to a data steward in an understandable user interface.
The concept of “Job Management” in utility work management is an example of how wisdom can be introduced into the workflows.
The purpose of the Job Manager is to assist in the automated conversion of CAD-based design information into a GIS. The Job Manager supports data transformation into the target data formats and translation of the network topology to support the associated GIS model. In many cases, the jobs can be readily translated into the GIS with accurate placement of the features. In some cases, however, there may be a mismatch of the validation and placement rules between the systems. In these cases, the issues can be flagged to a data steward in a visual manner with understandable presentation dialogues, as shown above. As non-matches are uncovered they can be analyzed and subsequent processes and tools can be refined to eliminate their occurrence in future operations of the interface. This continual improvement allows the interface to become smarter over time, with the assistance of experienced users.
This approach also serves to support other forms of operator intervention, such as whitespace management, annotation placement and dimensioning without having large amounts of complex custom rules that need to be continually maintained.
The Value of Intelligent Interfaces
Intelligent interfaces offer a number of advantages to utility organizations. Their rich functional capabilities can make interfaces truly effective, which can significantly streamline business workflows. They also reduce the need for the engineering time to pre-process and interpret information. The ability to intelligently share data reduces the time spent on re-entering data between systems, which continues to be a challenge with many utility operations.
Another key benefit is the fact that these advanced interfaces are configurable for a given utility. This avoids the need to perform customization that needs to be updated by programmers when the underlying software systems change. This offers significant advantages to a utility organization. The interfaces are supported via annual maintenance contracts, rather than custom programming engagements. Upgrades can be completed faster and the different applications can be isolated, allowing the utility to upgrade or replace their systems according to their business schedules, rather than complicated vendor interdependencies. This also allows organizations to choose the best application products for their needs. All of this contributes to being able to operate a utility more cost effectively.
Examples of intelligent interfaces for utilities can be found at the Spatial Business Systems web site. Learn about the Utility DataHub™ www.spatialbiz.co/UDH, and how it is helping utilities streamline their business processes by adding intelligence to their integration.