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  • Sometimes the savings are so big that they are beyond most people’s expectation.

    Peter Mahon, Asset Information Services Manager

United Utilities plc has long recognised that its position as a leader in water and waste water services relies upon its core business skills. Over the years the company has invested in these core competencies and the associated technology infrastructure with the objective of making significant improvements to the quality and efficiency of its business activities.

United Utilities’ corporate IT systems – billing, work management, asset management, contract management and enterprise geographical information systems (GIS) – handle the day-to-day business of the company. Over the last fifteen years the company has invested some £50 million in GIS. There are now over 500 scientists, engineers, and technicians using OS MasterMap intelligent digital mapping and MapInfo location intelligence solutions as part of their daily work; many more people throughout the organisation are using it to help to improve service levels, water quality and business performance.

United Utilities plc manages water and sewerage for the north-west of England, with some 3.2 million properties and the electricity supply for some 2.2 million properties. The combined operational area is approximately 14 000 square kilometres, which contains some of the best National Parks as well as the conurbations of Manchester and Liverpool. The company operates a network of some 44 000 km of water mains, 39 000 km of sewer and 60 000 km of electricity cables, making it one of the UK’s largest multi-utilities.

Achieving major savings

As an example of the level of return that the company’s investment has generated, Peter Mahon, Asset Information Services Manager at United Utilities, says, ‘We have statutory obligations to record our assets and to make the data available to third parties such as local councils, other utilities and contractors that need to dig up the highways’. Previously, records were kept in over 700 plan chests in 65 locations, and the data was distributed as paper plots, microfilm or by CD-ROM. This costly, time-consuming and labour-intensive approach has been replaced by a web-based solution, allowing for much tighter control of the data and eliminating the problems associated with distributing data in other formats. Mahon attests, ‘The system now provides around 50 000 plots per month to 1 700 users in 245 different organisations at an estimated saving of at least £1 000 000 per year to United Utilities and its highway excavation contractors over traditional methods of delivering safe dig plans’.

A huge difference

Mahon explains, ‘Here in the Asset Information Department, we are responsible for the core United Utilities datasets, water mains, sewers, electric cables, as well as addresses and geographic boundaries. We also look after Research and Development projects with universities and provide GIS consultancy to our international arm. Last, but not least, we look after the management and distribution of Ordnance Survey maps, data and updates, ensuring that data accessed across the Intranet and Internet is up to date.’ He continues, ‘We don’t provide the general user with access to our Autodesk® Vision enterprise edit and update GIS. Instead, we provide views of the data in MapInfo format to which we can augment with other datasets, such as environmental or historic land use, and serve it locally for analysis and interpretation.’ He continues, OS MasterMap has made a huge difference to us. Map presentation is vastly improved and if we take our data and overlay it on someone else’s data, it aligns.’

The whole view of an asset

Mahon has a vision to have the whole view of an asset: one unique identifier that links to water quality indicators, customer contact records, payments; in fact, to all the information needed to be able to provide excellent customer service and to run the business efficiently and profitably. According to Mahon, ‘For this you need accurate and intelligent maps, you need precise and up-to-date addresses and you need alignment with other relevant datasets’. He continues with an example: ‘We use OS MasterMap to determine the replacement value of our assets. We look at the length of pipe and number of manhole and valves and we attribute with type of surface – A road, B road and so on, footpath, verge etc, all of which carry different excavation costs. From this, we can calculate the asset replacement costs for the business’s cost model. OS MasterMap makes this process possible and importantly auditable. I suppose we could have done it overseas with an army of people looking at some 20 million GIS features to record the surface type by looking at maps, but with OS MasterMap Ordnance Survey have done the work for me. It then takes me just 20 minutes to do the same thing.’

Return on investment (ROI) earned by using data intelligently

However, as Mahon says, ‘Justifying the cost to implement a GIS will not stand up if your business case is to reduce staff in the drawing office. Eliminating a room full of draughtsmen can’t generate the return that we need from our investment. In fact, most organisations will need more data inputted after digitising their records because, with the technology, we are able to record more information that they used to record.’ He continues, ‘We get our ROI by having lots of people using the data intelligently. For example, our modelling engineers build 300 to 400 models a year. By using OS MasterMap, they produce models faster, more accurately and at less cost.’ He recalls, ‘In 1984 I developed a hydraulic model for the Warrington water supply area. This took a team of six consultants six months, inputting data from paper plans into the model. A task like this can be done in just a few days, using our own resources and saving tens of thousands of pounds per model.’

Using OS MasterMap day in, day out

Mark Kaney, Senior Modelling Engineer at United Utilities, expands on this: ‘Within the waste water side of our team, we have 9 or 10 people and we have consultants working with us – probably between 60 and 80 modellers. We oversee all the modelling needs that service the business. Our models comprise all waste-water systems (extending to all influencing factors) in urban and rural areas, complete with pumping stations, combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and other elements. We look at the effects of climate change and flooding, water pollution and water quality – in fact, everything! We model catchment transfers – the effects of transferring flow from a waste-water treatment facility into another catchment. We also carry out development-impact assessments – the impact of new housing or industrial developments on the current waste-water systems.’

He continues, ‘We use OS MasterMap day in and day out to support our model build and update needs. The great advantage is that it is polygon based with accurate area attributes. So if I cut a drainage area’s worth of data (roads, roofs and all other permeable and impermeable areas) that will contribute to the collection systems – there is an area assigned to it already, which saves a huge amount of time.’ Kaney adds, ‘OS MasterMap has made the process quicker and reduced both the risk and the effect of errors. Using Land-Line®, we used to buffer the road centrelines to an average size, which means that all the roads and paths would be regarded as that size.’ According to Kaney, ‘With OS MasterMap we have the precise physical dimensions of the roads, and the footpaths, as they are separate objects. OS MasterMap allows us to represent accurately what is happening on site within our models and allows us to size systems and design solutions that save money through an increased level of optimisation.’

Addresses just as important as pipework

According to Mahon, ‘The management, placement and quality of addresses are just as important as the pipework and vital to our strategic vision for the best use of business-critical geospatial intelligence. Fundamentally, without accurately geocoded addresses we can’t link the customers’ locations to the network.’ He continues, ‘We need precise addresses when we create work orders in the work management system. They are key, too, to the efficient operation of the several hundred mobile inspectors we have. That is why we’ve invested so heavily in AMS, our Address Management System, and in OS MasterMap Address Layer.’ He explains, ‘We hold a central database of 3.9 million geocoded addresses for the whole of the United Utilities north-west area in AMS. To keep this current, we digitise all new building sites and seed all new addresses from plans supplied by developers applying for connection to water. When we first set AMS up, we seeded the addresses from ADDRESS-POINT®, but then kept them up to date from our own resources. However, we have now adopted OS MasterMap Address Layer, which means that we can automatically replace these with definitive addresses when the updates come in.’

Saving more time and more money

OS MasterMap Address Layer comprises the precise coordinates of all the residential and commercial properties in the United Utilities north-west area matched to the property polygons on the corresponding OS MasterMap Topography Layer – effectively joining up postal and topographic geography. According to Mahon, ‘We chose Address Layer to act as a benchmark for our own datasets; it puts us on a sound platform’. He continues, ‘It saves us time and money, too, more than compensating for the additional cost. In AMS I can generate all the addresses we need to notify in the event of a major problem affecting say 60 000 properties in just 15 minutes just by selecting the problem area. The addresses will be the correct ones, too, with everything that implies.’ Mahon is now looking at implementing OS MasterMap Address Layer 2. This provides enhancements such as alterative geographic addresses, commercial and residential classification, building name aliases, objects without postal addresses (such as churches, community centres, depots) and multi-occupancy without postal addresses (subdivided residential and business premises with a single mail delivery point). Mahon again comments, ‘I am sure we will be making use of these features in the future to achieve the department’s aim to provide the best datasets to our customers in the business that make use of geographic information’.

Scope for more

Summing up, Mahon points out, ‘Where we used to have serried ranks of drawing boards, now we have screens, and users are becoming as familiar with MapInfo as they are with Microsoft Word and Excel. Sometimes the savings are so big that they are beyond most people’s expectation. For example, there are significant savings being made each year in the costs of modelling.’ However, he says, ‘There is scope for much more. I want to make sure that we can capture and share even more local knowledge, and I want to be able to identify still more areas where we can improve efficiency.’

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