Rochelle Municipal Utilities: Zero to Hero

Let me lead off by stating the obvious, This project is not complete!!! We've invested a lot of time and energy into RMU and when we were asked to write a summary of where GIS has brought them in the past year, I jumped at the chance and wanted to post it here as well. The Following article has been circulated around their various committees and councils and so we present it here. 


In June of 2013, Rochelle Municipal Utilities Electric Department moved forward in several significant ways to become more efficient in the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) They invested in a three-year Enterprise License Agreement (ELA) from Esri Inc. of Redlands, CA for their GIS software package.  This license agreement allows RMU to utilize any and all of the industry-leading Esri software site-wide, as-needed. In conjunction with this agreement RMU purchased a high-end server environment for implementing this software. As well, they 

“Putting our Electrical Depa-rtment records into a GIS has allowed us to communicate more efficiently with office and field staff.”

— Al Corl, Electric Dept. CAD Supervisor

entered into a contractual agreement with Cloudpoint Geographics Inc. of Roanoke, Illinois for set-up and geospatial consultation services. 

Previously all of the Department’s spatial data was stored in AutoDesk CAD format. While accurate and exceptionally maintained, the CAD data was housed on local workstation hard drives. Disseminating the data was complex and not easily achieved. 

Seinor staff understood the benefits of utilizing a central GIS available to the entire staff. As well, they had the insight to select a database structure that was open and standardized rather than closed source or proprietary. RMU’s chosen geospatial consultant, Cloudpoint, had experience with both the Multi-Speak and Local Government information models.  

After several planning meetings and explanation of system-specific terms, the CAD vector data geometry was able to be imported into the Multi-Speak model using the same Esri software that RMU had purchased. In order to insure completeness and accuracy, electric department staff had open and frequent updates and conversation with Cloudpoint. Every attempt was made to keep the data as intuitive and close to the previously used CAD naming conventions as possible while still adhering to standards of an open information model. 

During the same time as this CAD to GIS data conversion, Esri server software (ArcGIS Server) was installed on a dedicated web server for internal use. In the course of this first phase of deployment the intension of staff was to keep the digital infrastructure private to a select group of RMU personnel familiar with the data. However, the software technology was installed and configured with the ultimate goal of deploying the map services as the final product out in the field in a connected tablet environment. 

Even though the Electric Department’s data was an obvious priority, some attention and time was paid to development of other basemap layers. RMU had participated for years in the Ogle County GIS consortium without realizing the full potential and usefulness of that group’s data offerings. Inserting these datasets into the local government model allowed RMU to grasp a fuller picture of their complete GIS eco-system.  

Along with their meticulous CAD drawing, electric department staff had collected over 22,000 photos of their 7,286 electric poles. These data, while extremely useful, was only available on one PC within the electric department offices. Again, with the intension of eventually pushing this information out to field personnel, Cloudpoint moved these photos into the cloud. Because of the foresight of RMU staff and the naming of these 22,000+ photos, a linkage could be drawn from the poles feature class to the images themselves while on a protected and redundant  webserver within Amazon Web Services S3 storage. This link is currently being used on the desktop as well as in the field. 

Internally to the RMU network, there are currently only a few editors of the electrical GIS layers.  While this seems inefficient it actually is an industry-wide ‘Best practice’. Using Esri server-side software (ArcSDE) riding on-top of Microsoft Sequel Server the electric data is currently a protected enterprise dataset. This means that though many have access to see the authoritative data, only a select and qualified few have access to change it. These different versions of the data are synchronized after the author approves the edits. This reconcile and post process can be done on the GIS server by qualified staff. 

During the continued database development stage, sharing was done via ArcMap and a set of shared folders and File Geodatabases. This full-featured software program from Esri has a high learning curve. In order to completely “see” the same layers, users needed to be proficient enough to create layer files, change symbology and then save pathnames as relative or UNC path types. This potential road bump was avoided by utilizing maps created by ArcGIS Online  and disseminating the information via secured webmaps. 

This large step forward allowed the electrical department field crews to use hand-held tablets to see map images & data, aerial imagery, address locations, pole photos, as well as PDF manuals of their departmental standards. RMU purchased four - Apple iPads equipped with 4G LTE and enrolled them in a Cisco Mobile Device Management software solution for protection and accountability.  While this is not an Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) solution, it speeds up response time and efficiency of truck crews by being able to know what they need to replace before ever ever arriving on site. 

The ease of access this allowed garnered a welcomed reception from the field crews and sparked a desire to have more complete and faster updates. This step required the involvement of RMU IT staff to push the previously mentioned map service as provided by ArcGIS Server out to a secured location on the web. In order to effectively and safely open a port in a network’s firewall, many precautions needed to be adhered to. This implementation is no different. Cloudpoint worked with RMU staff as the translator between GIS terminology and their network to achieve both security and speed requirements. This effort was reinforced by RMU with the forward thinking purchasing of quality hardware and an ELA from Esri nearly a year prior. 

Currently, GIS in Rochelle Municipal Utilities Electric Department is in full swing. Edits to the system are changed internally and pushed out to the field crews almost instantaneously. Field personnel have a customized mapping interface that was created with several iterations and face-to-face meetings. As well, field crews can close the feedback loop by highlighting areas that are incorrect (including attaching pictures) or changing attributes of specific features within the map on their tablets. These edits are again propagated back to the office and, if approved, incorporated into the default database version. 

The GIS is not, and will never be, completely done. RMU senior staff understands that in creating these efficiencies, there will be  perpetual training and maintenance of the system. Software updates will be needed, new layers created, deployments to be made, etc… It is a dynamic infrastructure just like the electrical system that it represents. They also understand the significance of how far they have come in one short year.