When people talk about geographic information systems or GIS, I think they're often thinking on two planes.
At one level is the future shock portrayal of granular consumer information tied to a person's location for analysis, segmentation and location-based marketing. That sort of thing is happening by degree, and there are other interesting stories about positioning information used to monitor traffic reporting and support urban planning. Those stories can also get distracted by the inclusion of other topics like "big data" and "clickstream analytics."
On the other side is a much more nuts and bolts story about field service and the streamlining benefits of GIS. One great primer is published by the U.S. Geologic Survey, and it tells a straightforward story of "a computer system capable of capturing, storing, analyzing and displaying geographically referenced information, that is, data identified according to location."
This stuff has been around for years and you can find many examples in our archives but it's also a very current topic. I heard such a story at last week's Society for Information Management conference in Orlando, a presentation from a CIO about GIS used in the industry monitoring and inspection of natural resources.
The CIO, Rizwan Ahmed of the Louisiana Dept. of Resources and Muhammad Riaz, a consultant at the state's partner METHODS Technology Solutions, demonstrated a nifty integrated technology solution they'd created for oil and gas well inspection and certification, and most of it is available for anyone to see.
Louisiana first implemented GIS 12 years ago to save money and bring revenue to the state in more efficient energy partnerships. The state, divided into parishes rather than counties, includes well terrain stretching along winding private roads and across obstacles like swamps and ravines. As you'd expect, the paper-based forms for inspection were cumbersome, un-collated and redundant. Field inspectors carried huge sheaves of maps to find their way across the terrain, which were often outdated or didn't show obstacles.
The new system, honed over the years with GIS and custom application work, lets inspectors divine a course that maximizes their time and efficiency.
In the field application, a user selects a parish and instantly has a map of all oil and gas wells, with different colors for different types. The user can circle an area, overlay private roadmaps and get a tabular list with well information by name, number and inspection history.
"In the field you can guide your way to the well knowing that you won’t run into geographic obstacles," Ahmed says. "You can extract the list and trend the map." With a handheld device, the inspector punches coordinates, enters data and the state's website for well documentation is dynamically updated, as are the work orders on the inspector's laptop.
It's a huge productivity enhancement for the state, strapped for cash and resources like every other. Where the permitting process was manual and complicated, it's now automated in one system. The mineral leasing process that used to be a room full of geologists applying rulers to paper maps was automated and shortened from 30 to three days.
The system is also available to the Environmental Protection Agency, local departments and entities to see information entered on the Web and the status of permits at any time.
"During the BP deep water oil well fiasco we could react quickly because we already had GIS," Ahmed says. "We could tell governor and others on a daily basis the impact of non-production and economic impact."
The CIO has high praise for the reaction of the U.S. Coast Guard to the incident, but the state's own work will make future events more manageable through the use of GIS and integrated solutions like the one in place in Louisiana.
Ahmed expected a small turnout at his SIM session and noted that the subject is still off the radar for many mainstream CIOs. I wish more people had seen it. It may not involve clusters and nodes of big data, but it's a damned good story.