In this episode of The Broadband Bunch, we are live at the Esri GeoConX Conference 2019 in ETI’s hometown of Atlanta, GA — and it was so amazing that we need two episodes to share it with you! In part one, we speak with Jessica Valenti, Partner Manager, Telco & Utilities, Greg Babcock, Lansing Board of Light & Power and Wendi French, Wyndston Service (New Orleans Emergency Management).
Esri GeoConX is an industry-leading event for the electric, gas, and telecommunications communities. The event supports the growth and development of GIS professionals through case studies, sessions lead by Esri experts, and peer-to-peer engagement. More information is available here.
Brad Hine: GeoConX here is in Cobb County, Georgia at the Cobb Galleria Center. Cobb County presented yesterday. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Jessica Valenti: They use Esri as do many U.S. municipalities. Cobb County uses it in everything from planning where their parcels are. Traditionally in the assessor’s office, let’s look at a map of parcels across the community, managing roads, managing open space, and then all of a sudden, the fire chief comes and he looks at it, he says, “Wow. I could really use that.” So now it’s getting into public safety.
Where are crimes happening? Where do we need to have police officers? How do we best serve our residents? And part of that is also sharing information back to the residents. So they have this thing called a portal, where the residents can get in and see information about the county and how they’re being served and they can also provide information back to their government to say, “Hey. There’s a pothole on the street here.” Or, “This is a really unsafe area for a bicyclist or a pedestrian.” So let’s analyze that. So we’re right next door to the Braves stadium. So think of during game day, the hundreds of thousands of people that pour into this space off the highway. How do they safely get from their car into the stadium? How do the police officers manage the crowds in a way that they can keep the movement of people safe and be able to keep their eyes on the activity that may be happening. All of that is done through mapping technology and analytics.
Brad Hine: So, it’s not just internally used in these organizations. Now it’s public. It’s for people that live and need to use data every day in that geographic location. Throughout this week, I’ve heard a lot of comments about GIS. But the neatest thing that I continue to hear is just the phrase, “Cool. This is cool.” Everybody seems to come to these conferences and really dig all the different technologies being exposed through the industry. So congratulations on that.
Jessica Valenti: I think it’s the creativity too, that people are bringing to it. They’re really looking at new ways. I think that’s why the phrase “Cool” is coming in. They’re looking at new ways to use this and leverage it and yeah, that’s cool.
Jessica Valenti: What’s fascinating is this move from what Esri’s been traditionally known for, which is the system of record; where are my poles? my wires, points, lines, polygons on a map? To extending the power of being able to share that information with other people in your organization and the ability to analyze it. That’s really new to a lot of utilities, is taking the information and being able to make decisions. Analyzing all this information they have. Because they’re able to share it with people across their organization, make decisions and with changes in the utility market around renewables, people putting solar panels on their houses, people having Teslas and plugging their cars in, in their homes and having batteries. How’s that going to affect the grid moving forward? What’s the future grid going to look like and how are we going to manage that? Spatial analytics. We got to look at that on a map and know what it’s going to do to our grid in the future.
Jessica Valenti: What we want customers to do is think about how they can use analytics and mapping to be prepared for those events. So in the Southeast we have hurricane season, we’re just coming out of that. How are they going to restore power to their customers fast, efficiently, safely? And in the Northeast we’re heading into winter. We’ve got bigger snow storms, icing events. How are the utilities going to prepare for that so that they can restore power to their customers really quickly? That’s interesting and being able to really work together with the municipalities, be able to share information, not just with the customers they serve, but maybe the local fire chief who needs to know what’s going on. So how can a utility share that information with everyone that’s involved in emergency response is really going to be, I think, a focus moving forward.
Just by the nature of the amount of data that’s being collected and maintained by utilities. So they’ve got all of these sensors out there now. What are they going to do with that data? How are they going to make it useful? AI, ML, you need a platform to be able to analyze that data, make sense of the billions and billions of data points that are coming in. Certainly we’re seeing a lot of that and location’s a huge piece of that.
Brad Hine: Local connectivity, community connectivity, communicating to all your constituents and location is essential. It’s great to see how all these have converged and we deal a lot with high speed connectivity, fixed wireless and fixed line. How that’s progressing and moving forward to 5G?
Jessica Valenti: I’ve been either a customer or an employee of Esri for over 20 years now. But for the first time in about 50 years since the inception of our company, we’re really trying to get our brand out there and how people understand who Esri is and what we do and what we can bring to them. So, I picked up a Fast Company, in HBR, in the airport on my way out here, opened the first page and there was an advertisement for Esri. We are having our first ever TV commercials, sometimes being shown during NFL games, during your morning news show on whatever your network of choice is.
It’s pretty exciting times for us. Because people who never really understood what we did or brought, are saying, “Hey. I saw this commercial. It was really interesting. It was fascinating and it said, ‘Brought to you by Esri.’ What’s that all about?” See what others can’t. We’re trying to help people understand that through mapping spatial analytics, you can see patterns that you couldn’t see any other way looking at just a spreadsheet. Traditionally you look at a map and you analyze that data and you can see something in that maybe your competitors don’t. You can see what others can’t. Because a picture’s worth a thousand words. A map is worth a lot more!
Greg Babcock: As the Emergency Manager for a municipally owned utility company up in Michigan, I’m trying to bring us from paper to paperless and quick, and real time communications. I saw a chance to build that with the GIS and Esri. We are trying to do things quicker, better, and allow our general manager and our mayor to make quick decisions, critical decisions during an emergency.
Brad Hine: That’s great. That’s great. So specifically, what have you seen at the show in the last day or so that’s interested you and you think that you might be able to use for your organization?
Greg Babcock: Yeah. I’ve seen a lot of different uses. But the biggest one is how we can get field information during a damage assessment. We’ve had a series of tornadoes go through the area or whatever and that the field team can do an assessment, put it in their notebook, put it in their whatever they have, device, and it comes straight to us. So we can get it onto a storyboard, we can get it up onto a common operating picture, what I call and then hand that over to my General Manager or my Director of Operations and say, “Here it is. Here’s the ground truth. Now let’s make the decision of how do we prioritize repairs? How do we do this or how do we do that?” And we can do it all, almost simultaneously with the people in the field going, “Well. We have these 21 poles down.” Or, “We have this water main broke.” So I’ve seen a lot of ability to do that and I think my biggest challenge right there is being able to take it back and adapt it to our culture and how we do things now.
Greg Babcock: We have the water, steam, electric department and each of those break down into the production side and then transmission and distribution side. Then we have human resources, customer service, marketing and strategic communications departments. So we’re broke down into all these, I think we have a total of 18 or 19. I’m not sure about the number and is just trying to bring all that together and then we have all the different employees. We have union folks in the field. We have nonunion folks in the field and there’s different rules and different things that they can or cannot do.
So trying to bring all that together and bring it in and then externally, working with approximately 12 to 15 different agencies: law enforcement, township, city, state, federal. In our service area we have two large General Motors plants. So we deal with them a lot. We have the state government of Michigan is in our hometown, in our service area. So we’re always constantly dealing with them as well.
We’ve just started trying to get it incorporated, but I the impact on our teams. The more concentrated we get on real time information, the emergency management office, that I’m in charge of, we’re there to support. We don’t take over anything and so that’s a culture that has to be changed too, that we’re not here to tell electric how to do it or how many poles to do. But we want to be able to … And I think we’re making really good strides in saying we’re here to support you. Here’s the information. You didn’t have to go get it. We’re helping you get it. Now you don’t have to worry about all this analytical stuff. You can just go out and do the job.
Brad Hine: Yeah. So you made a comment earlier about switching from paper to digital, trying to get everything off paper. So centralizing data, visualizing data clearly is some common themes that we’re seeing at this trade show. How are you trying to change the culture and are you seeing that already, changing in some of the opinions that’s coming back to you from customers, employees, so forth?
Greg Babcock: A lot of it is a dashboard and common operating picture, everything. If taking it from five or six pages or a hand delivered note to a one slide, that I can shoot out to everybody, that’s got all the information on it, just so your brain can look at it all and make decisions, I’m getting good feedback about that. Because before it was, “Well, where’s the electrical damages? Where’s this damage? Where’s the water? What’s going on?” And they had to pull from a lot of different strings. Now it’s all in one can. But it’s still paper.
It’s still, if I want to take it to the city, I’d print it off. I put a nice cover on it. I run downtown and I give it to somebody. That’s the way it would work. Fortunately, since I’ve been on board, we haven’t had to do it in real life and we’re just getting ready for a large scale training exercise here in another three weeks, that’s going to practice some of that. Unfortunately, it will practice the old way, not hopefully the ways I’m going to bring back.
I know that I’m not going as fast as I want to because of challenges and issues. But I think we’re headed in the right direction to help the citizens around us and in our service area. So that’s what brought me here, was just the love of … I say love. But really the focus I have on emergency management and that type of field.
Wendi French: I’m from the New Orleans metropolitan area and I am at GeoConX to see what’s been upgrading on field applications and sensor technologies and workflow technologies. I have served in Louisiana in our Parish and Municipal Government, at the mayor’s level, as their GIS manager. I am now in the private sector working with private companies, helping the same technologies that we use for emergency response and field operations.
Brad Hine: So emergency services, dealing with tornadoes and New Orleans has definitely seen its share of weather.
Wendi French: Yes it has. Well, we saw a significant improvement with municipal services and by using GIS technologies and asset management, where you could visually see what’s going on, in a very chaotic environment. We’ve been trying to accept the reality that Louisiana seems to have complex weather and complex situations, whether it be flooding, financial or whatever, that we’re trying to take those resiliency dashboards and implement them into daily operation dashboards, to be prepared all the time and take this approach of being rather … Be a reactive community. But to say, “This is what it means to live in this space.” So let’s be resilient and let’s accept what the conditions are and let’s just live prepared and not have that stress and it just be a bad day at the office.
We are driving towards smart technologies, sensor technologies, sensors for door openings, sensors for water level gauges, anything that can provide us with a warning signal that you need to pay attention and maybe adjust. In Louisiana, it’s a hard trigger point. You don’t want your population living and feeling scared every time it rains. But we do get a large volume of rain, 10, 12, 13 inches of rain is not abnormal for us. So you want to know the difference between a rainfall that it’s draining and a rainfall that’s backing up and there’s conditions like weather and wind conditions where it looks like it’s going to be fine. But then suddenly, the wind coming out of the Gulf that’s backing the water up, so it can’t drain, can turn to something that looks harmless into something that’s not.
Wendi French: When I started in GIS, most people didn’t even understand what I did or what it was for. It was only for select handfuls of pipeline companies and oil and gas companies and now, it’s mainstream. Our Cajun Navy, which is a volunteer service in the community, they’re pretty wired on cell phones and boats and that’s just a volunteer crew that’s shows up with their boats to help out. So, I would say there’s been a huge transformation in our state and in our communities, from being non-wired and non-engaged into the environment and the conditions of our community, to being aware all the time.
Brad Hine: That’s amazing. So then, you have put it into mobile use also.
Wendi French: Definitely. Louisiana has a lot of families own small businesses. About 85 to 90% of our business sector is small businesses. So when I left government service, I ended up trying to find those types of businesses to help them employ these modern technologies into their business load. One, they had been impacted by the storms too. Two, they had been taking on some financing to get through those storms and the damages that they received. But three, also for them to realize that the paper and pen process that we had before, wasn’t going to work with these repetitive storms and that they didn’t have to pay the recovery costs every single time a disaster came. So, mobilizing with a series of Excel … Just as simple as an Excel spreadsheet, that connects into a mapping system and an inventory system, instead of it being in someone’s head.
We’re tying it to succession planning with generations of being able to itemize every asset that a business might own, which used to be running around in people’s heads. They remembered when they bought new equipment, or they remembered … It wasn’t like there was a corporate inventory. Since we had to do that for FEMA claims, we’re now starting to make that almost like a physical accounting system inside the companies themselves and then once you’re doing that and you’re rating what its value is, what its maintenance status is, when would it need to be upgraded and then tie that to its depreciation. Then we were putting that on those electronic maps that tell us what’s it status during a storm and how often are we using it every day, making sure it’s at full capacity and teaching that when we’re not dealing with disasters. Those same tools can help you focus on economic growth? So that capacity bandwidth, you always want to have that 15 to 20%, depending on what your company can afford, of breathing room, because that breathing room is your space for dealing with complexities. But it’s also your space for opportunity to create more in both.
Brad Hine: That’s a great story. So tell me, how did you get to this point in your career? It sounds like you’re managing a ton of stuff already. But what led up to this?
Wendi French: Well, it’s been a very crazy, but I’d say blessed road. On the fact that, when I got out of college I had no idea where my life was going to lead. I was not one of those, “Here’s my plan.” I ended up interning with an environmental consulting firm when I got out of college and it did super fun litigation cases. So I was very fortunate to sit in a corporate room with a lot of stakeholders that were dealing with complex, environmentally geophysical, toxic issues and they were at a table. And in my experience, I was very fortunate to work with primary responsible parties that really wanted to get to the root of the solution of what was going on, which created a very transparent working group of people willing to come and sit in a facilitated management and committee process, to really start to understand what these complexities and how they happened.
A lot of times when people talk about environmental consulting, it seems can be a trigger point for a lot of emotion. In my experience, it was working with people that were looking back in time, at decisions that businesses made, but with new materials, new chemicals and new processes. But not really fully understanding what the impacts were going to be in a 30 year ride.
So, it was working with temporal data and geophysical data and chemistry data and just sitting at that table, focused on solving the problem and looking at every analytical tool that you can pull out to say, how do we get to the root problem and stay focused on fixing that and so since then, I’ve worked with oil spill response. I’ve worked with port management. I’ve worked with city parishes and a range of clients that have had complex situations. So now, I’m in this position to be able to say, let’s take all that analytical skill set and bring it down to mainstream, small to mid-size businesses. In Louisiana, I had a real heart for those businesses when I left the city. Because we had been under so much recovery for so long and so, big service companies had come in and in our natural businesses that are there all the time, it just seemed like they were getting pounded on. They were having to deal competitively with people that came in with other pricing scales, abilities and that these are our core staple businesses that are going to be there for the next generation, because they’re three and four generation businesses. So I’ve been trying to focus on bringing all those years of experience to help the stability of our natural economy, that are going to be committed to stay for the next generations.
When you physically have seen the level of devastation, you think, “Oh my gosh. How is this ever going to happen?” And then when you do and you realize it’s a lot of sweat and equity, it’s a lot of people just going the extra mile. You start to realize that empowerment of enabling people, it’s amazing what can be done, when you just give them the tools to just go and do and it breaks a lot of the old school … Well that can’t be done until someone says. Because there’s just too much to be done. So it’s jump in, grab something, get a bike, let’s go, that kind of thing.
Brad Hine: Well, that certainly sounds like the true definition of community.
Wendi French: Yes. We definitely are having that happen in our state, which has really, really seen an economy evolve from a community perspective, which is a unique space. It reminds you about maybe our country was formed at the beginning, how we all had to work with each other.
Brad Hine: That’s a great example. Well, I want to thank you so much for coming on and sharing your story.