Navigating a Smart User Strategy

Improved packages make work easier at water industry jobs

Geographic information system (GIS) software represents less than 10 percent of the total GIS implementation cost in most cases, yet many people spend a lot of time selecting the best software for their GIS applications. This is actually a good thing, because the success of any GIS program largely depends on its users—who are not happy if they do not like their GIS software.

Though the art of GIS has been in existence since the 1970s, the science was restricted to skilled professionals. In the 1980s, only a few dozen GIS-related software vendors had emerged. Thanks to the explosive growth and popularity of GIS in the 1990s, this number grew to more than 500 vendors. After numerous consolidations, mergers, and failures, there are approximately 150 GIS-related software companies today. The software sector accounts for over half of the total worldwide GIS revenues of over $3 billion.

GIS technology is changing rapidly. New GIS applications are evolving, mainly due to the successful marriage of GIS and the Internet. The GIS applications are being fueled by recent advances in wireless, Internet, networking, and satellite technologies. The cost of spatial data is falling rapidly due to competition in data acquisition, processing, and distribution. More intuitive and simpler interfaces are taking GIS beyond the world of the GIS geeks. User interfaces are becoming friendlier, wizards are replacing obscure command lines, and use of GIS by semi-skilled end users is growing. These factors are resulting in evolution of new GIS applications at an unprecedented rate (Shamsi, 2005). Major innovations in GIS software for water utilities are as follows.

Until the mid-1990s, GIS software was very difficult to use. There was no graphical user interface containing menus, buttons, or tool bars. Users had to type a “command” in a specified format (syntax) to process GIS data. If the user forgot this format and mistyped the command or even missed a comma in the command, the function wouldn’t run but would issue an error message. For example, the earlier versions of one of the most popular GIS software programs, ArcInfo from Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), had nearly 2,000 commands and required 10 days of training to master these commands. The mid-1990s witnessed the inception of a new generation of user-friendly desktop GIS packages that significantly contributed to an explosive growth of GIS applications throughout the water utility industry. Today’s GIS software is so user-friendly that even first-time users can be put to work after one to two days of training. The intuitive Windows-like graphical user interface loaded with menus, buttons, tool bars, screen tips, and searchable online help systems have made GIS software as easy to use as a spreadsheet.

Internet GIS
The Internet allows us to use GIS without ever buying the GIS software or installing it on a computer. If you have a computer with an Internet connection, you can access the basic functions of GIS software (for example, layer selection, pan, zoom, query, search, and print) from your Web browser. All you need is a Web site address that serves the software and GIS data. If you want to see a sewer system map of your city overlaid on a color aerial photograph and property parcels, and your city has an Internet GIS Web site, you will not have to bother the city engineer to request a copy of the map or pay a fee for this service.

Autodesk’s MapGuide is one type of software that a city can purchase to create an Internet GIS Web site. If you have your own GIS software but no space to store large amounts of data, “Web Services” allow you to create GIS layers using live streaming data from someone else’s server. To safeguard the security of sensitive information (for example, the location of chemical storage or water storage tanks) in vulnerable areas, entire site access or access to sensitive data layers often is restricted to authorized users through password protection.

Internet GIS does not allow you to map your own data, but it works well for these other tasks.

Mobile GIS, GPS, and LBS
Using GIS from the field to collect data into a database is referred to as mobile or field GIS. The ultimate goal of a mobile GIS is to link the mobile worker with GIS data to make a job easier and more efficient. With mobile GIS, feature location and attribute data can be verified, augmented, and immediately updated. New features can be added in the field, existing features can be moved to their correct location in the field, and non-existing features can be deleted. Mobile GIS is, therefore, an ideal solution for real-time creation of as-built drawings.

Integration of GIS with consumer electronics such as cell phones, global positioning system (GPS), and automobile navigation systems has spawned a whole new industry called location based services (LBS). GIS-centric LBS services are being used for managing dispatch and routing, fleets, work orders, and field crews, all of which improve customer service. For example, it is now possible to wirelessly transmit a GPS location from the field (for example, a sewer cleaning truck) and display it (even in real time) on a GIS map via the Internet.

Asset and maintenance management
An asset management system manages a water utility’s infrastructure capital assets to minimize the total cost of owning and operating them while delivering the service levels customers desire. A Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS), also known as an Enterprise Asset Management System, is a software package that maintains a computer database of information about a utility’s assets and maintenance operations. This information is intended to help maintenance workers do their jobs more effectively (for example, determining the last time a hydrant was flushed or a check valve exercised) and to help management make informed decisions (for example, calculating the cost of maintenance for each piece of equipment used by the organization, possibly leading to better allocation of resources). A typical CMMS package provides capabilities for inventory control, asset management, service requests, work orders, preventive maintenance, and routine inspections.

GIS provides a spatial approach to organize information about the customers and assets of a water utility, such as pipes, hydrants, pumps, and treatment equipment. GIS-based CMMS packages are most popular because people can see the condition and inspection status of their assets on a map. GIS is used to prepare inspection or maintenance work orders simply by clicking on an asset such as a sewer pipe or manhole. This approach simply takes a few minutes compared to the conventional method of locating and copying maps and typing the work order forms, which usually takes several hours. Utilities that have successfully implemented GIS-based CMMS packages have seen dramatic improvements in worker efficiency and customer satisfaction. GIS applications make things easier to do, which saves time and money!

Field inspections
Using the concept of “video mapping,” GIS is integrating field inspections, digital photos and videos, and GPS data in one manageable system. This allows digital photos and videos to automatically find their correct geographic location on the maps and users to click on map features to review the inspection results, photos, and videos (see Figure 2). Video mapping is being used to document smoke and dye tests, video inspection of pipes; and manhole, catch basin, inlet, and outfall inspections.

Additional GIS resources

“GIS Tools for Water,Wastewater, and Stormwater Systems” by Uzair Shamsi. This ASCE Press book covers the basics and provides a comprehensive review of “data and software” for creating GIS maps for water utilities.

“GIS Applications for Water,Wastewater, and Stormwater Systems” by Uzair Shamsi. This CRC Press text is more advanced and shows how to use GIS maps to solve routine problems and develop applications for monitoring, modeling, and maintenance.

Shamsi conducts online continuing education seminars. For more information, visit

The dark side
If top software sellers like Microsoft and Apple cannot release a bug-free version of their products, GIS software vendors are no different. One consistent user complaint is that much of the new software, not necessarily GIS, is not properly vetted. In today’s information technology age, when users line up overnight in front of computer stores to be the first to buy the new software, vendors are under pressure to shorten the beta testing phase of product development and rely more on automatic online updates through service packs and downloadable patches and hot-fixes. An older bug-free version with fewer capabilities is better than a newer but error-prone version with more capabilities—if you don’t like to see frustrated workers and angry clients.

I urge software providers to stop using their first release of a new product as their beta testing opportunity. My advice for software users is not to bother installing a new version of GIS software until the first service pack has been released, which usually takes three to six months.

Shamsi, U.M. (2002). GIS Tools for Water, Wastewater, and Stormwater Systems, 375 pages, ASCE Press, Shamsi, U.M. (2005).GIS Applications for Water, Wastewater, and Stormwater Systems, 413 pages, CRC Press,

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Uzair (Sam) Shamsi, PhD, P.E., GISP, is director of GIS and information technologies at Chester Engineers in Moon Township, Pa. Shamsi received the Civil Engineer of the Year Award earlier this year from the Pittsburgh section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He has authored numerous papers on the use of computer technology in the management of various water systems as well as two books on geographic information systems.

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