The San Jose Water Company (SJWC) is an almost 150-year-old, investor-owned public utility company and one of the largest and most technically sophisticated urban water systems in the U.S., providing potable water service to one million residents in the greater San Jose metropolitan area. Six years ago, the company recognized its repository of data could be used to help customers and optimize the company’s business. It had data about customers, infrastructure and operations that it was not analyzing or applying to applications to the fullest extent. The company’s location data housed incredible potential insights for functions across the organization but needed a solution that would not only amalgamate the massive amounts of data the company had acquired over the years, but would also scale to accommodate continued growth.
In 2008 SJWC began exploring ways to create an intranet GIS portal that would provide a centralized repository for employees to find information about the location and properties of various assets, status and location of active work orders, information about customers and other details about the company’s water infrastructure and operations. Such information was needed across the organization, for everyone from field workers in search of detailed information on buried infrastructure to upper management analyzing location-based information to drive strategic decisions. SJWC desired a system that could scale rapidly and cost effectively while interoperating with their existing infrastructure.
As SJWC uses proprietary software for data maintenance, they initially considered using their existing tools to build the portal but quickly ran into technical limitations. When they learned about OGC-compliant web services, they decided to pursue open-source options instead; and today, SJWC has an internal web GIS portal powered by a comprehensive, open-source Spatial IT solution.
“As our portals and the need for scalability have grown, not having to worry about licensing with an open-source solution was a huge advantage for us,” said SJWC Director of Geographic and Web Systems Jeff Hobbs. “Our previous system had 66 desktop licenses for 350 employees, but now we can get a lot more data to a bigger and more diverse user-base than ever before — all the way from executives to maintenance employees. It has been tremendous in terms of geospatial access and awareness and in fostering an environment where people ask the right questions.”
Since open-source web mapping servers are designed to be interoperable, SJWC has benefitted greatly from the inherent flexibility of the software. The ability of open-source tools to read most formats and publish to many varying formats and services, along with the flexible nature of open-source map client libraries, makes it easy to reuse development efforts across many projects. Hobbs noted that the flexibility of development and the fact that maps are just one facet of a problem means open-source solutions and services can provide context not just with GIS tools, but also by integrating with other enterprise systems such as billing, asset management and customer care.
Hobbs added, “Putting these tools into the hands of our field staff and decision-makers shines a spotlight on what this data can do as opposed to a more black-box approach, where we just fund a project and people don’t see results from the investment.”
As SJWC’s intranet portal grew, so did their need for scalability. Their new system now relies on virtualization to deploy new web map server instances on the fly. “Just install and go,” said Hobbs. “Not having to worry about licensing is a huge advantage for us. It’s a good reason to avoid proprietary software.”
Open-source GIS software presents a viable option for large utility companies because it gives companies the opportunity to centralize their data and analyze resources in a scalable way, without being bound to proprietary options. In the case of SJWC, the company has been able to grow while keeping their GIS software costs in check. Open-source solutions can offer other utility companies the opportunity to expand their knowledge from data and geo-enable applications that help them operate more effectively and efficiently.
Rolando Peñate is vice president of Product Marketing at Boundless, a purveyor of geospatial tools and services for managing data and building applications. He also contributes to the design and development of OpenGeo Suite, a complete geospatial platform for managing data and building maps and applications across web browsers, desktops and mobile devices.