8 top tips when preparing for the Utility Network
8 top tips when preparing for the Utility Network
Moving to the utility network model is a daunting process but one of high importance to Northern Gas Networks (NGN) and their digital strategy. On 25th June 2021, Liam Kelly, Head of Data & Information Centre of Excellence at NGN, covered the key business drivers to implementing the Utility Network model and some lessons learned, both during the procurement phase and the delivery phase now the project is well underway.
An overview of the Northern Gas Network project
NGN are a gas distribution business who own and maintain 37,000 km of gas pipes and associated equipment; enough to stretch from Leeds to Sydney and back. They deliver gas to 6.7million individuals across large cities such as Newcastle, Sunderland, Leeds, York, Hull and Bradford; and the network extends to more rural areas such as North Yorkshire and Cumbria. That translates to around 2.7 million end points in the network. The Data & Information Centre and Excellence team was set up in 2019 at NGN with a fundamental aim to improve the maturity of data management, as well as exploring the potential to expand capabilities around data science and Location Master Data Management. The team support NGN’s digitalisation strategy and action plan which cover some of the following key areas:
- How can technology and data help the UK meet its climate change challenges?
- How can NGN maximise the value of data and make data visible both internally and externally?
- How can NGN support the development of a National Energy Systems Map?
- How can NGN ensure data management best practices are embedded across the business?
The Need for Change
NGN use GIS products in a similar way to most utilities, to map and view the assets on their network. When assessing the current GIS data model at NGN they thought about it conceptually as a ball of elastic bands. Their current system is based on Esri version 9.3.1, and they have been on this version since 2013. It is used across desktop, mobile and web and needs advanced maintenance for the customisation of applications applied, and as new technology is layered over old technology (picture the ball of elastic bands). The complexity is a cost to the business both in terms of system maintenance (including technical constraints due to incompatibilities with the upgrades in underlying operating system or infrastructure), and the inability to implement change. Their aim is to have all the systems on the most current versions to improve processes and ultimately enhance the customer experience. They chose to explore a migration to the Utility Network as they believed it would help with both the technical improvements needed, allow for the data quality to be significantly improved, and offer enhanced reporting and better user engagement.
Building a Business Case
Tip 1 – Take a two-prong approach. Look from a technical perspective and a business perspective
The business case at NGN was a technical led project. The infrastructure team were pushing to do something different as the technology was no longer fit for purpose and was causing a lot of issues from a reliability, availability and cost perspective. The business case stacked up on that basis alone, however as the project progressed, Liam and his team wished they’d engaged the business users a lot earlier as the benefits aren’t all technical! They’ve had some great ideas come from engaging business users for example the ability to include customer complaint data, reinstatement data and workload data in the GIS or engagement system. If they had have known this, then they could have built this into the initial business case. That said, the project is going well and they’re fortunate that they’ve been able to widen the scope and include some of these great ideas.
Tip 2- Engage an external party to audit your system, licences and users
A successful piece of work completed early on was working with an external party to identify the landscape of licenses held, versions used and use cases of the current software and systems. The systems NGN use are very complex having been built over many years. The external audit gave them a great technical perspective of exactly where they were at the start of the project.
Tip 3 - Engage and educate people across the business about the potential benefits of the UN model and don’t underestimate the time this will take
They knew they would need to get buy in across the business so Liam and his team took the time early on to engage and educate people, especially senior managers so they could start to understand the future opportunities open to the business by making the technical migration to the UN model. The investment saving group were ultimately going to sign the project off, so they had to understand the wider benefits to the business.
NGN broke the project down into 3 different lots and this is how they went to market. The reasoning behind this was to make the project easier to manage both internally (different LOTs would require different people) and for the partners they would be working with (and their relationships). In awarding contracts, they had to carefully consider to cultural fit of each supplier with NGN but also each other. They took time to understand their partnership approach to ensure they could work successfully as a collaborative team.
Tip 4 – Run workshops, set objectives and ask you partners for recommendations as you go
LOT 1: UN Design and data migration - 1Spatial and Esri UK
Liam thought this would be the hardest part of the project. His concern was around how they would actually migrate the data and what issues would they discover when it came to data quality. However, he has found it’s been a really enjoyable piece of work thanks to 1Spatial and Esri UK as the approach had been really well thought out. The project started with a data assessment to understand where NGN currently are before thinking about what a UN design may look like. Then looking at how it could be configured, and the things they would need to consider in order to get there. The progress made so far has been really encouraging and the teams are working well together, utilising things like virtual workshops and setting clear objectives going into the meetings. This really stood out to Liam compared to other projects he’s worked on, and he is finding the recommendations made by 1Spatial and Esri UK throughout the workshops extremely helpful.
They are currently prioritising what needs to be migrated based on non-negotiables, what do they need as a minimum to migrate and continue to function as a business. Off the back of the workshops and experience of the technical team, they are able to include the priority 1’s and even some of the priority 2 data sets. This is far more than they initially imagined. The UN model is looking clear and simple and has set the foundations for future projects such as the move to hydrogen.
LOT 2: Architecture - Perfect Image
LOT 3: SAP Integration - EY AgilityWorks and 1Spatial
TIP 5 – Invest in COTS to make maintenance and upgrades easier and simpler
These are really important and do pay dividends so are worth the investment. You get functionality to the end users a lot quicker and also access to migration tools. COTS is easy to maintain and allows NGN to embed future capabilities that come online a lot easier.
Benefits of UN to NGN
You’ve probably seen blogs written by 1Spatial or Esri on the benefits of the UN, so Liam wanted to share some that benefits that he felt are specific to NGN:
- The UN model is far simpler to understand and educate others
- The development of apps and sharing datasets is made easier
- Meta data is far simpler to understand
- Data quality will significantly improve post implementation now they have rules to maintain the integrity of the data within the UN model
- Improve efficiency and reporting and on their digital footprint so they can answer questions like “what did the network look like on a specified date”
- The ability to bring SAP components into the UN model and use containment and grouping to look at assets in a geospatial view which will be really important when they get into the world of digital twins
- Part of their licence condition is that they need to make their data available. They can do this now via a process but the new model will be at a click of a button so people can consume it. They will also be able to bring in more additional data sets both internal and external
- Improving customer experience by giving engineers data a lot easier
- Help to meet climate challenge needs and net zero which they know data and technology will be crucial for
TIP 6 – For joint bids, look at what each party is bringing to the table and the relationship between them
Looking at the procurement approach and the importance of systems, licencing and data quality this tender was no different to any other. For this tender they spoke about the business case and the different LOTs, but they didn’t want to explicitly tell people what to do and to get a price and proposal on that. They wanted to explain the plan and then get organisations different ideas, experiences and innovative solutions. They got some fantastic ideas around how people thought they should implement UN. The issue from this during their assessment, was that they weren’t comparing apples with apples because when they started asking clarification questions it became obvious there were some inconsistencies in what people were quoting for. In some cases, you will have 2 or more parties bidding for work. Make sure you look at what each party is bringing to the table and the relationship between them.
TIP 7 – You know things will fail validation so looking at the data quality early on is of huge benefit to the overall project
NGN have been really successful in understanding and improving their data quality. They do have some non-conformances where they have data where they wouldn’t expect it and they also have some issues around network connectivity. The tracing capability in the UN is a big benefit but they will probably get there over time and won’t have a granular view on day 1. They still have a lot of work to do around the network connectivity in the GIS and validating the data. This is on the roadmap for after go-live. A big area for NGN is the above ground assets and they would like to start looking at the connectivity for the above ground assets. They do think they can do this with the high-pressure networks in this project so this will be a great improvement. They do have data quality priorities, looking at where data sets are fundamental to the UN model and they are looking at what validation or enhancement they do in an automated way, based on the volume of data and complexity, and what they do manually, for example much smaller items where they know there are issues. Again, does this all need to be done in the current system or can they do some of the enhancements once in the new system.
And one final tip:
TIP 8 – Run your current system in parallel with the UN model to check for issues before you complete the migration
In summary Liam’s experience with 1Spatial and Esri UK has been an extremely positive one and he believes both have brought a lot to the table. His advice to anyone considering migration to the utility network would be if you have the right internal people and the right partners the migration can be a great success.
If you haven’t already, please check out the webinar Liam delivered with 1Spatial and Esri UK where he shared how they built a business case at NGN for the Utility Network and the lessons learned to date.