Over time grid organizations have merged or reorganized, which led to the increasing risk of having incomplete and unreliable data. Farbod Ashiri Mazdi explains how vectorization can deliver utilities a balanced mix between quick & efficient data-registration, at the lowest possible costs.

What do you imagine when thinking about what’s beneath our surface? Mud or lava maybe, but have you ever considered the immense infrastructure of power and telecom cables and gas pipelines? With 1.7 million kilometers of underground utility lines in the Netherlands, it can get crowded right under your feet. Registering data on pipeline and cable locations was done in the early days by drawing sketches by hand. This often means that the exact location is not registered. In fact, millions of these files are currently not digitally available.

Over time grid organizations have merged or reorganized, which led to the usage of various asset registration standards. This, in combination with human handwritten and drawn sketches, increases the risk of having incomplete and unreliable data on the exact location of assets. This creates a challenge in case these assets need to be accessed for construction or maintenance work, which leads to significant risks for accidents due to unreliable or incomplete data. For example in 2014, two casualties were reported due to a gas related incident in the Netherlands. Construction work damaged a natural gas pipeline, causing a major explosion. As you can see, it is vital to know where the underground cables and pipelines are located, to prevent critical situations like this in the future and to ensure that excavation works are coordinated accordingly.

High quality asset data is now regulated by law

Research has shown that about half of all excavation damage is caused at domestic sites. Recent years, several severe damage incidents and accidents at domestic sites have led to stricter national (e.g. Underground Cables and Pipelines Information Exchange Act) - and international laws and regulations (e.g. INSPIRE). The latter concerns a uniform framework of standards that helps organizations to share information and improve the quality of (spatial) data, which should be available in vector format.

Besides the efforts to prevent incidents, improving data quality will also drive higher value in most of the organizational processes. Having a clear view on your assets provides for example better asset planning & management, and better client service. Combined with the stricter regulation of WION, the need arises to register and digitize all data on domestic sites quickly, with high quality and accuracy.

The business challenge is to utilize vectorization efficiently

For most domestic sites, hand-drawn analog sketches of cables and pipeline are stored in the GIS (geographical information system). The process of retroactively digitalizing these analog sketches is called vectorization. There are two ways of vectorizing:

1. Manual vectorization 
Manually entering data and digitizing older sketches employs the existing processes, procedures and IT systems used for submitting data on new cables and pipelines. This makes it easy to start with vectorizing right away. However, the human resources costs are considerable.  

2. Automated vectorization 
The main characteristic of automated vectorization is the use of tooling to open, interpret and digitize analog hand-drawn sketches. However, since there are no existing tools, building these tools is very complicated and time-consuming, which comes with a very high price. To conclude, either method is time and/or money consuming.

Manual vectorization versus automated vectorization: time versus costs

The best in both worlds

Accenture developed a hybrid solution, what we call semi-automated vectorization. The regular process of registering asset data is adjusted with additional tooling that is brought in to support the process of vectorization. An operator opens the sketch in a proprietary application and interprets and digitizes the data. In this application, the bottlenecks from a traditional GIS are eliminated and time-consuming proceedings are automated. This will save heaps of time and delivers utilities the best balance between time and money. Accenture’s semi-automated method has several features that contain benefits, compared to manual and automated vectorization:

  • Time is saved by using additional tooling and automated time-consuming proceedings: letting the operator process one sketch in a shorter period of time;
  • The method respects current initiatives to streamline the asset registration process with contractors (e.g. Digitaal Samenwerkingsplatform);
  • The tooling has a build-in data quality control;
  • The method is tailored to fit the specific needs and demands of the individual grid operator;
  • The additional tooling contains a workflow system that measures progress and quality of the process;
  • It involves a well-balanced mix of offshore capacity and onshore expertise.

The main driver for Accenture’s success in developing this solution for vectorization is the acquisition of Realworld in 2016. Realworld contributes to Accenture with their valuable GIS knowledge and expertise, which has proven to help developing tooling that connects with the GIS environment. The GIS-expertise of Realworld in combination with the outsourcing capabilities of Accenture, led to a successful solution for many of our clients.  

The Accenture method for vectorization is a practice that proves to digitize analog sketches in a well-balanced mix between quick & efficient data registration, at the lowest possible costs. Accenture has already demonstrated the success at several clients in the gas, electricity, water, and telecom industries. Living up to the laws and regulations set for grid companies is now one step closer. This combined with the value that organizations reap from a higher data quality, it is a given that soon all analog data will be digitized, working towards the digital grid.