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SOA User Story: San Francisco uses software to cut sewer-grid loss

San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission uses asset management software to keep tabs on sewer grates. SOA and MDM are seen as enablers in going forward further. Do you know where your manhole covers are?

IBM's marketing push for a "smarter planet" has come in for some kidding, as when Oracle CEO Larry Ellison recently pronounced that he "doesn't know what a smarter world is." Of course, many people would score this as "Larry being Larry."

Behind the smarter planet tagline are some interesting stories, however. These stories have as much to do with doing a better job as they have to do with improving the quality of life down here on the third rock from the sun.

Take the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, for example. On an abstract level, its work is about efficiently allotting resources; at street level it is about treating an average of 80 to 90 million gallons of wastewater per day during dry weather and up to 370 million gallons of combined wastewater and storm runoff per day during rainy seasons —and more.

As part of a wider modernization effort, the commission has worked to integrate Geographic Information System data with its IBM Maximo asset manager software, according to John Powell, superintendent in San Francisco's Public Utilities waste water engineering group. Payback came in many ways—ways that included the closing of an iron scavenging operation that preyed on city sewer grates.

Street smarts of San Francisco

Going back a bit, Powell said, the department discovered a vexing problem: Sewer grates were going missing. Thieves found economic opportunity when iron could resell for fifty cents per pound, and they were stealing the sewer covers. Replacing the iron grates was costly, but the danger to the public and danger to the efficiency of the sewer system was even more of a problem.

"We looked at pipe sections in a [Geographic Information System] and we saw the 'measles map' [or, spotted graphical report] that showed where grates were missing. It showed they were coming from areas close to wrecking yards," he said.

At that point the police were alerted and through surveillance were able to corner the street cover contrabandists. As Powell points out, this is just a small example of how systems can get smarter. But it is of the same cloth that has always marked computer automation.

Work order histories generated from the IBM software have various uses. The water department has, for example, discovered via Maximo that one pump has been rebuilt many times and is due for replacement.

At present, the Maximo software integrates with city dispatch centers that handle potholes, abandoned vehicles, loose manhole covers and overflowing storm drains. Looking forward, Powell foresees a more automated use of measles maps that could ease the dispatcher's role.

Powell and his colleagues foresee other future efficiencies that may be gained with integration of geographic data.

"If you look at how calls come in, and then tag by where they are, you can possibly field-marshal the repair crews' routes more economically," he said. "Then people can spend more time on site, rather than spending more time going to a site."

According to Powell, SOA is seen as something of an enabler in going forward further. A goal, he said, is to communicate between systems and to do so in a service provider fashion. Responding to our questions, he noted that Master Data Management may play a role in successful SOA integration. That is because different components (for example, a leaky pipe) mean different things to different groups within the organization.

Perhaps behind the smarter planet initiative there are more such tales of both civic boosterism and plain old "penny saved is a penny earned" capitalism. To paraphrase Elvis Costello, who famously asked, "What's so Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding?," what is so funny about bringing "a new level of intelligence to how the world works?"

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