Asset Management Systems: A Guide for GIS Pros
The relationship between Asset Management Systems and GIS is growing stronger and more important, but often GIS professionals don’t have experience working with Asset Management Systems, and that can cause issues. To help, we are offering this short series of articles intended as a guide for GIS professionals.
There are a number of ways to approach this topic, but we are going to start from a high level and work our way down. Today, we will go over the following:
- Two Aspects of Decision-Making: Requirements vs. Capabilities
- What is the purpose of asset tracking?
- What assets do we need to manage?
- What information are we interested in tracking about these assets?
- What level of complexity do we want to use for different asset types?
In our second article, we will cover:
- Capabilities: What are the capabilities of the asset management system we are considering? Should we use asset management software or a custom database solution? How do we decide what to do?
- Getting started
Requirements vs. Capabilities
At its simplest, any technology investment decision ultimately boils down to two factors:
- What are the requirements?
- What are the capabilities of the various solutions?
That sounds easy, doesn’t it? Except it’s not.
The task of assessing the requirements for asset management is often more complicated than people imagine. Compared to a lot of other GIS data/objects/features like address points or ecological areas, some types, components, and combinations of assets are much more complex. This can catch out an inexperienced GIS person when they are trying to deal with asset management.
Another portion of asset requirements are the details about each asset. This can be complex not only because of the characteristics of the asset, but also, additional related information of which you need to keep track.
The flip side, of course, is the capability of the software. It is not simply a matter of looking at a checklist of features in the software and seeing if they match the asset types. Many of the asset relationships are not standard configurations out of the box. The software has to be capable of these configuration needs.
The other part of the software is pricing, and thus, finding the nexus between price and capability is critical. This is where the discussion regarding what form or type of asset management system is appropriate must be had. Do you need dedicated software, or a simpler set of database tables and queries to serve your requirements?
Both these aspects taken together mean this decision requires quite a bit of thought and planning. Let's now look at each aspect in more detail.
The types of requirements related to assets can be quite complex. It isn’t just the location or status of an object that is often dealt with by asset management systems; those systems can often deal with functional areas such as:
- Installation history.
- Warranty period.
- Planned maintenance.
- Unplanned incidents and faults.
- Actual maintenance.
- Cost of ownership.
- Insurance status.
- Legal/regulatory compliance.
- Importance. For example, is this asset a historic building (with protection from unauthorized alteration or demolition), etc.?
Many of the above aren’t simple 1:1 attribute relationships either. A good example of this is actual maintenance performed. That maintenance can take many forms, from simple cleaning, to weed control if it is an open channel, to spot repairs in various locations, or lining if it is a pipeline, all the way to complete replacement if its condition has deteriorated enough to warrant that. Keeping track of these different options requires more than a single attribute on the asset layer.
What this means is that the requirements for your asset management system are directly related to the types of assets and the information about each asset, that you wish to manage. To determine this, you need information in three major categories:
- What assets need to be managed?
- What asset attributes are required?
- What is the end goal of managing these assets?
What is the purpose behind tracking assets?
Before you can figure out what to track, you need to know why you are going to be tracking particular assets. The reasons are varied, and each may require specific information about the same asset. Let's look at a few of the most common:
Operations and Maintenance
This is probably the key function of asset management systems, enough that they are often called another name: Computerized Maintenance Management Systems. Whether you are a private organization, business, or a public agency, if you have physical assets, they need to have regular maintenance to ensure they are working properly. This is important for two reasons:
- It extends the life of said asset, reducing lifetime cost.
- It ensures that the asset does not pose a safety risk.
Some items to be tracked in this area are the condition and age of the asset. You might want to keep track of maintenance history, when it was maintained, who did the work, and whether it was regular maintenance or an unscheduled repair.
It is worth having this as a separate entry from operations and maintenance because it can actually have applications beyond O&M. It may also be more specific than tracking for maintenance which is just looking for problems. When you are tracking condition specifically, it can be not just an ongoing record of observations, but also a result of a comprehensive review of an asset or set of assets. A good example of this is when a city has a street survey performed. In this process, every street is reviewed and assigned a condition score, along with an expected degradation of condition for the next 1-5 years. This can be combined with occasional observations and information about recent upgrade projects, to prioritize future work. The process to set this up may require tracking attributes for a combination of different asset types.
Capital Improvement Planning
Capital Improvements is any improvement that increases the value of the asset involved. The increase in value is different from O&M where the goal is to simply maintain the condition of assets. In the case of public agencies, the planning aspect comes into play because the projects are generally grouped together to achieve economies of scale, both in time and cost. Since they are larger projects, they require more funds, and so it is important that the projects are well thought through and performed in places where they will have the most impact. As a result, there is a longer vision for planning these projects, and lists are maintained for a minimum of 5 years and sometimes extending out to 15 or 20 years. Keeping these lists updated and prioritized is a key place where asset tracking can come into play. A good example of this is when a city is planning a street paving project. You don't want to just look at the streets themselves, but also any other assets in the ground, like sewer, storm water, electrical, etc., that may need to be addressed before you pave. Nothing raises the ire of residents faster than seeing a street paved, then less than a year later, having it be dug up again because a sewer or water line needs replacement.
In the U.S., we have something called GASB 34, which requires us to maintain some valuation of each asset owned by a city, which can range from sewer, to buildings, to more esoteric things like trees, which are, incidentally, a little recognized but large asset, both in value and maintenance.
There are other regulations that also require some degree of tracking assets. On the storm water side, part of your discharge permit includes maintaining an inventory of the enclosed lines. It is just a step from there to having a cleaning schedule to ensure these lines are being maintained properly so they are clear should a storm occur.
Now that we've looked at some of the reasons you would need to track your assets, it is time to review the variety of assets you need to track.
What assets need to be managed?
The answer to this question may be found by looking at the items for which your organization is responsible. If you are a city, this may be utility information like water, sewer or storm water; street information, like paving, sidewalks, street lights, etc; electricity; telephone lines, poles, etc. It may include facilities, like city hall, fire departments, police stations, or larger areas, like parks and playgrounds, that are maintained by the city. If the managing entity is a business, you might be looking at a fleet of vehicles, or real estate, both land and buildings. If a school or university, you may find that many aspects of a city also apply, as a campus has the same infrastructure, with the addition of buildings, classrooms, and specialized networks.
The best way to figure out what is important is to talk to the subject matter experts. This may include your public works staff, facilities managers, IT staff, etc. As GIS professionals, it is easy to get caught in the trap of thinking we need to figure this out ourselves. This is folly. Ask the people that know. Most times, they are more than happy to tell you all about the assets, especially if you have something to offer that is going to help them do their jobs better. This also applies to the next topic, which is: Once you have figured out what assets to track, what do you need to know about them?
What data is important about each asset?
Specifically, you need to answer the question, "What data is critical to maintain about these assets that will let me fulfill the purposes listed above?"
There are two parts to this process. First, determine how you want to represent the assets. Some assets are pretty easy to define, like sewer lines, manholes, stop signs, etc. Other assets are part of more complex networks, or have more complex components, which requires you to make some choices in representation.
Here are a few examples:
- Street networks: While you generally think of a street in terms of the centerline, indicating where it runs, a street also has area which is paved. Your street crew might be interested in the condition of different sections of the street, and when they were repaved. Someone working on CIP may want to be able to show the different types of projects that were done on a street; for example, what was paved, or where sidewalk was put in, or different types of pavement. These would require not just a line representation, but also an area.
- Fiber optic network: You may need to know the location of cables, cabinets, and splice cases. More advanced modeling uses may also require detail about the internal connections within those components.
Image of a wall-mount cabinet containing optical fiber interconnects. Does your asset management system need to know the details of how these connections are configured? Or do you just need to know that there is a cable leading to a cabinet and that is about the only details you need? (Image: Alby - Own work, Public Domain.)
- Buildings and other structures: You may start out with a simple building outline. If this building has sections with different owners, you may want to track that. There may arise a need to show the rooms inside a building, perhaps for emergency evacuation planning. This is additional complexity that becomes even more challenging if there are multiple floors. Some colleges and universities are starting to set up campus-wide routing so that students can more easily find their classes. This is beginning to move inside buildings as well. This means you have to also track stairs and what floors they connect. Lastly, a building may have indoor and outdoor spaces, and these may have different maintenance needs, which is another wrinkle.
One building asset or two? Or six? (Image: Daniel Case - Own work. [CC BY-SA 3.0])
Second, Determine what attributes are necessary for these assets. This is similar to the first point except that instead of looking at the physical representation, now you need to look at the descriptive features of these assets. What do you need to capture about these assets that will provide enough detail for the purposes listed above to be accomplished? Like the assets themselves, this can range from simple to complex:
- Simple: Dimensions, length, width, slope, height, material, date installed.
- More complex: Condition, capacity of assets, most recent CIP projects.
- Most complex: Ongoing condition tracking with multiple entries with timestamp; all CIP projects for a particular feature; linking media to assets.
With any of the above decisions, your first source of information should be the subject matter experts for each department, and also for each task area. Public works will know about utilities, and facilities, and will know the layers and attributes required to operate, maintain, and improve these assets. CIP staff can tell you what is important about their projects, and what level of detail they want to have when determining assets to include in projects. Ask a lot of questions and observe their processes, as how they perform their jobs will also help you understand what is critical to track.
One common issue is when people mix too many different types of assets together. If their asset management system is set up for one specific type, they try to fudge the design to work with other types of assets. For example, your asset management system is primarily focused on, say, buildings, but your organization is also responsible for some private roads, some water tanks, and some radio antennae. Sometimes users set up records talking about the ‘floor area’ of a road (although roads don’t have floors!) or the number of ‘stories’ of a radio antenna (i.e. trying to indicate height!). This can cause all sorts of problems if someone who isn’t familiar with the data starts running reports, as when a manager who is unfamiliar with the underlying data creates a report on the total floor area of ‘buildings’ in a region, not realizing that they are inadvertently including results for many assets that aren’t buildings, but that did have a ‘floor area’ attribute, like a road!
Once you have figured out why you want to employ asset tracking, what assets are important, and what you need to know about those assets, it is time to find a solution for these needs. That will be the topic of our next article!