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Collaboration helps small communities connect to GIS

Fear and excitement both come to mind when reflecting on my time spent training and providing Geographic Information System (GIS) services for economically disadvantaged rural water utility systems throughout the commonwealth of Kentucky. Working with GIS is a daunting and challenging task for anybody, let alone for the rural small-town utility workers in Kentucky who spend most of their workdays performing operations and maintenance activity on their aging infrastructure. Fortunately, over the last decade, GIS platforms like ArcGIS have evolved to encompass a wide range of web-based GIS applications on smartphones and other mobile devices. The transformation to a web-based GIS ecosystem with offline functionality has enabled the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) to expand GIS accessibility to small rural utility systems and provide powerful user-friendly solutions with growing success. The goal is for all small-scale, economically disadvantaged rural utility systems to have a fighting chance at not only having an up-to-date GIS map for locating assets, but a robust functioning geographic information system that utility workers of all backgrounds can pour data into.

Kentucky RCAP staff have collected highly accurate differential GPS (Global Positioning System) data for water and wastewater systems over the past decade, serving many economically disadvantaged communities across the state through mostly grant funding provided by USDA Rural Development. From the Appalachian mountainsides of the Eastern Coalfield region to the rolling hills in the Pennyroyal Plateau region, RCAP staff have had the opportunity to collect GPS data in some of Kentucky’s most naturally and historically enriched communities. However, many of these same communities have endured impoverished conditions for generations, and unfortunately the economy has only gotten worse with the disappearance of industry in these regions. The economic conditions of the community are largely tied with the financial capacity of the local utility systems’ ability to sustain revenue for their increasing infrastructure cost. With many of the utilities lacking the financial capacity to make system upgrades, the attention is then shifted to solutions for better maintaining their existing system using tools like GIS. While there is growing success with getting rural utilities to use GIS applications, there are many financial, managerial, and technical challenges that need to be overcome in order for disadvantaged rural utilities to have a sustainable, successful GIS mapping program.

The Financial Barrier to Deploying GIS:

GIS undeniably brings immense value to any utility system, whether it is a large urban utility or a smaller rural utility. However, many of the rural utilities RCAP serves often overlook the potential value of a GIS program because they lack the financial capacity to start and maintain a GIS program internally. Most of the Kentucky communities that RCAP has provided GIS services to are in the Eastern Coalfield region and the Pennyroyal Plateau region. Of the 30 counties in the Eastern Coalfield region, 25 are categorized as distressed communities by the Appalachian Region Commission. Most of these counties are also classified as persistent poverty counties, meaning 20 percent or more of the total population have lived in poverty since the 1980 Census (USDA Economic Research Service). The unemployment rates in these counties are double to triple the national average (The Lane Report – United States 2019). Unfortunately, in response to a continuation of declining jobs in these regions, there is the combined effect of outmigration with young adults, resulting in both a declining and aging population. Due to the combination of the high unemployment and disability rate along with an aging population, many customers of rural Kentucky utility systems are on fixed incomes. In response, many of the utility providers are reluctant to raise cost of services to improve their growing infrastructure and implement better management solutions like utilizing GIS.

Fortunately, federal and state grant funding have made it possible for Kentucky RCAP staff to facilitate GIS efforts in many economically disadvantaged rural utilities by providing GPS data collection, creating digital maps, and training utility staff on using GIS software. However, grant funding will not support maintaining the GIS system beyond the grant period. Therefore, the National RCAP office has worked with ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute) to create a multi-tenant network across RCAP regions to offer an ongoing cost-effective option for GIS to be a sustainable solution in even the most economically disadvantaged rural utility systems.

Technical Capacity and Fallacies:

Geographic Information Systems are a powerful digital mapping and analytical tool that were once only common among larger entities and specialized companies like engineering firms, state and federal government agencies, and large utility systems. Smaller utility systems ultimately lacked the GIS expertise and managerial support needed for a successful functioning geographic information system. Most rural utility systems we have come across in Kentucky do not have a full or part time IT staff, let alone a devoted GIS specialist for their utility system. This is where RCAP staff have been able to step in with their technical knowledge and expertise for doing the groundwork involved with getting utility systems equipped with GIS, starting with the most important component of a GIS map: collecting the GPS data for the utility system. It is important to mention that this part of the process can be challenging such as needing to reschedule for system emergencies or other time compromising projects. In addition, some field workers from small utility systems are concerned with what GPS collections might mean for their job security when revealing the spatial location of an asset only known to them. This is a reasonable concern, as GIS maps will store the knowledge and location of assets for anybody else in the utility including a potential replacement employee to use. However, in our experience, the utility workers that get the opportunity to help build or use a GIS map have even better job security. The utility benefits directly from that employee contributing their knowledge to build the GIS map with visual proof of the time spent collecting and updating data. The utility employee also improves their job skills through learning GIS since it is a widely used tool among many other utility sectors.

Collaboration is Key:

Another challenge RCAP staff have faced with small rural utility systems is the notion of having the GIS responsibilities fall on one individual staff person from a utility system. If avoidable, this should not be the case as GIS can be an overwhelming task for a single utility worker to learn when they are still juggling their current responsibilities. Specialization is essential for success; there typically will be one employee that is better at locating and recording data about the systems assets, while another employee is better at using the ArcGIS software. Multiple employees should try to acquire a baseline understanding of each step in the GIS process when possible. Data accuracy improves when multiple employees can collaborate and fill in the gaps of any missing spatial and tabular knowledge. It helps to have multiple employees familiar with the software in the case of user error and for troubleshooting purposes. Collaboration is not only important among the utility systems, but also for the GIS staff across the RCAP network as well.

GPS Data Collection in a Nutshell:

There are a limited number of choices in software, hardware, and workflows for GPS data collection. Cost and technical knowledge heavily influence what equipment and workflow to utilize. RCAP Kentucky staff have provided highly accurate spatial data using RTK (Real-Time-Kinetic) and post-processing differential correction methods. While RCAP staff in Kentucky have utilized the state’s free RTK service in the past, the cellular data connection needed to utilize RTK is unavailable in many areas of the state. Therefore, RCAP Kentucky staff have decided to primarily use post-processing techniques that enables centimeter-level accuracy. Post-processing data can feel like an ancient workflow, and it often requires additional work across multiple software applications. However, post-processing has proven to be the most efficient data collecting method for high accuracy in places that lack cellular data coverage like many of the rural utilities we serve. For now, and the foreseeable future, Kentucky staff will continue to use workflows that result in high spatial accuracy and precision without compromising the time of the rural utility workers.

Evolving GIS Usage Beyond Locating Assets:

Being able to locate assets using a digital map with the utility worker’s current location has leveraged the ability for utility workers to find assets in rough conditions. Water assets like radio read meters get inspected less often than they should, and in return, the area where the meter is located becomes overgrown and difficult to locate, as seen in the photo on the next page. Locating assets is a crucial day-to-day function for utility workers, and a great starting point to familiarize utility employees with using digital maps; however, ArcGIS software comes with tools that go far beyond locating assets. RCAP Kentucky staff researched and discovered the appeal to using multiple ArcGIS applications that function together like using Collector and Survey123 for inspections and other record keeping activity with its customizability. It was not until RCAP Kentucky staff attended a GIS user conference hosted by the Kentucky Association of Mapping Professionals (KAMP) that RCAP staff was convinced of using Survey123 and its ability to be integrated with existing GIS apps like ArcGIS Collector and Dashboards. By having digital forms integrated with GIS, the water system can collect data of O&M (Operations and Maintenance) along with inspections that are able to be used to construct a real-time asset management platform through ArcGIS applications like ArcGIS Dashboards and Survey123 feature reports. This is an important factor to consider as stand-alone asset management software can be expensive and the free or low-cost supported asset management software like CUPSS (Check Up Program for Small Systems) created by the USEPA have discontinued updates and support in recent years.

Water Utilities Optimizing GIS Digital Record Keeping Capabilities:

ArcGIS applications like Survey123 Connect have enabled RCAP staff to create digital Operating and Maintenance (O&M) surveys for water utility systems including hydrant flow testing and flushing, valve exercising, and recording water main breaks. This has allowed water operators and field workers to streamline their O&M tasks using a mobile device. GIS’s capability of digital record-keeping eliminates the need for paperwork, reduces time spent filling out forms with auto-populating data fields, improves calculations with the use of pre-defined formulas, and highlights employee work orders with visual graphics. For instance, a water utility worker can see which hydrants have been flushed and which valves have been exercised in ArcGIS Collector using a combination of date range and field-based symbology connected with the asset’s corresponding unique ID. The field worker can then populate any useful existing data from the cloud-hosted web feature service layer, like the hydrant’s outlet size, into the Survey123 flushing form. Once the field worker inputs the outlet size, pressure readings, and the time spent flushing, Survey123 automatically calculates the discharge rate, hydrant flow, and estimated water loss for each hydrant. Digitally recording operations and maintenance activity is useful data to implement for asset management practices especially when you can analyze past records on a map, like the pressure capacity in a hydrant over the past few years. GIS digital record keeping allows utility workers to search for patterns and connections to find source issues with their system, especially with water loss. Kentucky has an estimated 30 percent average water loss on a state-wide basis according to the 2019 Kentucky Infrastructure Report Card developed by the American Society of Civil Engineers. However, there is not a statewide standard practice to calculate water loss and many methods utilized are inconsistent. In response, RCAP staff designed a water main break form in Survey123 to include parameters with built-in equations to estimate water loss from water main breaks using formulas specific to the type of break (circular, crack, and hole). The formulas are dependent on the utility worker inputting the measurements of the break, but Survey123 allows workers to take and attach photos of the water main breaks which helps verify if accurate measurements were inputted.


RCAP staff in Kentucky has witnessed firsthand that GIS is possible for disadvantaged rural water utilities. These systems have improved their day-to-day work through greater efficiency locating assets, improved communication, digital record keeping, and strengthening decision making for maintaining assets and improving system design. However, GIS can be very limited without the technical assistance that RCAP GIS staff provides, especially with the large range of software errors that can occur with GIS. It is crucial to have an affordable GIS program for disadvantaged rural utility systems that provides maintenance from GIS staff when needed. RCAP Kentucky staff are now taking the next steps to evolve existing digital water maintenance forms and create new inspection digital forms specialized for wastewater systems. RCAP Kentucky staff are also further exploring the management tools within the GIS environment using applications like ArcGIS Dashboards to help water and wastewater utilities visualize data trends in real time.

For more information about GIS services, trainings, and other technical assistance provided by RCAP in Kentucky please visit

Article originally appeared in the RCAP Connection Spring 2021 newsletter. Written by Adam Borque.

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Great Lakes Community Action Partnership

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