Although they’re on opposite ends of the North American continent and in vastly different climates, the cities of Port of Montreal and San Diego will have something in common early this year. Each is among the first organizations to employ a flexible new technology designed to make numbers and statistical data come alive for visual mavens, while helping otherwise diehard number-crunchers find meaning in colorful maps.
The two cities are part of an early test of visualization technology that depicts municipal resources, such as street lights, fire hydrants, and sewer lines, on geographic information system (GIS) maps and links the icons to complete structured databases that run behind the scenes. When public-works managers click on a streetlight, for example, a short dossier pops up showing the manufacturer, model number, maintenance history, and other information.
If it all works as planned, the potential benefit will be fast access to the information that repair people need to quickly fix a service outage reported by a citizen or perform other services that keep the city running smoothly. “Once you get this initial plumbing set up for GIS and SAP database links, there’s a whole world of possibilities that can be built on top of that for all different parts of any organization,” says Steve Benner, director of strategic accounts for Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), a designer of GIS applications based in Redlands, California.
Results of the San Diego and Port of Montreal pilots weren’t available at press time, but backers of the project, known as Sagres, hoped to gain a variety of technical, user-interface, and marketing insights from the efforts. SAP Labs in Palo Alto launched Sagres two years ago to explore the technical and sales potential of tightly integrating the SAP NetWeaver platform and GIS applications.
Merging maps and the underlying enterprise databases isn’t new to Sagres (named for a southwestern tip of Portugal that became a gathering point for cartographers in the 1400s). Project Sagres is attempting to relieve the pain that end users feel when their modern mapping efforts get bogged down in custom integration interfaces built to synchronize multiple databases and create user interfaces (UIs) to serve a range of technical and line-of-business (LOB) workers.
“This is another kind of visualization [strategy] to make it easier for people to see what’s going on” across their organizations, says Oliver Mainka, GIS program manager at SAP Labs. Thus, public-works managers can consult a GIS map to see which work crews are closest to a gushing fire hydrant on Main Street, for example. Once there, the workers can click on a map icon to get details about the hydrant’s specifications and repair history.
Once the crews fix the broken device, they might revisit the GIS application to locate all the other hydrants within a 10-minute drive that may be nearing their due dates for inspection. “Why not just do the inspections now so nobody has to drive 10 miles from headquarters a few weeks later?” Mainka says. “This can save a lot of time and effort.”
SAP’s preliminary market studies point to commercial interest among federal and local governments, public utilities, and the oil and gas industry, all of which routinely manage far-flung assets. Mainka says customers are particularly interested in the potential of getting all the integration tools within one platform from a single vendor.
SAP interviewed approximately 50 customers about their in-house GIS projects. Many of the companies had created their own simple solutions with tools that allowed users to flip back and forth between GIS and SAP programs. The custom applications didn’t offer an integrated view of both data sets within a single interface. “Our customers told us [Sagres] was interesting because even with [the simple programs] they experienced benefits in their companies,” reducing staff time and managing assets better, Mainka says. But the project stalled because the “integration became too much work for them,” he adds.
Potential Sagres benefits for vendors include the chance to launch sophisticated data-analysis programs without having to make fundamental changes to their core products. Rather than having deep technical challenges, marrying GIS and enterprise applications tests your understanding of user requirements and writing integration code that you can replicate for composite applications, Benner says. “Sagres accelerates the exposure of opportunities to enhance SAP applications with GIS,” says Benner. “SAP technology and the whole composite-application framework is a different way of integrating these applications that makes the job much easier to do.”
To achieve these programming efficiencies, Sagres addresses the following four key development areas:
1. Data Synchronization
The most critical challenge is how to efficiently replicate data between the GIS and SAP platforms. Breakdowns in updating changes in either database could lead to inaccuracies that might ultimately make the application too untrustworthy to use.
For example, a public-works manager may update a record in an SAP application to reflect a recent work order that installed an emergency telephone on a pole that formerly held only a street light and a traffic signal. A mechanism must be in place to automatically notify the GIS application of the change so the mapping program will have the correct information embedded in it. The key to this database orchestration in Sagres is SAP NetWeaver Master Data Management (SAP NetWeaver MDM).
By managing a central data model, SAP NetWeaver MDM acts as a conduit between GIS and the enterprise applications. Because SAP NetWeaver MDM connects data to a single master file, it allows organizations to centrally manage information for accuracy and consistency across multiple IT systems. Among SAP NetWeaver MDM’s capabilities are data consolidation and cleansing. Important for GIS applications is SAP NetWeaver MDM’s ability to handle a variety of data formats, including rich content such as images. When individual programs need to exchange information, they map the data to SAP NetWeaver MDM, not directly to each other.
“If you want to build [xApps] with multiple data sets, you have to have something like SAP NetWeaver MDM. Otherwise, you have to perform some data-mapping on your own for every application,” says Hartmut Vogler, the Sagres technical lead at SAP Labs.
Sagres’ building blocks consist of the SAP NetWeaver MDM server, which stores data, complemented by two other servers that can run batch processes: the import server, for importing data, and the syndication server, for distributing data to other systems (see the “SAP NetWeaver MDM architecture” diagram below).
|SAP NetWeaver MDM can be integrated with virtually every type of SAP and non-SAP client system containing master data objects by using SAP NetWeaver XI.
2. Data Communications
Another important development component for Sagres focuses on business workflows, or the transport of data back and forth between GIS and SAP technologies. For example, if a utility company wants to determine how many households are connected to a particular electrical transformer, the answer has to come from two areas: the SAP application that manages the customer database, and the GIS application that maintains a topology of the electrical network. SAP NetWeaver Exchange Infrastructure (SAP NetWeaver XI), an enterprise application integration module, allows the two sides to talk. “[SAP NetWeaver] XI is a component for all kinds of communications. It creates the mapping between the different kinds of communications mechanisms,” Vogler says.
For the Sagres project, SAP NetWeaver XI allows developers to use the standard SAP programming model to call functions on either the SAP or GIS side. “We haven’t really done anything that would be different from just creating an in-house SAP application,” Mainka says.
3. Look and Feel
Individually tailored UIs are also a crucial consideration for making the marriage of GIS and structured data work. Interface users will likely come in three varieties, Benner says:
- “You have the folks that are working in SAP applications all day long and only want to see a map occasionally,” he explains. “They say, ‘Don’t teach me all this GIS terminology of layers and projections; I just need a map inside my SAP GUI to see where that telephone pole is.’ ”
- Next are the GIS veterans who work with maps all day and yearn to just click on a telephone-pole icon to display a pop-up screen with relevant technical details about the resource. “They know there is some data in SAP that they’d like to have but say, ‘Please don’t give me blue screens and tabs,’ ” Benner says.
- Maintenance planners and others whose day-to-day work with GIS and enterprise applications makes them comfortable in both environments represent the last group. “This could be somebody who is trying to figure out which work orders should be released to the crew today,” Benner says. The public-works supervisor may create a list in SAP of all the high-priority work orders and then turn to a map to view worksite locations. Once the planner sees the physical locations, he or she “may say, ‘I’m going to release all the ones up in this area, but this other [work order] is so far away, it doesn’t make sense to give them that one, too. They’d be chasing up and down the streets all day,’ ” Benner says.
Creating effective UIs is less a technical issue than a design challenge, and the upcoming Sagres pilot studies will seek feedback from end users about what interface elements will help them best perform their jobs.
4. Actionable Insights
Analytics is the final key area for Sagres developers. Mainka admits that SAP Labs is at the beginning stages of trying to figure out the full analytic potential of tight SAP and GIS integration. Among the questions the Sagres team will address as it conducts the San Diego and Port of Montreal pilot projects are: How do we want to slice and dice the data? What data do we want to see on maps that display street- and city-level information? How do we aggregate the data? How should we graphically depict the data?
Current iterations include about 15 canned reports for asset management that use SAP Business Information Warehouse (SAP BW). For example, city workers may click on a dialog box to call up a list of active public-works repairs. Workers see a time range of repair schedules stored in SAP BW. Using a GIS map, city managers can see depictions of individual assets, such as streetlights, which are color-coded to show how many repair requests each one generated in its lifetime.
More ambitious analytics could help public works become more efficient, Mainka says. For example, after plotting where service calls have historically been most prevalent, city planners can evaluate the size of service territories and the average time of service calls throughout the region. Ultimately, planners might decide to relocate repair facilities closer to high-volume areas to reduce work-crew drive time. “When crews are driving to and from repair sites, they’re just sitting in the truck, not doing any repair work,” Mainka says.
Sagres backers are also focusing their analytic efforts beyond core asset-management applications to business areas such as sales management. One prototype will help companies evaluate the performance of their value-added resellers. Visual data points show the locations of channel partners and their respective territories, customers, and prospects. Based on these visualizations, end users may make better decisions about where to target a new marketing campaign and gauge its ongoing effectiveness. “For example, if I sent direct mail to 10,000 people and I heard back from 1,000, what was the return rate?” Mainka says. “Just simply being able to visualize the results would be better than comparing [statistics] in a spreadsheet.”
Tomorrow’s New Look
In the future, the merging of visual and structured data could serve call centers, dispatchers, and engineers working in a wide-range of vertical markets, including those with mobile workforces or any type of delivery organization. Companies might study their existing service networks and identify the areas of highest potential growth, either from historic population patterns or as a result of marketing initiatives.
For now, there’s no announcement from SAP about when or if the technology under development in Sagres will be available to customers. But in the era of Google Earth and other mainstream visualization tools, what you “get” increasingly is what you see, when it comes to understanding data.
|Alan Joch is a technology writer based in New England who specializes in covering enterprise and Web applications. You can reach him at email@example.com.