GIS and SCADA: When two worlds collide to enable efficient operations

October 3rd, 2019, Published in Articles: PositionIT

Over the past 30 years the advances in SCADA/HMI software, open communications standards, applications, the internet and developing technologies such as IoT have seen the ability to use a data-driven approach to achieve better operational efficiencies become a reality. Combining GIS into SCADA visualisation systems have taking the cognitive human skills to problem to an even higher level.

Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) and Human Machine Interface (HMI) are often used interchangeably. They both time dimensional and do the same job and are primarily responsible for the following tasks:

  • Data acquisition – using a protocol driver to some physical device
  • Storing the data in real-time database within the software (I/O server)
  • Calculations – perform some post processing of data
  • Set alarms to data – digital state change, analogues out of some defined process limit
  • Log time-based data in a historian
  • Have a design application to build free form graphical user interface and to animate the graphics to represent the process being monitored and to display status, events, alarms, real-time and historical values.

The choice of which technology you use is largely driven by the industry it serves and what part of the world you are in. There are some subtle difference, as explained below.

Fig. 1: Telemetry and distributed systems typically connected by SCADA. SCADA operates in the real-time and control domain.

SCADA versus HMI


SCADA refers to the system that acquires and displays data from geographically distributed systems. Examples would be electrical distribution, water distribution, communications network infrastructure and so on. The primary supplier of data in these instances is a radio telemetry unit (RTU), which is generally not designed to do any fast control but to work in remote, time-stamped applications of delayed and not-so-robust communications (e.g. due to transmission faults, weather interference). These devices have to be able to report alarms, store data if communications fail, and pass time-stamped data through to the remote SCADA systems that is usually found in a central control room.

HMI refers to a graphical user interface that is more tightly bound on a physical network within a geographical site such as a factories and processing plants. The primary supplier of data here is programmable logic controller (PLC), which is designed to do fast control of some process. Because HMIs are so tightly bound to the PLC and on very fast networks, the protocols used don’t support time-stamped data at the source like an RTU. However, the HMI system itself time-stamps the data as it is read into the HMI software.

SCADA/HMI is real-time and historical data, events, alarms, and graphics to represent a fixed process. Operators know the process they are controlling and the solution is designed to offer operational support. Operations are full-time (24/7/365) and are therefore designed to be fast, efficient and time dimensional. SCADA is thus time based (real-time) data, process and event visualisation and management. However, SCADA is not for modelling, incident, workforce or asset management. While SCADA can do bits of all of this, it is not designed for these purposes.

Geographic information systems (GIS)

Wikipedia defines a geographic information system (GIS) as “a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyse, manage, and present spatial or geographic data. GIS applications are tools that allow users to create interactive queries (user-created searches), analyse spatial information, edit data in maps, and present the results of all these operations.”

In most instances GIS uses historical, multi-dimensional data primarily for planning purposes. I refer to a typical municipality, and in fact spoke to the electrical operations manager at Johannesburg Water, who enlightened me as to the city’s use and vision for GIS. Traditionally the GIS was the planning centre of the organisation. It is the master repository of the assets and historically used for network planning and asset management. In addition, the hydraulic models are run based on historical data fed from data loggers and manual readings done in the field. This is a very traditional use of GIS, and very much fits into a silo within the organisation.

For the purpose of this article SCADA and HMI will be used interchangeably, and I will be using a typical SCADA application of a municipal water distribution system that should be familiar to the GIS fraternity too.

The intersection of GIS and SCADA

Returning to my conversation with a large municipality: it was the eye opener when in conversation with the SCADA staff it became clear that there is a new vision incorporated into the municipality’s business plan where technology will underline the new workforce optimisation plan. This incorporates SCADA/GIS/SAP and digital applications to identify, manage and better communicate with residents.

In short, the worlds of SCADA and GIS are colliding.

The typical SCADA approach

By way of example, the SCADA server (I/O server) is receiving data in the sub-second time range domain. The basic philosophy is that this data is stored in real-time database. Because all the applications are client/server, the user then builds a project of “mimics” or “forms” using the available tools. These tools are usually vector objects that represent assets such as plant and equipment like pipes, pumps, reservoirs and measuring instruments.

Fig. 2: A paper and pulp industry process dashboard showing the systems controled by SCADA.

In the second screen you can see the beginnings of a GIS flavour where SCADA data is overlaid on a static map. The physical location of assets can be seen on a map along with a representation of the status of those assets in real-time.

If you consider that GIS automatically brings location context to whatever it represents, its use in traditional manufacturing and processing plants is restricted. I am not talking about mine planning systems, for example, but about traditional control environments.

Physical plant and fixed infrastructure systems (e.g. water distribution, electrical distribution, gas distribution) is the domain of the SCADA system environment as previously discussed. What is important in terms of operational efficiencies here is the status and production value of the assets within such an infrastructure. Take a water system of a municipality, for example, where the value of the production product is large and the cost of not delivering at an acceptable quality (e.g. pressure and flow) can be severe. A burst pipe in a network will costs millions in non-recoverable loss within hours.

Fig. 3: A SCADA screen five years ago, with a static maps overlayed with SCADA data.

Using sensors to detect, identify and react to a potential problem is critical to the profitability and reputation of the supplier. In addition, the ability to monitor mass balances and being able to replay this data in a visual interface would go a long way in understanding performance and vulnerabilities.

In cases like this, the value of a GIS providing an overview of a geographically widespread network, or even more detailed subnetworks, along with the performance and status of what is measured and/or derived from real-time SCADA, could be immense. Provided, of course, that the interface is well designed to highlight state (healthy, potential problem, fault) by way of colour-coded alarm screens to allow operators to easily make sense of and react to problems in a large network of assets.

Organisational and technical challenges

Unfortunately, the GIS department is completely disengaged from the SCADA and operations units. Yet, the GIS department is largely responsible for the asset and the long-term planning decisions that need to be made for the organisation.

Fig. 4: GIS starts to make sense in distributed system where an operator would like to see an overview of an assets performance and status. It is important to be able to drill down into the process.

The GIS is the master data of most of these types of assets. A pipe network within a GIS and all the data and history is the result of years of collection and programming, and it should be. In order to be able to take advantage of this work the SCADA needs to be GIS aware, i.e. know how to render and deal natively with tiles, items/objects that have geographical significance, say some measuring device like a pressure sensor that is being driven from data acquired over the telemetry or IoT network.

The challenge of course is the marrying of these technologies, and deciding who the master is and being able to work with the GIS technologies from within the SCADA environment.

It is one thing to export a view of a shapefile into a static drawing standard like a jpeg or BMP, but it is not the answer and system maintenance is difficult. A SCADA needs to be able to ”subscribe” to a GIS shapefile, and if it is changed in the GIS it should be able to reload the new data to ensure the operational system is always up to date.

An example of this is a shapefile of a pipe network. The shapefile within a GIS natively knows how to deal with zooming, with the relevant detail displayed at certain zoom levels. This is not native to a SCADA system. Even ensuring the segmentation within a shapefile can be complicated, as the properties driving the GIS objects are different to the well-known and well-understood control objects, and SCADA systems are designed to bind and drive these known properties.

SCADA’s current ability

Here I’m talking about our own Adroit Technology’s SCADA, one of few SCADA systems to have incorporated GIS. Our SCADA has a map control that allows it to load maps. Since SCADA systems do not require a global map, but rather a map of a limited geographical area, we use OpenStreetMap as a basemap. This allows us to load a map, zoom, pan, and load GIS objects.

Loading GIS objects gives us the following control, most of which can be driven from real-time data: displaying custom icons, viewing GPS co-ordinates (moving or stationary), tracking the history of GPS location, status (alarm/healthy), and bringing up any real-time data associated with the object in a tooltip when mouse hovers over pin. It also allows the display of object hierarchy tree status, and double-clicking zooms into an object wherever it is located. Double-clicking on an object to load a graphic form associated with the object, like a normal SCADA screen, is also possible. The SCADA can also import shapefiles and via script drive behaviours such as pipe colours and more.

All of this can be made into templates (e.g. single form populated with individual objects data when used), which saves time and effort.

Fig. 5: The Netherlands’ GIS of its water infrastructure, containing SCADA data.

This has allowed us to start down the road of GIS/SCADA collaboration. It is a road that will no doubt bring challenges and rewards. The latest project we have completed is an IoT proof-of-concept for a large water utility.

Real-time GIS/SCADA drive the project, and now includes metering, pressure monitoring, asset management (geo-location of welders used to repair pipes), quality assurance (enforcing water sampling), site security and manhole monitoring (a form of risk management).

Where to from here – Industry 4.0?

These worlds have not quite collided, but our separate galaxies are beginning to feel the gravitational effects of each other.

A SCADA that can consume and work with GIS information will allow operation teams to get a better view and understanding of an organisation. Likewise, a GIS that consumes real-time data like flows, pressure, levels along with IoT events like security triggers and access control will be able to further enhance its value as these aspects integrate into business and workflow management.

Fig. 6: Adroit Technologies’s geospatially aware SCADA.

With smaller, autonomous, geo-located sensors feeding vast amounts of support operational data, the Internet of Things is going to create a very interesting landscape going forward, both in the SCADA and in the GIS world.

The worlds, like so many, cannot remain separate and in the continual strive for efficiency we are on a collaborative collision course that will over the next five to ten years drive yet unknown benefits to organisations.

Contact Dave Wibberley, Adroit Technologies,

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