One of the biggest problems of many existing systems is not that a wide range of data is not stored. The problem is that the people who need to view and use the data cannot retrieve it because it is not held in a system designed for wide or timely access. Typically, data is held in a variety of systems and the growing need over time for wider access to that data soon exceeds the design specification of the system.
Access from all parts of the utility: Datasets are often held on different computers in different systems that are separated by departmental boundaries. Only the primary users have access to them, or even know the details of them. The result is difficulty of access from other departments of the utility.
Access from outside the utility: consulting companies working on projects require access to data in the same way as a department of the utility, but this is rarely possible given the architecture of the data systems. The problem sometimes extends further to sub-contractors, who have the same requirement for access to data.
Control of access: one of the reasons for the restrictions on access to each system is the problem of controlling access. Many data systems are not sophisticated enough to control access effectively by recognizing different levels of authority, so the simplest solution is to limit access.
Technical issues of access: access to data systems is required from a variety of locations – in the field, remote offices, and in the HQ buildings. If data systems have developed piecemeal, the communications capabilities of each will typically be configured for access only by its immediate user group and not by the wider community of potential users.
The use of InfoNet
One of InfoNet's key benefits is that all the data and other information items that are required by the engineers of a water and wastewater utility are stored in a single system. However, the fact that data is stored in a well-structured system tailored to the water industry does not of itself solve all problems. There is still the issue of providing proper access methods so that all relevant users can work with the data.
InfoNet enables a utility to take a top-down view of data architecture, including who needs to use what data. The problems identified above are addressed through three main principles – wide access to data, controlled access to data, and multi-user data management.
Wide access to data – InfoNet is specifically designed for access by all relevant departments and by authorized Framework Partners or contractors. Such users can input and retrieve data, and use all the tools of InfoNet for which they are authorized – reporting, network visualizations, data validation and cleaning, and all the other applications. Utilities often put together teams of both internal and external staff, and all can exchange data using the common format and the security of InfoNet. The benefit to the water company comes from dealing with only one data format instead of multiple types necessitating bespoke translation and delay.
The second aspect of wider access is the communications linking. With InfoNet, standalone PCs being used in the field to manage survey data collection can run InfoNet to help this process. Local and Wide Area Networks can connect all computers in a user community, servers and PCs, to make InfoNet data available across the corporate network. Finally, InfoNet can produce reports formatted for web publishing on secure URLs enabling access internally and externally using standard web browsers
Controlled access to data – not every user needs the same level of access. Some need read-only access, some read and input access, and some need higher level supervisory access. The above is complicated by the fact that each user has different access needs for different parts of the database, usually defined by catchment areas (watersheds).
InfoNet allows three levels of access:
- Asset Owner – an asset owner has full administrative powers over the asset database.
- Asset Group Owner - appointed by the Asset Owner, the owner of a Catchment Group has full edit and delete powers over that Catchment Group's assets.
- Asset Database User - appointed by the Asset Owner, an Asset Database User has read-only access to the parts database of their particular tasks.
InfoNet runs on a proven, purpose-built relational database management system (RDBMS) that is tailored to give very high-speed data input and retrieval and the capacity to handle very large data sets.
The alternative, that some users prefer, is to put the data in their own corporate DBMS. InfoNet data sets can be stored within other generic databases, such as Oracle, to meet the preferences of some client IT departments. Whether using InfoNet's own database or a proprietary DBMS, all the necessary safeguards of a modern relational database are in place to ensure data integrity in a multi-user environment.