Executive Sees GIS Evolving To Better Serve Pipeline Industry

May 2009 Vol. 236 No. 5

Jeff Share, Editor

Robert Brook is Pipeline and Gas Utility Industry Manager for ESRI, a private consulting firm that focuses on expanding GIS technology that pipelines and other utilities are finding increasingly useful as an operational tool.

With the dramatic increase in federal and state mandates in recent years designed to ensure regulatory compliance and integrity management, pipelines rely on GIS technology for data maintenance and operational management. This can include field data collection, environmental management, one-call management, land management, and right-of-way monitoring. GIS data and processes are available in the office, across the Internet, and in the field.

P&GJ: Where did you grow up and what were your interests?

Brook: I grew up in Calgary, Canada. Calgary is an interesting mix between the oil and gas culture and an outdoor enthusiast playground. I spent most of my youth golfing, skiing, mountain biking and learning, all in a competitive environment. I have seen many of my childhood friends turn into corporate peers. I believe the Calgary setting develops people with a desire to succeed, paired with strong connection to the environment and the world around them.

P&GJ: What made you decide to work in the energy industry?

Brook: Growing up, most of my friends’ parents worked in the oil and gas industry. I was no different – my dad is an exploration geologist. I witnessed first-hand the volatility of the industry. When I went to university I made a conscious decision to not be part of the industry. I studied business, geography, and botany with the intention of working in the environmental industry. A little later in life, after spending time working abroad, I found myself working for an engineering company and my transition to the energy industry began. Initially, I worked on a project-to-project basis, but eventually my focus became pipeline GIS. It seemed that the energy industry chose me.

P&GJ: What are the most challenging as well as rewarding aspects of your work?

Brook: My position at ESRI is extremely diverse. We deal with many different business requirements from a global perspective. Managing this diversity is challenging, but the position is very rewarding and provides a level of satisfaction that is incomparable.

P&GJ: How did ESRI get started and how has the company grown and changed through the years?

Brook: ESRI started 40 years ago as a consulting firm specializing in land use and environmental analysis projects with a focus on the analysis and organization of geographic data. After 11 years of project work, the company expanded its focus to include selling its software which integrated geographic data to help in the decision-making process. While the breadth of our suite of solutions has grown, our goals have remained the same.

ESRI has had a presence in the pipeline community for many years. The role we have played in this industry has increased as the need for geographically based decision making has evolved. Recent tightening of operating procedures and regulations has resulted in a more rapid deployment of solutions and we expect GIS to continue to play a larger role in corporate directives.

P&GJ: How is the financial crisis affecting ESRI’s business strategy?


Brook:
We’re very fortunate as we have consciously chosen to avoid debt, venture capital or public funding. ESRI has been designed as an organization that is financially sustainable. As a private company, we maintain a strong financial balance and concentrate on our long-term goals and less on the public markets and quarterly earnings. While we understand that our industry is not crisis-proof, we also see GIS as an optimizing technology that can help organizations deal with the financial stresses we see dominating the news. As a result, ESRI remains in a financially strong and healthy position and we are concentrating on our current objectives.

P&GJ: Whom would you credit for having the greatest influence on your career and life?

Brook: My father has always been a guiding force in my life, even when he didn’t realize it. He has been able to work into his 80s because of his work ethic, dedication, and ability to adapt to change. He set the standard for me.

P&GJ: How have you seen technology advance since you began working in this field?

Brook: Almost every aspect of technology has evolved since I began working in this field. The industry migrated from an environment primarily managed through paper to one that is into the digital era. The integration of data bases, enterprise-management systems, spatial technology, etc. has revolutionized the office side of the industry. Survey hardware and software have fundamentally changed the way data is collected and managed. The recent advent of logistical management solutions, coupled with new pipeline materials, welding, and gluing technologies, are going to change the way we do construction. As we push for operational efficiency and cost effectiveness, I expect to see these changes continue.

P&GJ: What is driving pipeline companies to use GIS and similar services?

Brook: About 15 years ago I realized that almost all of the business questions we were asking, and the analyses we were performing, have a geographic component. Ultimately, geography was a part of everything we were doing, but we didn’t have a great way of including it in our analyses. We tried to do it using overlays but it wasn’t a very dynamic analytical environment and it was inefficient. While we can point to regulatory compliance, integrity management or automated mapping as drivers, what is really driving pipeline companies to use GIS is the same epiphany I had. Geography is a powerful and a necessary component if operators are going to manage their business effectively.

P&GJ: What are some of the challenges you and others have faced working overseas?

Brook: ESRI operates through a distributor network so we have a presence in almost all regions of the world. The most significant challenges I find are related to language, culture and politics. While most of the cultural and political nuances are negotiated or mitigated by our distributors, a conscious effort has to be made to communicate in a way that makes people feel comfortable. The language landscape is more difficult to address. The number of countries we visit in a calendar year makes localized communication difficult. As a result, my Blackberry is filled with numerous translation files.

P&GJ: Do any particular travels or experiences stand out for you?

Brook: In my youth I spent a period working in Africa. The eye-opening geography, local culture and close-knit nature of our team was amazing. Malawi is truly beautiful. The Africa rift zone and the local flora and fauna are incredible. At that time, it was coupled with poverty and a rapidly growing rate of AIDS infections. It was an incomparable situation; devastating illness and poverty surrounded by such beauty. What really stands out for me was the way the local population dealt with the situation. They were happy. They seemed to understand something North America society had forgotten – the joy of being alive. It changed my life.