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Information Technology: Using an Information Management System during Hydropower Licensing

Use of an information management system during the hydropower licensing process allows centralization of information that can be organized, queried, and edited. This easy access to data is a valuable aid in the complex licensing process.

Hydropower licensing is a lengthy process that generates a significant amount of information. The information can be considerably diverse, as the process, and its management, involves many facets. These range from tracking correspondence among team members, outside agencies, and stakeholders to completing environmental and engineering studies. The process also can involve tracking scheduling and financial details to ensure work is implemented in a timely and cost-effective manner. Having a system in place that centralizes the information and allows team members to concurrently organize, query, and edit data is an important aspect leading to the success of a hydropower licensing project.

Developing a hydropower licensing information system is a challenging task. This is not only because of the volume and diversity of information it must accommodate but also because of the criteria it must satisfy with respect to its usability, accessibility, and security. First, the system needs to be intuitive so that users of varying technical backgrounds can easily access and modify its content. Second, the system must be remotely accessible to the variety of consultants, sub-consultants, and other contributing team members involved in the process. Third, the system should operate in a secure environment to ensure the safety of sensitive and confidential data.

Based on years of experience managing hydropower licensing projects, Gomez and Sullivan Engineers P.C. has developed a system that accommodates these and other aspects of managing and sharing hydropower licensing information. The system, which is Microsoft SharePoint based, has been used over the past five years to support several hydropower licensing projects. This article provides an overview of SharePoint technology and gives case study examples to discuss the ways in which the system can be used to manage the information management needs associated with hydropower licensing.

SharePoint technology

Microsoft SharePoint is a web application that leverages lists and libraries (tables) to help users implement and oversee projects. The lists and libraries are designed to allow users to manage information regarding contacts, correspondence, time-sensitive tasks, scheduling, and budget. SharePoint technology is tightly integrated with Microsoft Office, thereby giving users the capability to create, modify, and share any type of Office document (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Access, etc.).

All data created in SharePoint – including Office and Adobe PDF documents and images – are stored in an SQL Server database. This storage strategy is ideal for licensing purposes, as it accommodates virtually unlimited data and supports multiple users reading and editing data at the same time. Furthermore, this strategy provides a central point from which all information can be edited, modified, and backed up.

SharePoint also offers tremendous accessibility as a result of its web application format. The SharePoint system is available anywhere Internet access is available. This is invaluable for hydropower licensing, as contributing team members usually come from geographically diverse locations. Users also are guaranteed a secure experience as a result of the underlying SharePoint and Windows security architecture.

We host the SharePoint system on a Citrix platform. This platform opens another level of flexibility. Citrix is a secure server that keeps all applications, files, and data within a concise data center. Through Citrix, users conduct their work on a remote server and everyone has the same version of available software, which makes it much easier to collaborate team efforts. On Citrix, the software applications look and behave just as though they were installed on a local machine. And the team gains access to some powerful capabilities that they may not have on their desktop computers, such as use of geographic information systems (GIS) and AutoCAD software.

Hydropower licensing

The initial steps for hydropower licensing typically involve a data-gathering process. The baseline data are usually comprised of wide-ranging information from multiple disciplines and may include documentation of the principle project works being relicensed; contact lists for regulatory agency staff, municipal entities, non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders; background maps and GIS data; socioeconomic data; and existing reference materials and study information related to potential environmental concerns. Baseline data is an important part of the due diligence that needs to take place as the licensee initiates the hydropower licensing process, and these data will be used time and again by the licensing team.

A well-designed information management system is a tremendous asset for managing, accessing, and analyzing these data. These benefits fall into four categories:

– Managing correspondence;

– Data research and analysis;

– Document development and review; and

– Schedule and budget management.

Managing correspondence

Throughout the hydropower licensing process, phone, e-mail, and mail correspondence will take place between project team members and outside organizations. Maintaining an accurate record of this correspondence is critical, as the resolution of current and future licensing issues often hinges on what was stated or delivered in previous correspondences.

By using a SharePoint hydropower licensing system, a structured collection of lists is developed that work together to help users manage correspondence. The primary list provides contact information for project team members and outside organizations.

Complementing this is the correspondence list itself, which allows users to create a record for each correspondence that takes place between the people and organizations in the contacts list. The list allows users to specify multiple to and from contacts for each correspondence, as well details such as date, type (phone, e-mail, and standard mail), description, and comments. Users can attach documents and files to a correspondence record. Maintaining the deliverable as an attachment to a record not only makes it easy for users to search and manage the records but also helps to maintain an efficient, well-organized deliverables database.

Case study example

A licensee began a hydropower relicensing process with an effort to gain public support for its decision to use the alternative licensing process (ALP). The licensee received numerous letters of support from resource agencies, environmental groups, businesses, and local governments (collectively referred to as stakeholders). The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) later approved the ALP request, and the licensee filed a notice of intent with FERC to seek a new license.

The licensee then initiated the ALP by sending invitations to hundreds of prospective stakeholders. More than 100 stakeholders attended the ALP relicensing sessions, which initiated a recurring process of circulating meeting agendas and meeting materials, recording attendees, outlining areas of agreement, and documenting action items. Information was also distributed electronically via e-mail or posted on a website, and stakeholders were notified of updates by e-mail, fax, and mailings. The licensee later initiated a process of identifying issues reflecting stakeholder concerns regarding the hydropower project, and those issues were then combined into groupings that would facilitate the scoping and development of studies.

An information management system was used to manage all related correspondence. The first step of setting up a database of all stakeholders is not difficult. However, in this case there are hundreds of stakeholders and each is receiving multiple deliverables (e-mails, meeting agenda, meeting materials, website updates, etc.). Incoming correspondence needed to be tracked as well. The sheer bulk of transferred information created a challenge for efficiently tracking correspondence records.

The structure of the information management system used for this licensee systematically linked each correspondence record sent to or received from each stakeholder (this includes a record of how it was transmitted and when). The system also contained an electronic file of each correspondence (i.e., a pdf print file or scanned document). Once this information has been recorded, the project team can easily query all documentation received from or sent to a stakeholder and review an electronic copy of the related documents. This system can also be used to query all of the stakeholders who received a certain document. This tracking capability became important later when there was a need to verify that proper outreach was completed in accordance with the FERC ALP. Figure 1 provides an example of how public correspondence can be generated using a relicensing information system.

Data research and analysis

Data research and analysis starts with development of the pre-application document (PAD) and becomes more complex once relicensing studies are initiated. The baseline information that is started during the PAD process forms a reference library for subsequent scientific analyses. It stands to reason that these data should be maintained in a shared database for future use, and that is the strategy employed in an information management system.

When study implementation begins, the licensee will need to address varied issues, i.e., wildlife, botanical, fisheries, cultural, water resources, recreational, and socioeconomic. The team of scientists, engineers, and other professionals needed to complete these evaluations can jump start their study efforts by utilizing the base information in the information management system. The intent of this strategy is to avoid inadequate data-sharing and ultimately to save time and project expense.

SharePoint is only one of the software components needed for a well-developed information management system. By incorporating other data analysis software (i.e., GIS or relational database management systems), an information management system can be a key link that breaks company barriers between consultants and truly integrates the entire hydropower licensing team.

Case study example

A licensee agreed to complete the following related studies:

– Effect of water level and flow fluctuations on aquatic and terrestrial habitat;

– River water level and flow fluctuation;

– River tributary backwater;

– Shoreline erosion and sedimentation assessment; and

– Effects of water level and flow fluctuations on rare, threatened, and endangered species.

Each study was performed by a different consultant, and each required a thorough understanding of river water levels and flow conditions. Because of this, the river water level and flow fluctuation study was of primary concern and was scheduled to be completed before all of the others. Various software tools were used for this study. GIS was used for data assessment and mapping. Statistical software was used to analyze hourly water level data, duration distribution of water levels, days with maximum water level fluctuation, effects of wind on water levels, and stream velocities. SQL reporting was used for graphing the data interpretations.

The water level and flow study report provided pertinent background data for the four remaining studies. However, consultants hired to complete the other studies also needed to access the raw water level data for their analyses. As such, the information management system provided the other consultants with full access to the raw water level and flow data and also provided the necessary software tools for their use (GIS, SQL reporting, etc.).

Because the research, procurement, raw database setup, and quality control process for water level and flow data had already been done, the scientists and engineers who worked on the four remaining studies already had a substantial part of their analyses completed for them. This type of data sharing within an information management system streamlines the study process and saves time and money.

Figure 2 shows an example of how a relicensing information system can be used to manage and share study data.

Document development and review

The bulk of hydropower licensing consists of implementing studies that determine the environmental, economic, and social effect of a hydropower project on its surroundings. The culmination of each study is typically a comprehensive document that is submitted to FERC or to other agencies associated with the process. Developing a licensing document can be a complex undertaking, as it often involves collaboration between several authors and reviewers. Coordinating this effort through e-mails and other means of transferring documents and related resources can be a difficult task.

To simplify the document development process, we incorporate the SharePoint document workspace functionality in all of our hydropower licensing information systems. This feature provides a central location from which authors can create, modify, and share the licensing documents. The workspace is designed to be compatible with MS Office, thereby allowing use of Office applications to create and modify the resources needed to produce the final document. Using these applications in a SharePoint environment is virtually the same as using them to create documents on a local computer. This makes it easy for users unfamiliar with SharePoint to begin using its document workspace functionality with little or no instruction.

The document workspace also offers the benefit of encouraging a collaborative document development experience. Authors can use built-in SharePoint functionality to establish document review tasks and then send e-mails to reviewers to notify them of the tasks. Reviewers can follow the links in the e-mail to locate the document on SharePoint and then begin providing comments using track changes. Once finished, reviewers can use similar functionality to notify authors of their changes so that the document can be completed and submitted to the appropriate agencies.

Rounding off the document workspace functionality is a capability known as document versioning. This is the process by which multiple versions of a document can be stored independently in the same workspace without having to create multiple document copies. While the use of versioning is not mandatory, its use can benefit processes where there are multiple authors and reviewers by maintaining each user's comments both separately and as part of the overall comments within a document.

Scheduling and budget administration

Implementing a successful hydropower licensing project requires an awareness of critical deadlines, as well as maintaining the budget constraints established throughout the project. To accommodate scheduling aspects, our systems exploit SharePoint task lists. These lists are designed to allow managers to define project tasks and activities and then delegate them to specific team members. Task lists can be configured to send e-mails automatically to team members when task deadlines are near. This feature is especially helpful for ensuring that deadlines are met. SharePoint offers several ways of rendering task lists, providing users with multiple opportunities to query their contents. These range from views that show just the tasks that correspond to a specific team member to calendar views that allow members a quick way to view current and future tasks.

To accommodate budget administration, our licensing systems incorporate standard SharePoint lists and libraries that we have tailored to store financial information. The lists define budget information for each major task as well as the corresponding expenditures. When SQL Server reporting services are incorporated, the information in the budget and expenditure lists can be combined in reports that summarize the percentage of budget remaining for each major task. Managers can use this information as a guide to redistribute funds as necessary. The reporting functionality can also be used to incorporate scheduling information so that managers can make a percent-complete versus budget-remaining comparison for each major task.

Conclusion

The licensing process can be complex. Although information management systems can provide a licensee with an effective tool for maintaining an orderly and systematic licensing approach, it still comes down to the experience and talent of the project staff whose hard work is the key to successful license implementation.

The system that we have outlined includes many components. It is important to note that SharePoint is only a data management tool, and other software products will come along in the future that may be better. However, there really is no downside to implementing these strategies now because history has shown us that electronic data is relatively easy to migrate into next-generation software products. As such, the time for implementing an information management system is now.


David Frazier is a project manager and Paul Breier is a GIS programmer/analyst with Gomez and Sullivan Engineers P.C. Frazier has a background in environmental sciences and the use of information management systems for hydropower licensing. Breier has expertise in integrating geographic information system (GIS) resources into hydro licensing information systems and developing automated reports and other functionalities that enhance the capabilities of SharePoint.

 

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