Opening a new door: dispelling the myths around open-source GIS tools to support advanced electrical infrastructure

Opening a new door: dispelling the myths around open-source GIS tools to support advanced electrical infrastructure

European DSOs alone are responsible for over ten million kilometres of power lines, installed at various points since the late 19th Century. Keeping track of their evolving networks is a key responsibility for grid operators and this is only growing more complicated as the energy system transitions to meet ambitious climate targets including a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases (from 1990 levels) and an increase in renewable generation to 27% by 2030. To this end, utilities are now investing heavily in the next-generation of geospatial systems and solutions to support their management of increasingly complex network topologies, with DER capacity set to increase at 6.5 times the rate of traditional generation over the next decade.

With that being said, there is an alternative to investing heavily in proprietary software for GIS: going open-source. Open source tools such as QGIS have been successfully adopted in a number of large organisations throughout Europe including rail companies, postal services, and even armed forces, all of whom have migrated to these systems without compromising their operations. However, in an industry responsible for such complicated and critical infrastructure as electric utilities, there is a reluctance to go in this direction, predicated on a series of concerns about whether open-source tools are fit for purpose. Here, I aim to examine and challenge a few of these concerns:

Myth 1: Open-source systems are not secure

The most common argument against open-source software in a commercial environment is that it is not safe. However, the security of proprietary software is governed and vouched for only by in-house security teams. On the other hand, open-source software is available to be audited by security professionals who are independent, meaning an unbiased seal of approval verified by a larger pool of experts.

Myth 2: Open source systems contain bugs

All systems contain bugs – this is true in GIS and virtually any other IT architecture. The main difference is that in open-source communities these bugs are published and subject to appraisal by the community as a whole, meaning a much larger potential pool of solutions and work-arounds. In a commercial setting, bugs are simply reported by end-users. Therefore, as the community grows, the speed of resolution for bugs tends to move in favour of open-source.

Myth 3: The required functionality is not there

Naturally, suppliers have had plenty of time to develop and implement specific, advanced tools. Nevertheless, rapid progress is constantly being made in the industry to deliver the functionality required for commercial use. Moreover, the biggest benefit to open-source, along with the lack of licence fee, is that users are free to customise the core code of the system to develop something tailored to their needs, as opposed to relying on additional software or hoping the vendor will agree to make the changes the user wants.

Myth 4: No vendor means no support

Not quite: no vendor means no vendor-support. Instead, by its very nature the peer-to-peer community is there to support users with problems and provide solutions. This leads us on to another key benefit of open-source: there is a snowball effect of functionality. The more industry end-users work on development of solutions tailored to their needs, the more custom solutions are available to new members of the community from the same industry.

To conclude, network operators may not yet be ready to migrate to open-source GIS tools, but there are a number of reasons why they may consider it for the future. If open-source advocates can convince the industry of the potential robustness, security, and flexibility of the software then it may not be long before the long-term cost savings prove too compelling to ignore.

If you’d like to hear more about open-source solutions for GIS and their application in electric utilities, as well as other advanced developments in TSO and DSO systems, join us in Amsterdam for GIS4SmartGrid 2018 on the 20th to 22nd November. Day three of the conference will feature an extended tutorial from

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