Storm Central

A Web-based tool combining 3-D satellite imagery and real-time weather data helps crisis managers at energy company BP make quicker, better decisions.

This version of the story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

Brian Autio has to predict Mother Nature so his employer, energy giant BP PLC, knows how to react.

For years, Autio, BP's geospatial team lead for the Gulf of Mexico, used a mishmash of tools -- from satellite images to paper wall maps dotted with pushpins -- to accomplish his work.

His system got the job done, but it was cumbersome. There was clearly room for improvement. "It's just a very intense process, and it lends itself perfectly to technology," Autio says.

He and his colleagues now have a more advanced way to help them do their jobs: BP's Crisis Management System. It uses 3-D satellite imagery, real-time weather data, and a visual representation of the company's workers, their homes and corporate assets to deliver a truly visual assessment of what's happening where. The Web-based tool enables the Houston-based crisis team, top management in the U.K. and executives around the world to view the same information in real time, helping them improve their decision-making capabilities.

Weather Watch

"Having these more advanced kind of tools is bringing a lot of value to storm management," says Bradley Williams, an energy and utilities analyst at Gartner Inc. "It's basically being able to assess the situation and respond much quicker, because you're able to pull all that information together, assess the damage and prioritize response."

BP had been moving toward the development of its Crisis Management System for several years. The company already had high-tech tools like satellite feeds and mapping systems to help track and manage events.

However, the pieces didn't always work together. Autio says he would spend three or four hours before a planning meeting manually pulling data from up to 20 databases and Web-based sources. But BP officials didn't have a lot of time when a disaster like a hurricane was barreling down on the company's workers and assets.

"There was a lot of pressure to get something done quickly, and it had to be right," Autio says.

There's a lot at stake. BP has about 2,000 people on platforms in the Gulf, and it supplies millions of barrels of oils and gas to the U.S. every day. When a hurricane comes through, the company has to decide who and what needs to be moved in the Gulf and in vulnerable coastal areas.

These concerns had pushed BP to make incremental improvements in its storm management processes, Autio says. Then hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in 2005. BP scrambled to help its affected workers, bringing them water, generators and other supplies while also trying to assess the damage to its assets.

But the company needed a quicker, more automated way to mobilize. "Katrina and Rita pushed us to leverage the technology faster," says projects program manager Susan Warburton.

BP recognized that it had to move from a process that used printouts of maps based on information that could be hours old to a system that pulls in, presents and shares data in real time, says chief architect John Maio.

"The technology moved to a place where you could actually do this," says BP information management director Steve Fortune.

Maio and Warburton say they opted for Microsoft's Virtual Earth because BP uses the vendor's technology for its portal environment. They decided to make it Web-based so people could easily monitor it from anywhere in the world.

As with any new technology, users had to adjust to the tool. But users knew how to drill down into data to find what they needed and could still print out maps and information like they used to, which made the transition easier, Warburton says.

BP also needed to tweak some of the information used in the Crisis Management System, Autio says. For instance, no Web feeds of hurricane information were available, so BP went to an existing vendor, ImpactWeather Inc. in Houston, to develop feeds that include hurricane paths, probability zones and additional infrared satellite images.

The system can be used to monitor earthquakes and fuel spills in the ocean, and their effect on BP platforms. Autio says it can also be used to manage all sorts of crises. In fact, BP used the system during last winter's Midwest ice storms and last year's California wildfires to determine which BP employees needed assistance and what kind of help was required.

Fortune says the technology can even be used for supply chain management. The ability to visualize assets can, for example, help the company direct vessel traffic in the Gulf, he says.

Meanwhile, work on the Crisis Management System continues. The team is implementing a tool that will allow workers to call in via phone or the Internet and report where they are, if they and their homes are OK, and whether they need any help, Warburton says.

Maio says the next step is to add text messaging and mobile interfaces, letting workers access real-time data from anywhere.

Warburton says BP offices around the world are planning to implement the Crisis Management System. "We're getting it to the point where it will go worldwide," she says. Maio notes that more than 1,000 users have already worked with the tool.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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