A Perfect Storm: Technology, Information and Intelligence Come Together in Crisis Response System

REDMOND, Wash., March 7, 2007 — Managing the Gulf of Mexico’s deep water oil fields is every bit as complicated as it sounds. A vast network of pipelines and facilities crisscross the region. Worldwide fluctuations in supply and demand affect business decisions. Thousands of workers live all along the Gulf and trade weeklong shifts on production platforms miles out to sea.

BP’s geographic interface provides a clear view of how weather, currents and other factors are affecting the company’s people and assets in the Gulf.

And as anyone who’s worked at sea knows, the most dramatic variable of all is Mother Nature. Fluctuations in currents, weather systems and of course, hurricane season play havoc on a deep water oil rig and the crews who work aboard the giant platforms, not to mention the boats, helicopters, pipelines and communication systems that service the structures.

After the devastation wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, oil companies around the Gulf started looking for ways to more effectively manage major disasters across the oil fields there.

“With Katrina and Rita, we saw a massive impact as to how those kinds of events can affect our people,” says Steve Fortune, information management director for the Gulf of Mexico Deep Water Unit with BP oil and gas supermajor. “We need to make sure our people are safe. That’s absolutely paramount to how we run our business. At the same time, we also have to care for our facilities in deep water.”

With the help of Microsoft products and an innovative third-party technology, BP was able to create a futuristic solution that gives decision makers a holistic picture of what’s happening across eight platforms the company operates in the deep-water continental shelf of the Gulf of Mexico.

“The before state is that everybody is working with separate information systems, operating in silos,” says Marise Mikulis, global energy industry manager at Microsoft. “The after state is where we’ve unified all this data and displayed it through a rich visualization, so everyone easily understands and is on the same page. This is how information becomes intelligence.”

When a Crisis Hits

Before the solution was implemented, BP’s traditional crisis response mechanisms looked a lot like those of many other major organizations. The need for close communication and complete, up-to-the-minute information brought the response team together into a “war room” with stacks of printouts, maps and a large support staff.

“You can imagine our crisis center,” Fortune says. “We were pulling out maps, pulling feeds from our HR databases, trying to understand where people were so we could plot everyone’s location. It was a very manual exercise.”

The hurricane crisis room at BP would typically feature a large paper map on the wall, upon which the team would track the storm using push pins.

“To tell how far the winds were, we’d tie a little string on it, and measure out the distance to our facilities with the string,” says Brian Autio, principal mapping lead at the BP Crisis Center in Houston. “I would get up at 3 a.m. and start downloading data, bringing it into our mapping programs, geo-referencing it, re-projecting it, so it was accurate.”

According to Autio, all that extra legwork was necessary because incident commanders and other decision-makers need precise, up-to-the-minute information to make critical, life-saving decisions in the event of a major weather system: “Once we decide to evacuate the Gulf of Mexico, that’s sometimes 2,000 to 2,500 employees that need to be taken off by boat or helicopter and removed from harm’s way,” he says.

Building on Existing Investments

BP had already been working with IDV Solutions’ .NET software suite to bring information systems together using a Microsoft SharePoint portal-based interface, and Virtual Earth and SQL Server on the back end.

“BP became acquainted with IDV’s prowess in stitching technologies together using Virtual Earth, SharePoint and SQL Server, and exposing them this way,” Mikulis says. “IDV had the secret ingredient, the know-how that became the catalyst to help BP get where they wanted to go, using the technology investments they already had.”

Once the BP team saw how the Microsoft technology enabled them to draw data from any number of locations and display it for users however they chose, they quickly realized how it could prove useful in integrating the mind-numbing stream of data that faces regional managers during storms and other catastrophic events.

The solution would draw on geographic information from ESRI data, a source well known in the petroleum industry. It would include past hurricane information, along with information on people, platforms, pipelines, buoys, vehicles and offices.

Augmenting that data would be RSS feeds and information from weather bureaus, oceanographers, satellite imagery, traffic reports, hotel vacancies and more — all within a cohesive interface.

Using IDV’s Visual Fusion Suite, Microsoft SharePoint and Microsoft’s Virtual Earth global imaging platform, IDV was able to bring more than 25 data sets into a single application and provide a unified, geographic view of the entire Gulf region that can be analyzed, sorted, filtered and collaborated upon — from Houston all the way to London, and anywhere else on the planet.

According to IDV’s CEO Mark Morrison, the ability to bring all that information together in real time and manipulate it within the context of a map makes for a decision-making tool with unprecedented impact.

Known to techies as “data visualization,” displaying data in a context that makes sense to users not only helps them understand the information, it makes the solution itself that much easier to use.

“If you look at the different pieces of information individually, so much is missed, because you’re not actually seeing the whole environment, the big picture,” says Morrison. “But if you can integrate that information and give users a way to visualize it that makes sense, it’s very meaningful. When people see their data coming to life through this kind of very rich interface, they just get it.”

According to Morrison, the interface designed for BP makes so much sense that someone with little or no experience can sit down and intuitively know what they’re seeing. “I think proof of the success of any good UI is that you don’t need much training,” says Morrison. “With this BP solution, it’s just an orientation, just showing them how it works. From there, people just sit down and immediately know what they’re seeing.”

Coming of Age for the Services Architecture

“We think this is an elegant and simple approach that takes full advantage of the wealth of information contained in BP’s legacy systems,” says Morrison. “Just a few years ago, this would not have been possible.”

The difference between then and now is Microsoft’s services-oriented architecture — the robust capabilities of Virtual Earth and the simplicity of integrating it, along with the ability of SQL Server, SharePoint portals and Web Parts to seamlessly bring together information from ESRI, PeopleSoft and other third-party systems and serve it up to users.

“Microsoft was the first to make a bet on Web services, and this goes back to the MapPoint Web service,” says Morrison. “They were really the first to make maps available through SOAP calls — the services oriented architecture. Today these systems have matured and come together in a way that is very enterprise-focused. It’s a cohesive product that we can fit together quickly for our customers.”

Another benefit of the Web services architecture that is critical for any crisis management solution is the fact that the whole thing can be accessed easily and securely from anywhere in the world through a web browser.

“At BP we’re over 100,000 employees, so you can imagine how many different client installations you’d have to do to get everybody up and running,” says Fortune on the benefits of a Web services architecture. “Complicate that with a major crisis scenario and a point solution is not practical. We evaluated the offerings within the market and found that with Microsoft and IDV’s approach, the whole thing is a Web service. We just give people the secure log-in ID, and they’re there.”

A Model for the Future

Up and running for nearly a year now, BP has had plenty of opportunity to test the solution and IDV’s map-based interface. Today when a major storm is on the horizon, the BP team is out in front making life-saving decisions, instead of focusing primarily on data-mining.

“Rather than just reacting, we can see where storms are likely to travel, what assets could be impacted, what employees we have in those areas, and take action,” says Fortune. “Overlaying all our data into one dynamic interface has gotten us to a much more proactive way of working. It’s a powerful, powerful solution.”

When the storm is over, the team can analyze their assets throughout the region, even using satellite imaging to inspect the oil rigs. In this way, experts from around the globe can be called in to assess damage and recommend a course of action.

In between, the solution can help them keep tabs on all their assets in the Gulf. BP is now using the technology to monitor and measure a variety of data in its deep-sea platforms, from real-time sensor data to maintenance work, inspections, integrity information and more.

“This solution has shown us that the future is to really use data visualization, and integrate our information in powerful new ways,” says Fortune. “Our whole company is starting to focus on ways to leverage data visualization and location intelligence, all around composite applications.”

With rich connections between the Visual Fusion Suite interface and BP’s HR databases, for example, the company may begin to look at another problem pervasive in the oil industry — an ageing workforce.

The solution can help allocate resources and guide staffing, training and recruiting efforts by giving them a clearer picture and projections of how impending retirements, promotions and other HR events will affect their operations, and where.

“People are constantly searching for information, and there is no end to how this kind of visualization can be employed,” says IDV’s Morrison. “If you can give people the ability to get the information in an understandable way, right then and there, to solve a business problem, that’s magic.”

Microsoft’s Mikulis puts it another way: “What you have here is a perfect storm, where several key factors come together. This is a unique moment — the moment where services-oriented architecture meets the real-world need to find, use and share information. The time is right, and technology is ready now.”

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