Tasting Notes for PG&E Outage Maps

I am a GIS Developer contractor working for PG&E in a department unrelated to the release of these outage maps. The following opinions are mine and mine alone and do not represent those of PG&E in any way. If this map becomes a resource for informing PG&E decision making in the future, I will likely take this article down.

PG&E’s First Official Map

Mirror Link via SFGate: What a disaster. Not just the outage mind you, the map that was supposed to inform the public about the outage. Or at least I think it’s a disaster because I still haven’t been able to access the PG&E webmap myself. Like presumably millions of other people, I tried to visit the webmap on the web site on October 8 and our collective curiosity started throwing 404s almost immediately. The screenshots I found via SFGate were in an atrocious, retina-melting color scheme depicting a single polygon layer of overlapping polygons that was clearly just plunked down on top of Google Maps with what looks like Google My Maps (RIP Fusion Tables). The interactivity is even limited because when you click on a feature, you get a popup with an FID (feature ID) which is a totally meaningless value to the public. It’s just a confusing distraction. If you’re not going to modify defaults, at least make your website robust enough to handle the traffic. This is inexcusable and completely avoidable. It is not exaggeration to say that lives are on the line here.

This is a mobile page I found only through the KQED Science page and not from a PG&E direct link. This appears to be the original, default outage tracking map that PG&E uses to track normal outages. There are neat little magnifying glass icons that you can click and turn on the outage polygons to see the affected area. With all the bright colors, it looks like a mobile app game which is a little strange given the severity of the information it is relaying. When you click on the polygon, you don’t get much information because many of the fields are blank but the fields themselves all describe very useful information like “Start Time”, “Estimated Restoration”, “Customers Affected”, “Cause” etc. The green POI arrows represent individual outages that are not part of a regional polygon but they’re not in the Legend. Some are green and represent a single customer, some are yellow and represent a handful or so. Overall, this is not how I would solve this problem but it’s effective.

One nice feature is the drop down “City List” which has an alphabetical list of cities and the number of affected customers in each. It should be searchable or filtered by map extent because there are zillions of cities and it’s hard to find the one you’re looking for. It’s still a great, simple feature.

For whatever reason, the mobile version actually worked much better for me (ie. it worked once and I can’t get it going again) and it has an address locator function, thank goodness, though no depiction of what regions are experiencing outages. It just gives you an unambiguous thumbs up/down whether your power will be out and then gives you a number you can call for more information. This is really the bare minimum but it works well. Because we have a robust data model at PG&E, it’s not that hard to generate a list of addresses and contacts for homes and customers affected by a particular transmission line shut off which is far more precise than drawing a polygon and saying that you’ll probably lose power if your home is within it. The polygons are good for visualizing the extent of the issue but for people living around the edges of that region, it is largely ineffective at answering the question “will my power go out?” which is presumably what people are visiting the site to find out.

Below the webmap on the website there’s also a list of community resource centers that will have uninterrupted power for vulnerable individuals. This is an essential service that could save lives, so how do they list those locations? Like this. Not by county or region. Not by a type-in-your-zipcode-find-your-nearest-ATM style function. They just made a list sorted alphabetically by name of the center which is totally useless because if you’re reading the list it’s because you don’t know what your local center is!

PG&E Official Story Map

Map Link: Like any good ESRI license user, PG&E also made a Story Map and this is actually a pretty decent application of this overused cartographic tool. It links to the above address locator tool, the official outage map, other resources and a community center list organized by county(!) though it is largely incomplete. The map seen below seems to be a simple version of the original PG&E map but fully embedded in the more robust ESRI AGOL ecosystem and therefore much more likely to absorb high traffic. This isn’t a flashy solution but it works and I tried out the search bar to find my address on the map. The long text essentially says “you’re in the zone, be prepared” but uses why more words to say that. This messaging needs to be unambiguous, respectful of information hierarchy and to the point.

This area will likely be without power for a few days

Be prepared

We’re doing this for public safety

Here’s how to call us

In that order. Overall, this map has information you need and very little information you don’t. I don’t have a time stamp on the publishing date of this one but I believe that this was created in response to the failures of the original map- I saw it for the first time on October 10. To whichever PG&E employee who swooped in and put this together after the fact: this is how it’s supposed to be done.

People are scared, nervous, inconvenienced, skeptical and frankly exasperated and PG&E should be doing more to inspire confidence. Despite there being hundreds of GIS specialists and contractors employed across PG&E, I suspect that none of them were involved in the initial map beyond supplying the polygon files. As a GIS professional who has worked in several different capacities at PG&E for years and is actually proud of the work I’ve done, I feel compelled to distance myself from substandard products.

San Francisco Chronicle

Map Link: While falling short on the mobile deployment, SF Chronicle swiftly rolled out a map using Carto that is easy to read and even contains the fire risk layer which is busy and inelegant but interesting. Someone was trying hard to give the NYT a run for their infographic money. They didn’t pull it off but major points for effort and functionality, especially for the functional address locator. There is also no population numbers or figures for number of affected customers- likely because that data was unavailable to them. This map is not behind a paywall, thanks SF Chronicle.

NBC Bay Area

Map Link: Carto is getting a lot of good visibility here and it’s increasingly clear that a cash-strapped journalism sector is using simple webmapping apps to quickly generate visuals with minimal technical expertise required. These maps are simple, elegant and robust and they don’t take a genius to make. They uploaded PG&E polygon files and made them red. That’s it. There’s no excuse anymore for shitty maps. The goals were modest and they were met. Well done.


Map Link: This is probably what PG&E was shooting for: a simple Google My Maps polygon map (but with no search bar). The San Jose Mercury also released a version of this map for free with no paywall yesterday on October 8 and it took KQED a day later to publish on October 9. I don’t know where it came from. For some reason, the polygons aren’t as smooth as elsewhere and I wonder if this polygon file got downsampled or summarized somehow- it was noticeably more angular than the NBC map above.

Los Angeles Times

Map Link: I was expecting more folks would use Mapbox but the LA Times seems to be the only one so far. It’s a fine map and it uses OSM basemaps which makes me happy. This is pretty straightforward and maybe just a touch over-engineered but otherwise very nice. I think it’s my favorite so far because Mapbox is pretty classy and official looking. It commands authority. Since Mapbox is so easy to use, I would have liked to have seen an address search bar added for extra credit- you’re already in Studio so you might as well whip out some JS features. Of course, such an address bar would be able to zoom the map to your address but not tell you if that address is in a shut off zone because it is not connected to the PG&E server. Given the data available, maybe this is as complicated as the map should be.

Broke-Ass Stuart

MapLink: Broke-Ass Stuart is a wonderful BayArea local journalism resource but it is not, nor has it ever aspired to be, a “serious journalism outlet.” Even still, this static image gets a certain point across: power outages are widespread and varying in intensity and effect across the northern half of the state. I can’t tell who made this map or how but it is simple and effective at telling a broad story if not the more granular issue of which homes are likely to be without power. Is the color dependent on number of customers losing power? Percentage of loss? Something else? I don’t know and it probably doesn’t matter. They may not be the BBC but Broke-Ass Stuart is still delivering decent and informative graphics and pairing them with appropriate stories. This article is about the deep sense of uncertainty that people feel about the outages and the map is similarly vague and thus tonally consistent. Is it a little disingenuous to choose a low resolution map to prove a point despite higher resolution choices being available? Maybe. But even in those maps where we do have distinct polygons of likely outage, there is uncertainty. This regional map captures that feeling. It makes no claims it can’t deliver on.

Solano County

Map Link: Solano County put together a detailed map using publicly available CPUC data rather than from the press release from PG&E. The California Public Utility Commission exists to represent the interest of California residents to regulate utilities in exchange for the right to monopolize a massive industrial sector of the economy. As you’d expect from a state regulatory agency, the CPUC data is THOROUGH and the County put all of it on their map. As a result, it’s alot to look at and not very attractive. This is peak “Municipal ArcMap” aesthetic.

Naturally, Solano County has an ESRI license and this AGOL map was probably very quick to make. The license itself is expensive but there is no marginal cost of adding a webmap hosted on ESRI servers. The basemap is a busy and overly detailed ESRI default that utilizes Open Street Maps which is very on brand for a company that loves to charge other people for data that was produced and released to the public for free by volunteers. With so many additional layers of data, a neutral basemap in grayscale would probably have been a better approach.

The interactivity is effective and the many excellent layers of information can be toggled on and off so long as the user knows which tiny little icon to press to activate the cryptic table of contents. Why can’t you toggle the data right from the Legend? Without turning some things off, this map is busy and confusing and not particularly helpful. Which is too bad because this is the first map I’ve seen that has the blue bubbles that scale by the number of impacted customers which contrasts with the county outage map from Broke-Ass Stuart above in a way that kind of reminds me of choropleth election maps. Land doesn’t vote nor does it require electricity. What really matters is how many households are out of power and this layer demonstrates that symbolically as well as numerically with a little unnecessary label that should have gotten canned. There’s no explanation of “Power Outage Incidents” but there are many of them and they seem to occur outside of the Power Outage Areas which I can only assume means that these are typical, small scale power outages from normal things like fallen tree branches. There’re also three different layers for fire risk which probably could have just been a single, categorically styled layer like the SF Chronicle Map above. Additionally there’s an outage polygon layer drawn with a thick, black dotted outline which really should have been a semitransparent polygon like the SF Chronicle map, but drawn under the blue bubbles.

There’s also a Solano County outline border which is a bit unnecessary. The author should have just set the initial extent over Solano County and called it a day. County borders are important for local officials but not generally the public, especially in a county that is so dominated by commuters who are either heading deeper into the Delta towards Sacramento or towards the center of the Bay Area.

A curious reader might peel all of those layers off to discover a modest demographics layer for Solano County hidden beneath. This is an interesting decision. It’s not styled in any flashy way and it’s not emphasized but the curious can click around and see how many people live in a particular part of Solano County and estimate how many might be affected there. Of course, that is supposed to be the purpose of the blue bubbles but this way there is more detailed household information that pops up in a massive table that shows age, sex, income, race and other demographic information. It would take you a long time to make any sense of it but it does nod to the element of justice and equity that other maps here neglect. Are there income, race or geographic biases that affect which communities are impacted by these outages? This map doesn’t answer that question but it seems to be the only one willing to try to ask. For all of that, this is definitely the map that attracts my interest the most even if it is probably the ugliest.

Pleasanton Police

Map Link: Hardy har har. If you’re gonna be all coy at least get the extent of PG&E’s actual service boundary right- it stops short of the Oregon border to the north and around Bakersfield to the south, well before LA (LA’s utility SoCal Edison is also shutting off power and San Diego Gas and Electric has been known to shut off power on occasion too). Of course, a word of advice to PG&E cartographic department: if your map is going to look like it was made in MS Paint you might as well take a cue from the Pleasanton Police and make it in MS Paint.

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