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Situational Awareness

What is situational awareness?

The fundamental definition of the term "situational awareness" (SA) in the context of power grid operation is "understanding the current environment and being able to accurately anticipate future problems to enable effective actions." We approach this definition in the context of "sensemaking," in contrast to the traditional SA approach, recognizing that both are valid and necessary approaches.

Sensemaking is the "ability to make sense of an ambiguous situation. It is the process of creating situational awareness and understanding to support decision making under uncertainty — an effort to understand connections among people, places and events in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively" (Klein et al., 2006).

The traditional SA approach involves a human's mental representation of the world in terms of perception and comprehension of elements in the environment. Traditional SA research tends to focus on user interface issues in displays and visualizations. In contrast, sensemaking SA research addresses not only the user interface design issues but also the underlying "goal-directed" behaviors such as the problem solving context, goals, assumptions, expectations, and biases that affect human performance.

Traditional SA Approach
Sensemaking SA Approach
What it is... Human's mental representation of the world-perception/ comprehension of elements in the environment. Cognitive and systemic approach to understanding the decision maker's unfolding experience, constructing a plausible story of what made sense at the time.
Focus Retrospective focus on what the user failed to notice, did not know, or did not do. Focus on relationship between the person and the environment within the context of task goals, system state, human resources, and elements in the environment.
Would seek to answer What information is needed to solve the problem? What is the underlying cause of problem?
Finds solutions to problems by Identifying missing information that would have prevented the problem. Helping the decision makers understand what matters, seeing relationships. Identifying how skilled decision makers decompose complex information into coherent chunks, and what might contribute to poor judgments.
Addresses problems through Presenting more information, looking for interaction/display designs to help process more information through limited human information processing channels. Providing priorities and clarity to help decision maker understand what matters. Addressing awareness, processes, procedures, communications, thought processes.
Situational awareness gears turning
Elements that impact situational awareness

Integrating human factors promises improved situational awareness

The analyses of recent blackouts have demonstrated that a major challenge to keeping the lights on is maintaining situational awareness. Moreover, grid operation occurs in a complex set of circumstances. For example:

  1. The electric power grid is a large, diverse, interconnected system that crosses numerous administrative boundaries that must be considered in addition to the physical laws of electricity flow.
  2. Since deregulation, a competitive environment has arisen and complete information about the state of the power grid is seldom available to operators.

When addressing situational awareness, the challenge is to consider the issues related to the operators' immediate control room working environment and the factors occurring outside of it. This includes information outside operators' geographic area of responsibility and organizational factors such as policies, roles and accountability.

At Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, we are working to understand the unfolding of events needed to address situational awareness outside the operators' geographic area of responsibility, including technological and human influences.

Understanding technological and human factors that affect grid operation

Enhancing the operators' performance is tightly coupled with both technology and the domain of human factors engineering. Integrating these two seemingly diverse areas is accomplished by using a multidisciplinary team that includes social and cognitive scientists, software engineers, computer scientists, power system engineers and trainers. Additionally, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's research in human factors involves numerous collaborations and partnerships with utility companies and other industry entities to develop tools, advance the SCADA system and train operators. Our goal is to develop systems that are both usable and accessible.

Read more about using situational awareness in grid operator training in "Using Bad Data to Train Good Grid Dispatchers" in Electric Light & Power magazine.

EIOC helps create real-world context

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Electricity Integrated Operations Center (EIOC) provides a unique environment to examine human factors and social issues integrated with technologies from the real-world perspectives of training and operations. Our current research focuses on gaining insights to understanding the critical information needs for situational awareness and how that information must be exchanged for timely and effective actions. To achieve this, we are investigating the underlying information needs for interaction between individuals and teams, and complex power grid systems and tools. Also being considered are cultural norms, human perception and information processing mechanisms. The insights gained from this research will provide better methods and principles for designing tools and reducing non-technical barriers for improved anticipation of abnormal conditions and timely actions to mitigate them.

Our Current Research

Our focus is to develop experimental methods and metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of technologies, processes and procedures which contribute to SA.

Components of situational awareness
This graphic shows one of the components of SA that PNNL is working on — wide area visualization. The different elements in the bubbles impact the way the operator interacts with the visualization. Visualizations include the pictures, schematics, alarm lists, graphs, flashing lights, pie charts, and histographs that operators use to make decisions.

We have targeted the "sensemaking" problem of situational awareness because of its critical role in operational decision making and the subsequent actions that are taken to sustain optimal operation of the grid. In parallel, the research will identify methods and principles common across the many different operating entities to increase the SA of grid operators. An ancillary objective of this research is to understand how to effectively integrate new SA technologies into the power grid operator environment, addressing non-technical barriers to implementation.

Primary areas of research include:

  • Methods and metrics — Developing performance-based metrics to assess the effectiveness of new tools, visualizations, organizational and standard operating procedure practices, and training, including the transfer of new knowledge to daily operations.
  • Wide area visualization capabilities — Timely delivery of relevant information that reduces cognitive demands on operators and facilitates information understanding between operators dispersed geographically.
  • Social issues of groups working together — Assessing political and organizational factors that impact timely recognition and responses to abnormal conditions.
  • Human communication infrastructure — Determining the impact of information coordination (social protocol) and distributed culture on communications related to decision making and knowledge sharing between operators.
  • High performance computing for decision support in power systems — Supporting operators' abilities to maintain situational awareness by developing decision support computational models.

Additional Reading

Griffith D, and FL Greitzer. 2007. "Neo-Symbiosis: The Next Stage in the Evolution of Human Information Interaction." International Journal of Cognitive Informatics and Natural Intelligence 1(1):39-52.

Greitzer FL, and D Griffith. 2006. "A Human-Information Interaction Perspective on Augmented Cognition." In 2006 Augmented Cognition International Conference, San Francisco, CA. October 15-17, 2006. Published in Foundations of Augmented Cognition, 2nd ed., ed. D. D. Schmorrow, K. M. Stanney, & L. M. Reeves, pp. 261-267 Strategic Analysis, Inc., Arlington, VA.

Gregory ML, SJ Rose, DV Love, and A Schur. 2006. "ChAT: A Time Linked System for Analyzing Conversations." Presented by Michelle Gregory at Analyzing Conversations in Text and Speech (ACTS) Workshop at HLT-NAACL 2006 , New York City, NY on June 8, 2006.

Klein, G, B Moon, R Hoffman. 2006. "Making Sense of Sensemaking I: Alternative Perspectives." IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(4), 70-73.

Greitzer FL. 2005. "Extending the Reach of Augmented Cognition To Real-World Decision Making Tasks." Presented by Frank L. Greitzer at Augmented Cognition International Conference, Las Vegas, NV on July 25, 2005. (PDF 82KB)

Greitzer FL, DM Rice, SL Eaton, and MC Perkins. 2005. "Learning to Pull the Thread: Application of Guided Discovery Principles to the Inquiry Process ." In Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation, and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) Nov.28-Dec.1, 2005, p. 11 pages. National Training Systems Association (NTSA), Arlington, VA. (PDF 460KB)

Greitzer FL. 2005. "Ingredients of Effective and Engaging Online Learning (or… Musings of a Cognitive/e-Learning Evangelist)." Presented by Frank L. Greitzer (Invited Speaker) at InterLab 2005, Richland, WA on December 14, 2005. (PDF 2300KB)

Sanquist TF, FL Greitzer, AL Slavich, RJ Littlefield, JS Littlefield, and PJ Cowley. 2004. "Cognitive Tasks in Intelligence Analysis: use of event dwell time to characterize component activities." In HFES 2004. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 48th Annual Meeting : September 20-24, 2004, New Orleans, Louisiana. Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 2004, Santa Monica, CA. (PDF 93KB)

Greitzer FL, M Merrill, DM Rice, and DS Curtis. 2004. "Representing Instructional Material for Scenario-Based Guided-Discovery Courseware." In Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation, and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) 2004. National Training Systems Association (NTSA), Arlington, VA. (PDF 321KB)

Greitzer FL, M Merrill, DM Rice, DS Curtis, and CR Younkin. 2004. "Representing Instructional Material for Scenario-Based Guided-Discovery Courseware." Presented by Frank L. Greitzer, M. David Merrill at Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation & Education Conference, Orlando, FL on December 8, 2004.

Schur A, KA Keating, DA Payne, WT Valdez, KR Yates, and JD Myers. 1998. "Collaborative Suites for Experiment-Oriented Research." Interactions 5(3):40-47.

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