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Melbourne Water pushes mobile out into the field

The organisation is equipping field workers with mobile devices so they can directly enter data on site

As an organisation that is responsible for one of the world’s most precious resources, water, Victorian government-owned Melbourne Water cannot afford to let its data collection process slip.

Melbourne Water is responsible for taking care of the city’s sewage treatment plants, drainage networks and water supply.

The data that is collected during site inspections and water assessments ranges from numeric to textual, and soon will include imagery and spatial co-ordinates.

With data quality being crucial to the maintenance of water infrastructure, the organisation decided to equip its field workers with mobile devices so they can directly enter data into a system as they collect it on site.

“We want to equip and enable our people to be able to make really good, quality business decisions based on timely and accurate data and mobility is a big step in reaching that aim,” said Melbourne Water’s technology improvement specialist, Frank Courtney.

“Historically what would happen, and what other organisations would also do, is a field worker would go out into the field and look at that particular physical asset, note down some aspect of its condition by walking back to the ute and writing it on a scrap of paper or a form.

“We are keen for them to record the data right there and then while standing right next to that physical asset so there’s no shuffling of bits of paper, forms being brought back to the [office] and someone data entering them the next day or a few days later.”

Read: Poor data quality issues led CIEAM researchers to develop a mobile app that allows field workers to remotely enter data into a system

Melbourne Water has already deployed 25 ruggedised tablet PCs from Motion Computing and is in the process of replacing those devices with 80 Windows-based Panasonic Toughpads FZ-G1 tablets.

“It’s just a new generation of technology” that is “lighter, faster and a bit cheaper” Courtney said. “That’s a device that will suit our needs in that it’s rated for dust, water and that sort of thing.

“We are also very keen to utilise things like solid-state storage in the devices so there’s no sensitive moving parts in hard drives.”

Using the devices, field workers will be able to submit custom e-forms through a platform called KernMobile.

“We want the field tablets to have the same computing experience as desktop in an office,” Courtney said.

“So our standard operating environment, our managed Windows 7 environment, will be on the field worker’s device as well as the corporate desktop. The same number and range of application systems will be available to our people whether they are on a laptop, tablet, or desktop.”

The rollout of the Panasonic tablets and the KernMobile platform will be complete by September, Courtney said.

Courtney said data validation will be built into the e-forms so that as data is entered into each field is it “verified against business rules”, saving the likelihood of human error or mistakes from happening.

“What our people currently do with the paper forms is they will go to a particular site [to measure the height of water] and they will read a level gauge that will be on the back.

“From that level gauge they will then have to refer to a reference table. So it might be the creek is at 1.5 metres and they would look at their reference table and that would tell them that they have a 10 mega litre per day flow.

“With the electronic forms, we can actually embed those reference tables within the form itself… it would grab the relevant reading from the embedded lookup table so field workers don’t have to do that any more. So we can automate a lot of this stuff, we can derive a lot of this stuff because we know those processes and what is happening at those assets very well.”

Besides being able to reduce data errors, part of the return on investment for the $2.5 million mobility project was to save on travel time and cost.

Based on conservative numbers, Courtney said at least half of its 136 field workers will be able to save a 30-minute trip on average, two to three times a week. With sites located across a wide area, eliminating trips to and from the office means the organisation can also save on fuel costs.

“It’s really about enabling our people to be able to use their time for more strategic, business critical activities,” he said.

“Our field workers are highly skilled, highly trained people. So we are keen to eliminate the running around, doing this transactional, regular stuff and really focusing on ways to improve overall efficiency and to optimise the networks that they are running.”

Tags data qualityMelbourne Waterinfrastructurefield workerselectronic formsdrone aircraftdata collectionAsset ManagementFrank CourtneyPanasonic Toughpads FZ-G1mobile field workersmobilitymotion computing

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