Paving Over Paperwork
- 28 March, 2002 11:45
By automating its collection of inspection data, Michigan's Department of Transportation cut the cost of building roads and bridges.
Construction technician Bill Young remembers when he had to load his truck each day with paper forms before he drove around central Michigan inspecting road construction sites for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). He had so many boxes"there was no room to even move", recalls Young, sporting a plaid flannel shirt and the deep tan he's acquired working in the field for the past 12 years. Today, the only evidence of paperwork in his truck is a notebook computer mounted on the dash."Now I'm like a one-man band," Young says."It's just my laptop and me."
Young is one of hundreds of technicians and inspectors from 37 MDOT offices, 120 local transportation agencies and 71 private companies in Michigan using FieldManager, a suite of road construction management software developed and co-owned by MDOT and Florida-based software company Info Tech. It's a groundbreaking system for a government agency and an industry that has changed little since 1909, when MDOT laid the first mile of concrete highway in the country.
Since the agency launched FieldManager in 1999, the system has enabled MDOT to eliminate a time-consuming, error-prone manual process for managing construction projects so that Michigan taxpayers get more, such as better roads and bridges, more quickly, for their money. FieldManager has also helped MDOT cope with an increase in its budget from $US500 million to $US1.5 billion a year since 1993, while cutting its staff from 5000 to 3000. An example of FieldManager's impact: the M-6, a new 20-mile"beltline" being constructed south of Grand Rapids, in western Michigan, will be completed three years early, in 2005.
"FieldManager is consistent with my goal of putting more of our state's transportation dollars into preserving our roads and less into administrative overhead," says MDOT director Greg Rosine. Now others are following MDOT's lead. Seven states, two Indian tribes and 223 private companies have licensed FieldManager.
In the past, a field technician used to go to every work site with a printout of his required Inspector's Daily Report. He would fill it out by hand, tracking thousands of work items and materials for each project - everything from earth excavators to grout. At the end of the day he would hand the report in to the office. Assuming the handwriting was legible, the information on materials used, work completed and payments required would be copied and hand-tallied by as many as five people before the contractor got paid. MDOT needed an army of office workers to verify contractors' work, and inspectors often could handle only one project per season. Larger projects required as many as 20 inspectors onsite each day. Today, MDOT rarely sends more than one field technician to a site. He enters data into a laptop and uploads it to FieldManager, either from the road or back at the office. Office technicians use the information to automatically generate payment estimates. Meanwhile, inspectors and office workers can get up-to-date reports on their projects to settle contractor disputes, amend contracts, check the status of budgets and make other routine administrative queries.
A 10-Year Project
FieldManager's origins go back to 1989, when Kevin Fox, now the systems administrator for FieldManager, developed a DOS-based construction management program called the Construction Project Record Keeping System (CPRKS - pronounced ka-perks). CPRKS eliminated some transcribing, but it was integrated with an ageing mainframe and wasn't integrated with the other major construction management system MDOT used.
The effort to make CPRKS Y2K compliant gave CIO C Douglass Couto the opportunity to make improvements."If we were going to spend that kind of money anyway, [we would] see what other changes we could make," Couto says. He hired Info Tech, which had created a PC-based system called Field Book that Couto and Fox thought could be upgraded to replace CPRKS."We had the foundation, but they brought a million dollars' worth of software to the table," says Gary Taylor, chief engineer of the Bureau of Highway Technical Services.
A financial partnership between a state government department and a software company was unprecedented. Contract negotiations between the Michigan attorney general's office and Info Tech's lawyers dragged on for nearly two years as they searched for a politically acceptable solution."We had to focus on MDOT's business, which is building roads, not marketing and distributing software to local agencies and consultants," explains Couto.
MDOT and Info Tech stuck through the negotiations because they saw the value of FieldManager to others in the construction business, says Couto. The final agreement allowed MDOT and Info Tech to co-own the source code. Info Tech got the right to sell the software but had to dedicate licensing fees paid by other states for the further development of FieldManager. The contract also granted Michigan's state and local transportation agencies a perpetual licence to the software, mandated that MDOT approve any future changes to it and paid MDOT royalties from sales to private users. It was a far cry from the standard contract that gave the vendor all control over the software and all the financial benefit from its sales."If we had done it the usual way, we would have had to pay to make any changes," says Couto.
Fox and Couto also had to convince MDOT's legions of end users to embrace FieldManager."One person took the laptop and said: The only thing I'm going to do with this is put it behind my truck and back over it'," recalls Fox. MDOT overcame the opposition by including users at every stage of development and letting FieldManager sell itself."We told them to take the software for three months and let us know what they thought about it," says Fox."I never had anyone come back and tell me they wanted to go back to the old way." Today, some of the early resistors are FieldManager evangelists."If you went to some of those people who had been the most reluctant and tried to take the software away from them now, you'd get hurt," says Daniel Rutenberg, senior systems analyst for the construction and technology division.
Building New Roads to Value
MDOT continues to involve users in FieldManager's development, from inviting groups of eight people to test new features to yearly conferences of 50 users to suggest future changes."You know the things that you say are going to count," says Sandra Aldrich, records technician for the Road Commission of Macomb County in suburban Detroit, who's worked on MDOT projects for nearly 20 years.
It's been so helpful to private consultants that contract with local government offices to oversee MDOT projects that they use it for their non-MDOT work as well."My background is civil engineering. It's not bookkeeping," says Stuart Laasko, an engineering specialist for Grand Rapids-based engineering company Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber, who pays $US15,000 a year for a FieldManager licence."I no longer spend my time adding numbers from report to report." The software has more than paid for itself by enabling him to work on more than one project at once."The amount of work you can push through with this is amazing," Laasko says.
Cost: $US5.1 million for development, two-thirds paid by MDOT and one-third by other customers and vendor Info Tech; $US767,000 in annual maintenance costs.
Hardware: Intel servers; Intel-based Dell desktop systems running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 2000; Intel-based Dell notebook systems running Windows 95, Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 2000.
Software: Sybase SQL Anywhere database software; custom applications built using Sybase PowerBuilder; Info Tech GUI Object Model; Microsoft Developer Studio 97 software development tools.
Network: LANs with interoffice access via WAN, both running Novell NetWare 4.2; dial-up access for field workers.
Michigan Department of Transportation CIO C Douglass Couto uses a value methodology based on the balanced scorecard. Couto has adjusted this model to account for benefits that are hard to quantify financially but that are important to government agencies, such as reductions in clerical errors, an improved department image, legal compliance and better employee morale."Some people have told me I can put a dollar value on everything, but I haven't found the model yet that does that," Couto says. The methodology helps Couto set priorities for his investments and ensures that high-value projects stay on track."Once a project is approved, a project manager knows he's got management support and funding," he says.