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.”

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In the next 12 months Melbourne Water plans to integrate the mobile platform with its corporate systems such as asset management, spatial and permit to work, so that field workers can access those systems via their devices while out in the field.

Courtney said this will further improve efficiencies as it will allow field workers to consolidate their work activities and save on having to make multiple trips to a site over a week.

“As an example, a field worker is looking at assets to assess their current condition. They might be looking for corrosion, free operation, physical damage or other problems,” he said.

“While that field worker is in that area they might notice other jobs that need to be done such as some fencing needs to be fixed, or some weeding problems.

“When we have our corporate system integrated with the tablet they will be able to raise work order on the spot, they will be able to do permit to work, risk assessment, etc. While they are there they don’t need to travel and stop what they are doing to initiate another transaction or interaction.”

Going down the mobility path is a “very disruptive process”, Courtney said, and the organisation faced challenges such as how to ensure that field workers who are in areas without telecommunication services won’t have their work interrupted.

“The difficulty, from an IT perspective, is people in a mobile working context may have some Next G signal where they happen to be at the time, but when they move into an area where there aren’t any Telstra comms or other comms services available then that changes the operating mode.

“So we’ve looked at a mixed-mode client, something that can manage the need to data to get back to Melbourne Water without intervention by the field user.

“For example with the Kern system, when our operator saves a completed form the Kern client will determine if there are any data comms services available. If there is, the data will be transmitted back to Melbourne Water. If there aren’t, then the user doesn’t have to do anything as Kern will hang onto that form until such a time when there are comms available and will authenticate and send the form through.”

When it comes to training, Courtney said the technology is quite intuitive and doesn’t require much effort from the end user. However, he did set aside “a good couple of days per team” to train the workers on using the power user administrative levels so that they can have control over their own forms.

“Pretty much all our people use all our systems so we don’t tend to have piecemeal systems that only one business group would use. We’ve taken a very deliberate decision to actually empower our field teams to manage their own forms.

“The reason we have done is this because the people in the business who know the most about the forms are the people filling them in so it’s in their interest to keep them as simple and as streamlined as possible,” he said.

“We haven’t just thrown them in the deep end, we’ve created a governance structure and templates and a lot of tools to help them in that process but also to establish a template approach to this. So we have forms that are created in a similar manner even though the data that each form would contain is unique.”

Another project that Melbourne Water is embarking on, Courtney said, is using drone aircraft to inspect hazardous areas, such as the tops of dams and tops of spillways, so people don't have to operate in highly dangerous environments. He said a couple of trial flights have already taken place and the testing period will be completed over the next three to four months.

Courtney said the drone aircraft will also be used to better measure greenhouse gas emissions from waste-water treatments and the like.

“The way that we measure the emissions from our treatment lagoons all happens at ground level and we use a mathematical model to extrapolate figures from reading to take in at ground level.

“What we are keen to do is get a better idea of the actual measurable quantities so we are working with a contractor at the moment to equip a suitable drone with measuring equipment to fly over the area and actually do proper measurements.”

Follow Rebecca Merrett on Twitter: @Rebecca_Merrett

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