Mobility in Water Utilities: Are We Surfing or Standing?

Field worker mobile technology offers an immediate, relatively low-cost, mature technology that can deliver fundamental change to water management. It offers an evolution to current practice that has short-term and verified return on investment. Further, mobility can move organizations forward while waiting for the tide of Smarter Cities to come in.

Dec 17th, 2014
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Field mobile applications have the potential to revolutionize water utilities now. So are we surfing this wave of technology or just standing on a board hoping to keep our balance until the revolution of Smart Cities arrives?

By Mary Brittain-White

The hype of Smart City technologies includes sophisticated changes to our approach to water management across water sourcing, groundwater monitoring, water and waste treatment facilities, and water re-farming. In a future world of smart metering, fragmented data between wastewater, drinking water and industrial water sources could be merged into "big data," and the resulting analytics would drive superior decisions. However, these solutions require significant infrastructure upgrades as well as sophisticated IT and fundamental cultural change.

According to Gartner research, market penetration is only between 1 and 5 percent, and industry acceptance is predicted to be between two and five years away.1 The magnitude of investment that Smart City water innovation will require -- and the challenge for water utilities to source these funds -- is daunting and may further delay such wholesale change. However, the allure of sizeable consulting revenues, system projects and change management rollouts has resulted in a variety of companies, such as IBM, GE, ABB, and Siemens, for example, aligning staff and research to this innovation.

In sharp contrast, field worker mobile technology offers an immediate, relatively low-cost, mature technology that can deliver fundamental change to water management. It offers an evolution to current practice that has short-term and verified return on investment (ROI). The technology encompasses allocation of work orders, asset profiles, time sheets, and safety in applications to field crews. Key areas of return include improved asset management and cost management understanding, significant safety gains in reduced employee days lost, transparency in water monitoring results, subcontractor management, and a leverage point to increase return from geographic information systems (GIS) investment.

Safety Enforcement
How do you encourage workers to perform a safety check before they start work rather than completing documentation as part of the job's wrap up? Mobility can deliver this capability by enforcing safety checks prior to granting access to work order asset detail -- so safety must be completed before a technician can actually start. Remarkably, the enforcement of hazard identification has a proven direct and proportional relationship to the number of employee days lost through accident.

Asset Management Data Quality
Aging water infrastructure repair is a dominant and constant activity. Mobile solutions allow better coordination of repair teams either centrally or managerially by supervisors providing them detailed fault and repair history. However, the fundamental gain is in the information captured through a mobile app that reflects their workflow such as work finished, time taken and equipment used -- all necessary information to complete a work order. By giving workers an easier way to record their actions and enforcing that all key data is completed, reliability of information is significantly improved.

GIS Leveraged for Field Work
A challenge in many water utilities is that the GIS maps of their infrastructure are often outdated. Yet field technicians cannot update these maps, as the GIS department is uncertain of the accuracy of the updates. Moreover, when full mobile GIS capability is provided to the field, it is both complex and expensive. Today, technicians can receive a simple image extract from the GIS system as part of their work order on the mobile device. They can also mark on it, and the end product -- including supporting photos -- can be routed back to the GIS department for updating with no big expense or complexity for the users.

Water Monitoring Escalations
Taking samples at dams or along creek beds ultimately results in a mountain of data that, via a mobile capability, is immediately collected and verified as within range. The real challenge in such systems is the timely escalation for non-results. Again, the enforcement of workflow across such procedures allows alerts to be relayed to management in real time.

Subcontractor Management
Given that most utilities now have a mixture of permanent and outsourced staff, knowing the status of work-order completion and variation management comes to the forefront. Mobility can offer transparency, providing visibility into what your subcontractors are achieving and allowing rapid reconciliation of work done to charges made at the end of the month.

These are only some of the major advantages. Improved reporting quality, time sheet management, dynamic team construction, and online support systems are all additional benefits that are derived from mobile field worker deployments.

When considering implementing a mobile solution, what are the key attributes that you should look for or expect in a mobile field solution?

  • Robust capability that guarantees no field data loss. Field workers must be able to rely on the technology. It must be able to work offline all day and yet hold all the referential data like photos and GIS map extracts that they may need. IT departments will often advocate solutions that assume mobile coverage for most of the day; however, in water management, that assumption is invalid.
  • In-field recovery within minutes. Although mobile device management software allows for the reconstruction of the application, field crews need assurance that the work they entered in the morning can be reconstructed in just minutes during the afternoon if something troublesome occurs. Why should they accept an application that is less robust than paper?
  • Lifetime warranty on the application to run on any mainstream mobile operating system. Businesses cannot guess what mobile device operating systems will be supported in the market two years from now. So they must invest in a solution that can move across hardware and operating systems without reinvestment.
  • The cost of future change. As experience grows, the data captured or the workflow followed in the field may need amendment. Can this be done by configuration, or is it a new project? Cheap solutions are often based on a model to make vendor revenues via variations once a customer is locked in.

Once you identify a mobile solution, how big is the project likely to be? Average deployments take three to five months to go live in the field if you select an off-the-shelf configurable product that can integrate to your current IT systems. The ROI for a cloud solution should be under six months once live in field.

Innovation is rarely a complete step change, where the old is thrown out to make room for the new. Most improvements augment what is already in place, with the market adopting proven solutions that deliver returns. Mobility in water management demonstrates short-term ROI today and can move organizations forward while waiting for the Smart City tide to come in.

About the Author: Mary Brittain-White is the CEO of Retriever Communications, a company she founded 16 years ago. After 20 years in the wireless data industry, she has established herself as a thought leader in the area of wireless field automation. Brittain-White has a Bachelor of Economics from Sydney University and a post-graduate Executive Development program from Melbourne University.

References:

1. Alfonso Velosa, Bettina Tratz-Ryan. "Hype Cycle for Smart City Technologies and Solutions," Gartner, July 22, 2014, https://www.gartner.com/doc/2805122/hype-cycle-smart-city-technologies.

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