Southern Water was confronted by a daunting task
Southern Water is Tasmania’s largest water and sewerage services provider. The newly created corporation had just undergone the process of incorporating the previous water and sewerage assets, functions, services and employees of 12 Southern Tasmanian local government authorities and the former bulk water authority. They had been running as a corporation for little over a year and were still bedding down the amalgamation of different business processes, systems, software and data. It was a further requirement of the industry reform to introduce usage based pricing by a specific deadline, July 2012. This meant that Southern Water had to roll out more than 50,000 meters in a 12 month period. The project was part of Australia’s largest water meter rollout in history (The Examiner 10 Feb 2012).
This would be a testing project on a number of fronts
- Variation in customer and asset data derived from different jurisdictions – what was actually out there?
- Predicting the need for resources – how many work crews would be required; what are the conditions on site?
- Controlling costs – installation costs were based on largely unknown site conditions, or inconsistent information about each site.
- Limited timeframe – there was no time for test runs, they had to get a system up and running quickly, monitor it in real-time and make adjustments based on the new information.
- Customer relations – paying for water usage was a foreign concept to the majority of Southern Tasmanians.
- Day to day operations needed to continue as usual.
RIA Mobile GIS worked closely with the Water Meter Project team at Southern Water from the outset. This provided valuable insights into the management and operational issues and was a key factor in developing an effective system for the project.
The main issue at the beginning was estimating the resources required to complete the project in the time frame. RIA developed a modelling tool that predicted project duration based on the variables of existing infrastructure, site conditions and business type. However the simulation model soon highlighted the lack of existing consistent information for each site. Southern Water concluded that a pre-installation check was required at each site to determine the factors that would impact installation costs and duration.
The installation of the actual meters was contract to Skilltech. Due to the sensitive nature of the project and the short time frames, Southern Water needed to ensure that standards were being met, costs and deadlines were closely monitored, and that specific customer requirements were being met at each site. A very tight interaction was required between Southern Water and the water meter installation service provider.
A system which would allow relevant pre-installation data to be collected at each site was therefore required. This information would then feed into reports and models to support the prediction of costs and resources. It would also need to be passed on to Skilltech so that they could use it to assist with scheduling work to teams and with the actual installation of the meters. Installation information gathered by Skilltech in turn needed to be passed back to Southern Water so that they could then use it to verify each site for quality assurance. All activities needed to be monitored by management so that, at any time, they had a dashboard overview of the project and could drill down into specific activities to discover areas of unacceptable costs or delays.
The Role of RIA in the project
RIA was commissioned to design and develop the system. A data schema was designed for the project which would support the mobile data capture, central data storage and reporting requirements. This design was implemented as an ESRI geodatabase that was initially established on RIA infrastructure at Salamanca Place so that it could be rapidly adjusted as the project needs changed. ESRI geographic information system technology was chosen because it was already in use at Southern Water and had the capacity and functionality to support a project of the size. It also had the flexibility to be adapted as the project required.
The first mobile application to be developed supported the Southern Water pre installation team and allowed them to capture information at each site. This was captured using Getac PS236 handhelds running ArcPad and included details about stop taps, their location, the proposed location of meters, surface condition and photographs. These details were uploaded from the mobile device into the project database at the end of each day.
Installation System for Contractor
RIA also setup Skilltech with their own copy of the project database which they used to manage their crews and operations. It was kept in synchronisation with the project database on a daily basis using ArcGIS replication. The second purpose-built mobile application was developed for Skilltech to support the installation. This was operated by the plumbers installing the taps and provided the information they needed, including the pre installation data gathered by Southern Water. It also included the job safety analysis (JSA) checks required by Skilltech. The software was designed so that, if any of the checks failed, the plumber could not proceed with the installation.
During the installation the plumber used the application to scan the bar codes of the stop taps, capture photos of the installation (before and after it was covered) and record other details required by Southern Water. These details were captured on Motorolla MC65 handhelds which became very popular during the project for their ruggedness and reliability. At the end of each day the data was uploaded to the Skilltech database which, in turn, was replicated with the project database at RIA.
Skilltech employed more than 30 crews to do the installation. Each crew needed a mobile device with the data relevant to their work orders for the day. RIA developed a desktop application for Skilltech which allowed an operator to easily select properties based on the spatial relationship and site conditions. The operator then used the application to assign the properties to a crew/device and the relevant data was then transferred to each device.
The urgency of the project demanded that specific components be operational before the entire system was completed. There was no opportunity for end to end design, development and testing of a complete system before it was rolled out. This meant that project needs had to be anticipated and built into the system and accommodated as required. Also, many of the initial tasks were performed manually by the team at RIA using out of the box ESRI technology. This included replicating the project database and downloading the data to mobile devices. The project became known as the black hole to RIA staff because anyone who went near it soon disappeared.
Manually driven data management routines were established over time as the project became established. These were then automated using ArcObjects because it gave direct control over the specific elements of the data and provided rich spatial functionality. An easy to use windows form and dialog interface was developed using Microsoft .Net and provided a clear picture to the operator of the data management issues as they arose. Tools were also developed to assist with the resolution of these issues. After a period of time the whole system ran like a well-oiled machine and could be operated by GIS staff and contractors at Southern Water. At this stage the system was transferred to Southern Water Offices. Operation of the system was also outsourced to a third party and RIA provided training and support.
A third mobile application was also developed which supported the quality assurance tasks, again based on the ArcPad mobile GIS software running on Honeywell Dolphins. Honeywell Dolphins are the devices used to remotely read the meters and the inspection application was integrated with the Elster meter reading software. This allowed a Southern Water site inspector to take the Skilltech installation data and verify the installation in the field. This included the validation of the meter reading, capture of post installation photographs and sign off and completion. On leaving the site the inspector had confirmed, or otherwise, that the site had been restored to original condition and that the meter was linked to the correct property and it was communicating with the reading device.
From the beginning management were very clear on the information they would require for the project. One of the main issues was ensuring that enough properties were ready for installation because the contractor had to be paid if there were properties ready to go or not. They also needed to know if timeline and budget restrictions were being met. The timeline was displayed in the form of a run rate which showed the target installation rate and the actual rate of installation. There was also individual drill down reports so that the project could be monitored down to the individual crew member if required to ensure everyone was doing their bit.
The reports came in two forms there were both tabular reports which were quickly developed using Microsoft access and PDF maps which were generated from ArcGIS and automated using python. The reports could be generated at the start of each day after the field data had been synchronized into the Skiltech database which in turn was replicated with the project database. At any time management were only a day out with their reports.
Project within timeframe and budget
The water meter project field service management system clearly demonstrated what can be achieved when field workers are connected to the office via mobile technology. The productivity and safety of field workers was significantly improved, management had their finger on the pulse and customer service was enhanced.
In the end, the water meter project system supported 30 different field crews and the installation of over 50,000 water meters in a 12 month period without a single day of down time. RIA Mobile GIS are delighted that Southern Water won the iAward for the project.
Congratulations Southern Water!