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Wearables, whereabouts, and roundabouts

Jan Van de Steen
December 16, 2020

Jim and Geoff are field workers at a water utility and mostly work as a team, performing domestic household connections work. Over time, Jim and Geoff became close friends spending much of their weekends together as members of the local cycling team.

A competitive spirit is not strange to them and with their smart GPS-enabled sport watches they can compare using Strava each other’s performance. Jim and Geoff do not see any harm in sharing all this information, including where they have been cycling and at what time. Their whereabouts are not considered confidential – or at least when they are riding their bikes.

The tablets they use during working hours have many of the same sensors on board as the watches: using location and time stamps, combined with other sensors they could easily be used to optimize work plans, improve work safety and even offer some location intelligence while on site. The tablet’s precise camera and its large touchscreen offers the ultimate “click and point” interface they need to facilitate their field work.

But strangely enough the device’s features are used to a very limited extent. They are using a standard application of their workforce management (WFM) system that pushes their work orders to the field, including administrative details and material records and asks them to register and close the job once they have finished the work. Alongside the logistic process managed on the tablet, they still have to complete paperwork to technically document what they have installed: it’s a checkbox-list, with the most common equipment and material options, and with a synoptic sketch of the connection the way it is constructed. The document must be signed off by the client on site for invoicing purposes.

Jim and Geoff found it strange that the WFM system app did not seem to know where they were – as their smartwatch did – and that its forms required them to complement address information to describe the location, instead of using the tablet’s GPS. At a certain moment, they started taking geo-tagged pictures of the connections just before closing the trench and sent these by email to the back office to facilitate asset registration. Big applause and a nomination for the corporate innovation awards came quickly. But much to their disappointment, they still had to fill out the technical document and draft a sketch, although it would have been much easier to include the connection photo and the coordinates in a more intelligent digital form – not to mention the enormous advantage of locating an intervention on venues or assets without formal address and particularly in the context of fast response to incidents.

This short story illustrates that the full power of mobile location technology still is not used in most field force organizations. There are very few technological barriers left, but effective use of this technology requires significant re-thinking of the field processes, specifically the asset registration workflow. And in many utilities, there still is resistance among field workers as they fear they will be  tracked continuously by their employers and they will lose their operational autonomy and the ability to go to the café in the high street for a catch up with their mates. “What’s in it for us?” is their ask, with every new mobile workforce application that offers them – for example – a dumb Google Maps view instead of a highly responsive access to the utility’s own network map layers.

Even if we expect smart grid deployment or IoT sensors to automatically deliver asset and asset condition information from network assets, it will remain essential to facilitate the information flows from the field force to asset registers. Visual inspections, environmental assessments, and manual configuration activities will continue to contribute to the historian of events on the network. Utilizing all this information over a lifecycle of decades is the essence of smart asset management and asset system management and an essential input into asset investment decision making.

As a minimal first step, it is key to associate observations with the right asset or asset system element. Intuitive mobile user interfaces without administrative overhead are essential for that purpose. Otherwise, the information will be low quality (and thus worthless), the tool will not be adopted by field workers, or both. People like Jim and Geoff expect any such tool to work like a smartwatch or any other tablet-app, where information can be viewed and modified with a few easy clicks and swipes, while time and location stamps are securely recorded.

Even if events occurring on the assets and networks will be automatically logged by smart sensors, mobile devices, or worker’s wearables, human actors will still be needed to filter and validate information, and to relate these events to the right asset or location, often finding assets to associate with information is difficult to do in an office environment; on a wet, dark, windy night and in an unplanned situation even harder.

In easy cases such as valve inspections, we can fully rely on standard features: the tablet’s GPS localizes with enough precision to spatially select the equipment that is being inspected. No need for the agent to browse through long drop-down lists to find the right valve from a list; a click on a (automatically centered) map is enough to confirm the link and immediately encode relevant observations for the chosen asset. In more complex installations, some of the typical AR use cases for utilities mentioned in a recent report of Capgemini Research Institute,  ‘Overlay operating details to enhance equipment view’ could be an interesting add-on to support identification of the right equipment when onsite.

A traffic roundabout is an easily understandable metaphor of more complex nodes in a connected asset system. There it is less easy to correctly register any kind of event. If traffic sign 1234 on the figure gets hit by a truck and someone wants to report that it is damaged, there are several possibilities:

  1. The sign’s ID 1234 is visibly marked on the physical equipment and the reporter can enter it in a web or mobile app form.
  2. There is no ID on the sign and the reporter must describe the equipment: “… sign on the left when heading NW entering the roundabout from street a2 … .”
  3. There is no ID on the sign, but the reporter is just next to it with a GPS enabled device and can send his X, Y GPS coordinates with the report.
  4. The previous possibility with a more intelligent click-and-point application automatically opens a map centered on the location; the reporter clicks on the symbol of the sign to confirm that it is the damaged equipment.

From these possibilities, only option 1 and 4 are acceptable in terms of efficient smart asset management because the event/observation is unambiguously linked to the right equipment right from the start of the process in the field. Indeed, the best data quality strategy is to record information as closely as possible to the source.

Why is it important to tag events to the right asset? Maintenance people will argue that repair teams will immediately see which sign is damaged when they arrive. That is correct, but if an asset manager wants to run analysis on thousands of traffic signs to find out if there is a relation with the equipment’s manufacturer, a contractor’s work, the layout of roundabouts or any other circumstance, asset condition history records must be as precise as possible. And unambiguously locating maintenance work on asset system elements is the only way to match its cost against the service (number of impacted connections for instance) as often requested by regulators.

The traffic network roundabout in the example can easily be replaced by nodes with similar complexity, for instance a switching station in an electric grid, a railway station or a valve node in water distribution. In all these asset systems, correctly linking events (like faults) to the right equipment may become more difficult, especially in dense urban areas or complex facilities. But offering an easy (geo)graphical click-and-point interface would ease the work of field technicians who are all familiar with utility maps and in-plant schematics.

So far, we have not spoken about the registration of linear events, or events that are related to more than one physical asset in a connected asset system. How would you correctly locate a section of the A-B road where the surface is damaged? Or an oil spill, following one of the many routes across the node? That’s the topic for our next article, “What happens on the asset system, stays on the asset system.”

This blog is part of a series of 6 under the theme “Asset Systems for the Smart Grid”:

  1. What is an asset system for a network company?
  2. Smart grid or silly tube maps?
  3. What’s so special about asset systems?
  4. What’s so spatial about asset systems?
  5. Wearables, whereabouts and roundabouts
  6. What happens on the asset system, stays on the asset system

I have more than 20 years experience in GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and asset management projects in utilities (water, electric, gas), telecom and the public sector (transportation, cadastral services). You can connect with me here.