Digital Data Collection Helps Cut Out The Paper

Mobile technologies make data management more efficient and accurate, streamlining every step of collection, analysis and reporting.

By Alan Fabiano | Tech Talk | September 2015 | Appeared in Treatment Plant Operator Magazine

Every day the team that operates and maintains the 330 mgd Union Park pump station in South Boston, Massachusetts, uses mobile technology in the form of hand-­held tablets to enter data on checklist forms. This allows them to store runtimes and retrieve data for monthly reports.

The team members, who service nine other sanitary, stormwater and water pumping stations in the area ranging from 1.5 to 6.5 mgd, also enter corrective maintenance work orders through a mobile application on tablets or smartphones; the information is automatically loaded to a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS).

This team’s experience offers just one example of the efficiency and other benefits that go with using mobile data collection and management technology instead of manual, paper-­based methods.

Utilities that use paper forms to collect data face a number of issues. Notes coming from the field are often hard to read, and data entry can be inconsistent. Manual entry errors are common.

These same utilities probably enter data into spreadsheets for calculations and reporting, introducing another source of errors and uncertainty. For example, has the data been entered or copied and pasted correctly? Is the formula accurate? What happens when there are discrepancies between manual and digital reports?

Furthermore, utilities often deal with file integrity issues. What happens when copies of the same spreadsheet are on multiple computers with several people updating them? How is data compared among multiple spreadsheets? What happens when permit levels change or when the spreadsheet expert leaves the organization? When utilities do not have good answers to these questions, issues accumulate and the agency has a data problem.

The tools available for data collection in the field and analysis in the office have improved significantly in recent years. Smartphones and tablets along with simple, flexible and affordable applications developed specifically for them make it possible to streamline every step of the collection, analysis and reporting of data.

The mobile advantage

Generally, utilities find that mobile technology and a data collection application solve the problems presented by paper forms and manual data entry. Mobile technology programs are simple and easy to learn and, because they bring efficiencies that save time and money, the initial startup costs are quickly paid back. Furthermore, when staff members spend less time collecting and entering data, they can devote more time to process repairs and improvements.

Because the cost of entry is low, small-­scale operations can take advantage of mobile technology. For example, the team at the 0.6 mgd Wolfeboro (New Hampshire) Wastewater Treatment Facility, serving a community of 7,000, uses mobile technology.

“We have two tablets in use on a daily basis,” says Russ Howe, plant manager. “The paper method we previously used needed the same data written on multiple forms: bench sheets, logbook, operational forms and others. The effort needed to find the required data and manually type it into a monthly report was time-­ consuming and prone to errors. Plus, document storage was always a challenge. Now, the tablet is carried with the person and data is entered once into the application.”

The Wolfeboro staff uses Hach Water Information Management Solution (Hach WIMS) software, which includes a database that receives and stores data where it is available at any time by way of a computer with an Internet connection. “The WIMS software generates plant reports using this data,” notes Howe. “This saves the staff hours we used to consume developing reports.”

Mobile technology users find that errors are significantly reduced. They can immediately validate data in the field, receiving notifications if an entry falls outside the normal or expected range. Richer data can be collected, including photos, video, GPS coordinates, and automatic date and time stamping. In addition, since real-­time data is instantly uploaded, managers can be alerted when new information is available or action needs to be taken.

A versatile application

Among strong believers in mobile platforms is Woodard & Curran, a firm based in Portland, Maine, that operates more than 45 treatment facilities and remediation sites. After deciding to use mobile technology, the firm selected the doForms application for creating forms and collecting data. This simple but customizable application lets the company create purpose-­built forms for different needs and provide direct upload of data from a wide range of mobile devices.

The offering includes a website portal for creating forms and reporting on the data, as well as a mobile application for completing and submitting the forms. The form-­building engine includes multiple options, including skip and relevance logic, lookup tables, and dropdowns to simplify data entry. A created form can be copied or updated easily. Deploying forms to a mobile device simply requires hitting a publish button.

The doForms system comes with pre-­built report templates that can be modified for a specific need. Data and reports can be viewed through the application website or exported to PDF, Excel, CSV, HTML or KML. The system also integrates with CMMS and the Hach WIMS systems.

Simplicity in practice

At the 2.5 mgd wastewater treatment plant at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, plant manager Mark Wippler and his staff use doForms for daily plant checks, general-­purpose checklists, calibrations, inspection forms, and health and safety checks.

The team works with three distinct databases: doForms, Hach WIMS (lab data) and SEMS (from SEMS Technologies, for maintenance data). “DoForms is the glue that sticks to our lab data and maintenance data,” says Wippler. “Some effort is needed to ensure all three databases are set up correctly, but once that is done, we need only minor attention to software upgrades or modifying forms to meet changing requirements.”

All the forms are stored in the doForms online database, so if they ever need a form printed for their records, it is available. When data is requested, Wippler and staff just download or email it. The doForms data is interfaced with Hach WIMS and updated hourly. Data collected on the tablets populates the reports automatically, making end-­of-­month reporting easier.

The doForms application is linked to Victorville’s SEMS program so that corrective work orders can be generated in the field and preventive work orders can be dispatched to an operator’s tablet directly. Work orders can be created and received in the field as long as a data connection is available. This allows managers to communicate tasks to staff wherever they are, along with specific work orders relevant to that task.

Process data can be collected in the field and immediately sent to the operation’s database, alerting managers to potential issues. This combination multiplies the efficiency gains of a mobile data collection system alone.

GIS on the fly

Utility staff can use GIS applications for data collection or map viewing while in the field. GIS data on mobile devices enables staff members to see their utility system instantly in relation to their current location. Project managers find that a GIS-­enabled map makes it easier to locate utility assets, versus searching through a pile of paper maps. Further, as more experienced utility workers retire and take institutional knowledge with them, it will be important to map assets electronically using GIS technology.

GIS applications are used both for viewing and collecting data. Today’s smartphones and tablets generally have GPS capability, but it is imprecise. It is better to use a Bluetooth GPS receiver that delivers submeter locations to the mobile application. Both doForms and collector applications can collect GIS information and gather it over time. For example, staff members can collect accurate GIS data while inspecting manholes, flushing hydrants or exercising valves, and then use that data to help manage those projects more efficiently in the future.

Greater efficiency

Using the right mobile devices and applications can eliminate not only paper but also cameras, GPS devices, calculators, pens, clipboards and more. Transcribing paper notes to spreadsheets and deciphering illegible handwriting are all obstacles of an old technology.

“Errors are still made, but they are mostly fat finger errors caused by hitting the wrong button,” says Victorville’s Wippler. “They are easy to spot in the Hach WIMS database before creating the monthly reports. My estimate is that we are about 99 percent or greater error-­free each month.”

About the author

Alan Fabiano is a technology manager with Woodard & Curran responsible for operations and maintenance technology implementations for operations data management (OPS) databases, maintenance data management, mobile applications, GIS and other hardware or software support. He can be reached at afabiano@woodardcurran.com.

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