COVID-19 business continuity – digitizing and mobilizing field operations

June 4, 2020 Josh Triantafilou

This blog reviews the essential mobility applications for utilities to maintain business continuity including Tracker for ArcGIS for the live tracking of staff and resources; Survey 123 for team check-in surveys; and operations dashboards for insights and awareness.

Note: The below is a transcription of the Esri webinar ‘Business Continuity – Digitizing and Mobilizing Field Operations’.

This article is the second in a series of three. You can find the other articles here:

Overview

  • Digital transformation
  • Demonstration: Digitizing a response to Manage a Remote Workforce
  • Demonstration: Mobilizing and Tracking Field Crews
  • Demonstration: Visualization and Results

Utilities are increasingly adopting digitization to improve their field operations. In the context of COVID-19, technologies that allow organizations to track the locations of staff and reduce the need for physical contact between staff and with customers is that much more needed. For many utilities, the majority of their workforce is in the field. We can break down this work further into:

  • Asset inspection maintenance work
  • Planned capital work: network augmentations, refurbishment and replacement
  • Customer engagements
  • Facilities management

All the above is essential for ensuring an effective field workforce is critical to business continuity. Critical to maintaining field operations are workflows. We can think about field operation workflows as comprising the following steps:

  1. Schedule & dispatch
  2. Navigate to site
  3. Complete work
  4. Update systems
  5. Report and monitor

For these to work, information needs to be readily available and connected through each step. If this is broken or bottlenecked by legacy paper-based systems, business continuity cannot function. For utilities, field operations can be optimized through digitization and technology.

So, what has changed with COVID-19 and how does this impact field operations? Let’s return to our earlier five steps to see what utilities can do to respond to the pandemic.

Schedule and Dispatch

Scheduling and dispatch involve the following elements:

  • Ensure safety of field crews
  • Plan and schedule work
  • Track work so that it is completed on time
  • Reduce truck rolls
  • Minimize customer disruptions
  • Manage hours and breaks

Optimized planning of routes from new remote locations improves efficiency in terms of miles traveled per crew. Let’s look at a simple example. Here, we have a typical central dispatch model. 

  • We have two crews working today: Crew 1 is blue and Crew 2 is yellow
  • We have three jobs that need to be completed

In a typical setting, Crew 1 goes from the central office to the job site 2 and then goes back to the office. Crew 2 goes to Job 1 and then goes on to Job Site 3 before returning to the office. As seen below, this schedule has done a good job of optimizing the route based on a known origin (the office).

However, the office is no longer accessible due to COVID-19. Both crews are now dispatching from their homes to facilitate social distancing. Nonetheless, the same jobs must be completed. In this scenario, Crew 1 completes Job 2 and 3 while Crew 2 completes Job 1.

As you can see, the optimal routes in the second scenario are much different than those in the first scenario. Still, optimized planning from remote deployment can be very successful. 

For many utilities, the ability to digitize their operations to achieve results like those in the second scenario above would require a complete overhaul of many systems and many months of reintegration and testing. Let’s look at how your utility can digitize its response to COVID-19 and manage a remote workforce.

Demonstration: Digitizing a Response to Manage a Remote Workforce

In a time of a pandemic, it’s key for utility organizations to maintain business continuity through field operations. In this blog post, we explore Esri’s Business Continuity Solution, which allows organizations to identify where their staff is working and maintain their safety. We will show how utilities can make use of this solution from an operational perspective.

Dispatchers need to understand where field crews are working as well as the location of that work in relation to their homes. We can bring such data from Excel or an asset management system into the ArcGIS platform and visualize it on a map. 

Now that the data is in ArcGIS, we need to optimize the routes to identify which personnel are going to perform which work orders. The Plan Routes tool allows us to do this. Using this tool, we can: 

  • Visualize a layer representing stops (work orders)
  • Choose travel mode (e.g. driving)
  • Set start and stop locations (e.g. the worker’s home)
  • Identify the maximum number of vehicles to maintain social distancing
  • Set other parameters such as maximum numbers of stops, time spent at each stop, and maximum number of hours worked

After setting these parameters, we can quickly plan our routes. One of the key features of the solution is the ability to bring the work order data into all the assigned stops. We’re able to identify the work order number, type of work, and the charge code to which employees should be assigning their charge code. 

This is just the first step of digitization, the second is getting our paper portions of the workflow into the ArcGIS platform. In a typical scenario, we may have a PDF form printed out and picked up at the office. Due to COVID-19, however, workers are not coming into the office and we need a new method. This is where Survey123 comes in.

Using Survey123, we can perform all the functions a paper form would along with useful features such as embedded photos (e.g. a flushing diagram) and autofill. 

We can then quickly and automatically bring in all this information into the ArcGIS platform as the forms are filled out and submitted via a mobile device. 

Once we pair these forms with the optimized routes, we need a way to assign it out through the personnel. We’ve identified which work orders will be paired with which people; now we need a way to communicate that with them. 

Workforce for ArcGIS solves that issue. Using Workforce, we can:

  • Send communications to workers without the need for texts, emails or phone calls
  • Quickly search for an entire route and identify all those stops along that route and create assignments at each individual location
  • Set an assignment type (e.g. hydrant flushing) and parameters such as assigned to, priority, due date, time, ID and description
  • Ask field workers to fill out the Survey123 form at each location
  • Provide information in case a worker has come in close contact with a customer

Summary

Using only out-of-the-box configurations, these digitized workflows allow you to:

  • Visualize where field crews home locations are
  • Import where jobs are located from both integrated systems or disparate data (simple spreadsheet)
  • Optimize route plans and priorities

Navigation and Completion of Work

The next component of field operations workflows are navigation in the field and the completion of work. In a legacy scenario without digitization, navigation and the completion of work performed by a field technician would typically involve:

  • Work issued with paper job packs/work order folders
  • No guided navigation
  • Paper inspection forms
  • Potentially obsolete information
  • Updates are captured on paper
  • Paper updates and job closeouts are returned to ‘back office’ for processing
  • No tracking available

In contrast, a digitized process translates into the following:

  • Work is issued digitally
  • Guided navigation & tracking
  • Digital inspection forms
  • Information is real-time
  • Updates are captured digitally
  • Information is recorded back to source systems
  • Full vehicle tracking available

Demonstration: Digitizing a Response to Manage a Remote workforce

Field workers have unique challenges to meet. One of them is to communicate their location to the team in the back office. Tracker for ArcGIS provides a solution for this. Tracker enables your organization to:

  • Show the last known location of a worker from the last 30 or 60 seconds, depending on the setting
  • Set their normal workdays and hours for tracking. The application will remind workers to turn tracking on and off (to ensure they are not tracked during their off-hours)
  • Enable field workers to upload their tracks/routes and view the places they’ve been to in the last 48 hours from this display directly

In doing so, tracker helps ensure not only the accountability and privacy of field workers but also their safety by facilitating social distancing.

While this solves one problem, there is another challenge: logistics. A field worker may know that a dispatcher has created a set of routes for them, but how are they going to access and use that information? Other apps in Esri’s mobile suite come into play here. 

Let’s begin with Navigator for ArcGIS. Navigator enables field workers to access their route and work orders along that route. As its name suggests, the app also provides detailed step by step guidance including audio guidance to field workers.

Once field workers arrive at their stop, they can use Workforce for ArcGIS to coordinate projects with the field office. Using this app, they can see the details of projects. They can also change the status of projects and add notes, which will be reflected in the ArcGIS Platform. 

Within the project details, workers can also access any forms that their organizations may ask them to fill out using Survey123. The completed survey can be sent immediately or saved in the outbox if there is a lack of reception. 

With regards to COVID-19, the details for projects can also provide direct links to forms designed to capture information around workers’ contact with customers.

Summary

As seen in the above examples, using the mobile apps Navigator, Workforce and Survey123, we enable our organization to:

  • Know where workers are and where their next job is located
  • Access detailed navigational guidance
  • Manage work plans in real-time
  • Get up to date information
  • Create and access onsite digital data updates
  • Improve field safety 

Again, all of this is accomplished through simple out-of-the-box configuration without custom code.

Updating Systems, Reporting and Monitoring

The final two steps in the field operations workflow are updating systems and reporting and monitoring. During these uncertain times when things are not operating as usual, it’s more important than ever to be able to monitor and visualize what’s occurring.

Benefits of Digitization

  • Work order performance
  • Crew workload
  • Optimized travel time
  • Tracking audits

Perhaps the greatest benefit of digitization is a better understanding of how work is tracking to plan and awareness of additional risks. To explore this more deeply, let’s look at a demonstration.

Demonstration: Visualization and Results

Using Workforce, dispatchers are able to:

  • See the progress of each assignment
  • Filter by the status of an assignment
  • Understand where employees are located in relation to assignments

Beyond visualizing assignments at the dispatcher level, we can also use the ArcGIS Platform to create operations dashboards for higher-level staff in the organization. These dashboards allow you to configure key indicators, such as total work orders, graphs and maps. 

We can go further and perform analysis. Looking at the figure above, for example, we can see how the total work orders per employee translate into the total hours worked by that employee to determine if they’re being overworked. 

We can also leverage Tracker to determine the routes employees have taken and see where they have spent more time than not and visualize this information using heat maps.

We can overlay this heatmap with assigned stops to see if there is a correlation with those assigned stops.

Lastly, we are able to visualize service routes and see if employees have come in close contact with customers by overlaying service routes with customer locations. This helps organizations take precautions to ensure the safety of their employees and ensure business continuity.

About the Author

Josh Triantafilou

Josh Triantafilou is a marketing specialist with Esri Canada. He makes it easy for people to find and evaluate products and services relevant to them. Josh is interested in the power of GIS to make sense of the world and affect meaningful, positive change within it.

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