The County of Grande Prairie digitally transforms field operations, streamlining workflows and unlocking efficiencies to improve their weed inspection service.
With large areas to cover and limited resources at their disposal, many small to medium-sized regions and municipalities are challenged with outsized responsibilities. Identifying and capitalizing on ways to improve efficiency can help such organizations boost productivity and provide services more effectively. The County of Grande Prairie’s Agricultural Department understood this when they embarked on their mission to digitally transform their weed inspection program. More specifically, the County sought to leverage mobility and GIS technologies to streamline workflows and enhance efficiencies to ultimately improve the service.
Surrounded by boreal forest in northwestern Alberta, the County of Grande Prairie comprises 5,802 square kilometers — roughly the size of Prince Edward Island — and is home to 22,000 residents. Rich in natural resources, the County boasts many industries including Forestry, Agriculture, Energy, Manufacturing and Tourism. As such, the County of Grande Prairie provides rapidly expanding opportunities for growth.
In a large rural area, the proliferation of weeds is an inevitable challenge for everyone. For the County, however, keeping stubborn and prolific weeds under control is a responsibility. As per Alberta’s Weed Control Act, the County is obligated to do so. Yet with only nine inspectors in the Department to carry out these inspections over thousands of kilometers of agricultural fields, residential and industrial areas as well a roadside in a region roughly the size of an entire province, this is no easy task.
Historically, the County relied on a heavily paper-based process in conjunction with the use of multiple pieces of equipment such as laptops to perform inspections. While this process worked, it was necessarily time-consuming. Inspectors had to shuffle between multiple applications and tabs on their laptops to access essential information, such as the landowners in a given area. To identify weed inspection locations, they had to consult paper maps or open up yet another tab in their browsers. Once on-site, inspectors then needed to fill out paper forms by hand, which requires carefulness and thus time to prevent errors. Finally, when the fieldwork was finished, inspectors were needed back at the office to manually enter their findings into the County’s electronic filing system. Simply working faster was not sufficient or realistic for speeding up this process; instead, the process itself required transformation.
To achieve their overarching goal of streamlining their process, the County of Grande Prairie identified a number of requirements their future solution would need to satisfy. These were:
- Eliminate the need for paper forms and maps
- Enable inspections on mobile devices
- Include photographs with location
- Allow form fields to be auto-filled with property information
- Save and download inspection results to the County’s electronic filing system
- Reduce the time inspectors spend in the office
The team behind setting these objectives and designing a solution to meet them was made up of Kristen Milburn, GIS Analyst, and Tracelle Hinze, Agricultural Officer, with support from Sonja Raven, Agricultural Fieldman. Already using ArcGIS Enterprise, the team decided on ArcGIS Collector (now part of ArcGIS Field Maps) and ArcGIS Survey123 Connect to build two interrelated applications: A Weed Inspection application to facilitate inspections throughout the County and a Weed Survey application to identify and track trends. Inspectors use iPads for both applications. This practice eliminates the need for paper and consolidates navigational and inspection functions onto a mobile device. As such, inspectors are unburdened from having to carry out laptops and switch between multiple tabs and applications.
Weed Survey Collector Map with Layers
For the Weed Survey, a map within Collector is used to identify weed problem locations and capture information. Collector also allows inspectors to view layers pulled from basemaps and perform searches as needed. In addition, the Weed Survey from Collector is included as a layer in a separate web-map application built using ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS WebApp Builder. This tool allows inspectors to filter by weed year and type. The tool is useful for looking at changes over time and planning future initiatives.
Basemap and weed survey collection points
Clicking on parcel layers within the map opens a popup to give more information about that parcel. This popup provides a button that enables users to easily navigate to the Weed Inspection survey on Survey123 via a custom URL—a big improvement over switching between multiple browser tabs and applications.
Parcel information pop-up
Survey123 is used to create a form that captures more detailed information during inspections. This includes the time, dates and locations of inspections, information related to the owner of a given area of land, and response due dates. URL parameters allow data about the selected parcel layer to be automatically pulled from Collector into Survey123 and populated in the relevant fields. Inspectors can also include pictures using Survey123. Once all the required information is gathered, the inspector provides a digital signature and submits the form. Microsoft Power Automate is then used to send an email to inspectors with follow-up dates and actions.
When field inspections are completed, feature reports are generated in a Microsoft Word-based template, which is uploaded to Survey123. The template is then used to export reports on each inspection in PDF format. All of the pertinent information gathered in the field is automatically translated into this report, including photographs. Moreover, reports can be updated multiple times before exporting, allowing inspectors to quickly make changes without having to start a new report. Once a report is completed, it is saved to the County’s electronic filing system. At this point, the inspection is complete.
The County is enjoying major success from the two applications. Tracelle Hinze’s description of the new process reflects the positive feedback from the wider inspection team when she says, “Being able to do our inspections online has made our job so much easier. We are using less paper for starters. We have reduced our time in the office as our tax roll loads straight into our reports. Our location is recorded on-site and we are able to add pictures to the report.” In terms of metrics, the improvement is clear and significant. The two applications increased efficiency by 45% in the first year of the roll-out which grew to 60% in the second year. In raw numbers, this translates into approximately 300 more reports filed per year.
Tracy Archibald, Business Solutions Leader, Systems credits part of the team’s success to the organization of their department. “We were fortunate because our GIS professionals are not siloed in a separate department like transportation or planning but part of the Information Systems team. This allowed us to realize an agile project management approach and respond quickly and effectively to feedback. It also allows support from programmers and Information Technology specialists in a much more efficient manner.”
The Agricultural Department intends to go even further to iterate and improve their design. “In terms of next steps, we plan to gather feedback from users and introduce more automation. The team has already made strides in their ability to provide status reports and automate follow-up date reminders. “In terms of next steps, we’d like to automate feature report downloads from Survey123 and automate notices sent to landowners,” says Kristen Milburn. Given their success so far, the Department is well-positioned to deliver on these goals.