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How Montréal used a field inspection app to save money, paper, gas and time

If, by changing technologies, you could save millions of dollars over the coming years and get your team working six times faster while also making their lives easier, would you do it? Learn how the City of Montréal’s Geomatics Division used a map, an app and a database to automate the inspection of over 6,800 geodetic and altimetric points on the Island of Montréal—and changed their workflow forever.

In late 2020, I got to talk to Youssef Smadi, a geomatics engineer in the City of Montréal’s Geomatics Division, over a Microsoft Teams call. I sometimes find it a little intimidating to chat with technical professionals: they have deep knowledge of their chosen fields, which can be daunting for a layperson. I’m not a professional land surveyor like Youssef, and it’s a highly technical profession that requires knowledge of geology, engineering, mathematics and other disciplines. I knew I needed to be prepared.

But when I got on that call with Youssef, my worries slipped away. Youssef has a calming presence, not to mention an enthusiasm around the land surveying profession that made it easy for me to follow along. His pride in the GeoSMART system, which took him and his team three years of solid work to develop and implement, is palpable. I found myself nodding along as he explained what he and his team went through to achieve the success they have.

Because it’s not just that GeoSMART helps land survey technicians at the City input the details of their inspections more easily. It’s not just that it simplifies a process that used to take reams of paper to complete.

It’s that GeoSMART will potentially save the City millions of dollars over the coming years in work hours, paper, gas and effort, using a system that can easily be replicated anywhere, given the right tools. It’s that it lets the City better control the inventory of an asset that will be worth millions of dollars in the future.

My interest was certainly piqued.

The backstory

To understand what makes GeoSMART so innovative, you need to know a little about land surveying. The Earth’s surface is constantly changing due to geological, climatic and even human forces, like cities infilling portions of lakes to create more land for future development. Land surveyors create the spatial reference and take precise measurements for these future developments. They work to keep an up-to-date record of the elevations (altimetry) and shape (geodesy) of the land so that buildings can be safely constructed, and so that property owners have an accurate knowledge of what’s going on with their lands. Geodesy and altimetry are even used by law enforcement professionals to examine crime scenes.

To take these measurements and to maintain accurate, up-to-date records, the City of Montréal’s land surveying technicians use a network of geodetic and altimetric points. These points, which consist of physical landmarks, namely medallions anchored on concrete pillars that are buried under ground and covered by manholes, can be found on structures or implanted into sidewalks. They act like the connections between the threads in a spiderweb. Land surveyors use them as the reference points for specific survey projects. If, for example, the City wanted to build a new recreational facility, they would hire a land surveyor to survey the proposed site, giving the designers of the facility a sense of the site’s elevations so that construction can proceed. The geodetic points also act as consistent anchors that make it easier for land surveyors to switch between coordinate systems like NAD 27, NAD 83 and NAD 83 (CSRS).

Knowing this really helped me understand why Youssef’s work is so important. A consistent, up-to-date map of the City’s geodetic and altimetric networks helps build safer buildings and gives the City a better knowledge of its own geography.

But it’s not that simple

Unfortunately, maintaining an accurate geodetic and altimetric map of the City has never been as easy as sending out a crew of technicians to take measurements and perform inspections. Like any infrastructure, sometimes the geodetic and altimetric points get damaged. Sometimes the manhole covers protecting them even get stolen or torn off by snowplows in the winter. Technicians are never just taking measurements; they also need to keep track of the state of each of the geodetic or altimetric points.

Not only that, but for many years before Youssef joined the City’s Geomatics Division and for many years after, getting measurements and tracking status was an ordeal in and of itself. For 15 to 20 years, everything was done manually. Before getting into a truck and driving out into the City to take measurements, a technician needed to prepare a set of paper reference documents and manually decide what trajectory to take. Once out in the field, the technician would take notes directly on these paper documents and on a series of forms. After the advent of smartphones, they’d also take photos. Then, after arriving back at the office, they’d upload the photos to their computer and transcribe the information about the inspection into an Excel file.

Before GeoSMART, this is what the City of Montréal’s technicians had to deal with every time they wanted to make even a small change to a geodetic or altimetric point’s status: a stack of paper files and manual transcription into Excel.

Because the information was in an Excel file, it couldn’t talk to information in other systems and it had to be updated manually. This made it difficult for technicians to know, just by looking at the columns and rows of data, whether someone else had already recently inspected a geodetic or altimetric point on their planned route. As a result, technicians were performing many unnecessary inspections.

“All in all, the extremely manual nature of our inspection process was losing the City countless hours of technician time and took enormous amounts of paper. That loss of resources is where the idea for GeoSMART originated. I knew that something more automated and streamlined would save the division lots of time. ArcGIS Collector allowed us to integrate our asset data with a work management system that helps our technicians.” —Youssef Smadi, M.Sc., QLS, P.Eng., Geomatics Engineer, Geomatics Division, City of Montréal

Youssef pondered potential improvements to the process for three long years. Ultimately, he decided to start by developing a graphical user interface. He did this as part of a larger project of migrating the geodetic update process to the City of Montréal’s portfolio from the provincial ministry which until then had overseen those updates. The graphical user interface allowed technicians to easily update the status and condition data of the more than 6,800 geodetic and altimetric points across the City.

GeoSMART’s graphical user interface, supervised daily by Youssef, allowed users to search the City of Montréal’s database of geodetic and altimetric points without having to go through rows and rows of data—but it still required technicians to undergo a highly manual data entry process.

This was a big step. It greatly helped technicians prepare to drive their trucks out into the field. At this point, however, GeoSMART still required the technicians to transfer their inspection information and photos into the interface manually from their paper records and phones.

So Youssef was left with a question. How to eliminate time wastage in the system without increasing the level of effort for technicians? What kind of solution could contribute to protecting the environment? And how to do this without compromising his professional responsibility as a professional land surveyor of the province of Québec, one who needed to provide an accurate, precise system of record for use by other land surveyors, civil engineers and architects?

A technological boost

To take GeoSMART to the next level, Youssef worked with a team of developers at the City of Montréal. Together, they used ArcGIS Pro, ArcGIS Enterprise and ArcGIS Dashboards to put each point—whether geodetic or altimetric, and including photogrammetric targets and surveying stations—onto an interactive map of the City. Each mapped point was then connected to its unique database entry. Anyone viewing this interactive map could then view relevant information about a point just by clicking on it.

This meant that technicians could—instead of sifting through a bunch of paper maps on their way out of the office—plan their routes using Google Maps.

Using a combination of Esri technologies, Youssef and the City’s team of developers mapped each point in the geodetic and altimetric networks. Now, users can interact with the networks onscreen to get relevant information more quickly than ever before.

Once they’d made the map interactive, the development team imported it into ArcGIS Collector. Collector is a mobile data collection app that, loaded onto a smartphone or tablet, allows the City’s land survey technicians to perform inspections in the field without needing to check documents in the office first. Everything is included in Collector, including their routes, the inspection forms they need to fill out and the datasheets that contain information about the points they’re about to inspect. The interactive map showing the geodetic and altimetric networks is also available within a dashboard.

The GeoSMART app within ArcGIS Collector allows technicians to confirm data about the City of Montréal’s 6,800+ geodetic and altimetric points with only a few touches on a smartphone or tablet. The system not only allows technicians to make the changes much more quickly than working with paper, but it also reduces the risk of errors being introduced when transferring data from paper to screen.

“The GeoSMART app made with ArcGIS Collector uploads the information our division’s technicians collect to a temporary database. This way I can, in my capacity as a professional land surveyor, QA and validate the technicians’ entries and inspection photos before the changes get fed into the database.” —Youssef Smadi, M.Sc., QLS, P.Eng., Geomatics Engineer, Geomatics Division, City of Montréal

The app also allows different staff to have access to different levels of information, meaning that only a professional land surveyor like Youssef can edit certain fields. This way, the City’s Geomatics Division can be certain that their information is correct—and Youssef is able to satisfy his professional responsibilities with ease.

Comments from the technicians have been really positive. They say it’s been a major improvement in their workflow. Youssef agrees; he refers to it as a dream come true.

Lots of prework, great result

Don’t be fooled by the excellent outcome though. This didn’t happen overnight. Youssef was very clear in our conversation that getting GeoSMART up and running was not simple, even using Esri’s time-saving tools. He and his team worked through issues from day one and were successful thanks to their teamwork—and their patience!

When the project started, there was no existing single source of data that Youssef’s team could use to feed the interactive map they were building. Youssef’s team had to build, collect data for and populate a new database of geodetic information from scratch. It was a huge investment of time and effort. The team had to set up triggers between data types, create tables, define columns, validate the data and clean it up—all of which took three years to complete.

Another challenge Youssef’s team faced was integrating GeoSMART’s database with the multiple systems they already worked with. These systems (Oracle, the Spatial Database Engine and FME Desktop) needed to be able to talk to one another and respond to changes in GeoSMART’s database, so links had to be established between each data point.

Validating symbology for the points on the map was also time consuming because it had to be done manually. Youssef went through all 6,800+ geodetic and altimetric points himself to decide how each one ought to appear on the interactive map. This took Youssef about two months.

All of this prework may have been a major investment of time and effort, but it was necessary. It enabled Youssef to achieve his dream of having an easy-to-use system that would save the land survey technicians time, while also reducing the chance of errors creeping in during manual data transcription.

A huge win for everyone

It took three years to transform what was once an extremely manual, labour-intensive and time-consuming process, but I could tell from our interview that for Youssef, those three years have really paid off.

“Having automated so much of the inspection process, I’m now able to manage the City’s geodetic and altimetric networks much more efficiently. Thanks to ArcGIS technology, we’ll save millions of dollars in the coming years. We save time, we save paper, we save gas, we protect the environment, the technicians are happier…” —Youssef Smadi, M.Sc., QLS, P.Eng., Geomatics Engineer, Geomatics Division, City of Montréal

Of course, it’s not just Youssef who benefits. The technicians themselves are happy to be using an application that has made their lives easier—and safer. During COVID-19, the app’s usefulness has become abundantly clear. Without it, the technicians would still need to head into the office to retrieve the stacks of paper needed to run their inspections. Now, all they need to do is tap a link to get access to the inspection form within Collector, then head directly to their next inspection site. This allows them to stay socially distanced and safe. (It also happens to save them time.)

Many professionals outside the Geomatics Division appreciate GeoSMART too, if not for its specific functions then for the possibilities it represents. Having shown GeoSMART off to others, Youssef says that similar ideas for functional time-saving systems are on the table as options in other City divisions. If GeoSMART can save the City millions of dollars over the years to come, imagine how many millions of dollars of effort will be saved if every division with a similar field task simplifies their inspection process this way!

As a bonus, GeoSMART also makes the City of Montréal’s inspection process more sustainable. If a technician looks at the mobile app and sees that a point on their route has been destroyed, they can skip it and go to the next, rather than driving all the way there only to find that inspection is impossible. So not only are technicians saving time, they’re saving gas, too. This, combined with the trees they’re saving by moving from paper-based systems to onscreen apps, all helps to reduce the City’s environmental footprint.

GeoSMART—soon transitioning to Esri’s new ArcGIS Field Maps—puts everything the Geomatics Division’s technicians need to record their inspections right in the palm of their hands.

The key takeaways

GeoSMART represents how perseverance can help improve working conditions for ordinary people. It represents years of collaboration within the City of Montréal’s Geomatics Division, including the land survey and survey expertise team, the geodesy, cartography and special survey team, the geomatics engineering team and the water inventories team, as well as with the app’s developers. And it represents what a few dedicated people can achieve if they’re willing and able to put in some hard work up front. Youssef is particularly grateful to his colleagues Samir Fertas, Valeria El-Samra and Marc Chikhani for their work on this project.

“Although our ArcGIS Collector app is for internal use only, the City plans to release the dashboard with the interactive map that we built using ArcGIS. Members of the public will be able to engage with the data and see the City’s geodetic and altimetric networks at a high level.” —Youssef Smadi, M.Sc., QLS, P.Eng., Geomatics Engineer, Geomatics Division, City of Montréal

The app is under constant development, with new features being added all the time as new needs surface. One item that Youssef’s working on is a pointer that will direct users to the point they’re looking for. He’s also working to add measurement tools and changing the scale bar unit on the dashboard to metric. He’s also looking to integrate a report- and datasheet-generating function into the dashboard. And of course, GeoSMART will soon be moving to ArcGIS Field Maps, which will unlock even more functionality for the team and make their jobs even easier.

There’s lots on the way for GeoSMART. More than anything else, though, Youssef hopes that GeoSMART will inspire other municipal departments in North America and around the world to seek new ways to manage their spatial reference systems.

I might not be a land surveyor myself, but I can certainly understand Youssef’s desire to improve conditions for his team, for himself and for his profession. Saving millions of dollars in time and effort really is just the icing on the cake.

Interested in improving your field operations?

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.

About the Author

Dani Pacey is a Marketing Specialist for Esri Canada. She digitized her first map at the tender age of 10 and has been fascinated by the relationships between people and places ever since. An avid technical communicator with degrees in Science & Technology Studies from York University and History of Science & Technology from the University of King's College, Dani has always blended science, social science and the humanities and loves bringing them all together to tell great stories about human life.

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