Steven Bradwell, Operations Change Manager at Electricity North West, reflects on how their mobile platform delivers benefits beyond the business case.
Over the past few years, utilities have come to understand the theory behind using mobile technologies to exchange data between the field and the back-office. Done properly, it can cut down on paperwork, boost productivity, increase data quality, and enable quicker, more useful analytics.
However, there’s often a certain amount of hesitation about how to put the theory into practice. Do you need to build an all-singing, all-dancing mobile platform that does everything for everyone from day one? Or is it safer to develop separate solutions for each part of the business – even if that leads to higher costs and complexity overall?
At Electricity North West, we took a different approach. We built the business case for our mobile solution around one specific problem: our need to demonstrate compliance with the Traffic Management Act. This required a solution that could capture data (mainly photos of the sites we are working on), store it centrally, and make it easy to retrieve.
The business case for the initial mobile rollout stood up on its own, just for this one use case – so we went ahead and deployed the solution. But we also made sure that the underlying mobile architecture would be flexible and extensible enough to support additional use cases, as and when new business needs arose.
The key was an approach called “intelligent scripting”, which allows us to develop and release new data collection scripts very rapidly, without any need to make changes either to our back-end systems, or to the mobile devices themselves.
In the case of the Traffic Management Act solution, this allowed us to get the basic mobile application up and running very quickly, and subsequently augment it with richer functionalities.
For example, as well as capturing photos, the app now also helps our teams log any pre-existing damage to the highway or surrounding area when they arrive on-site – which helps to protect us against expensive damage claims. It also allows them to record hazards and risk assessments, and gets the data to our health and safety team within 15 minutes – so we can respond much faster to mitigate risks. In both cases, these extra features deliver benefits above and beyond the original business case.
This flexible approach with intelligent scripting also helps us respond much more quickly to new requirements. For example, after a series of severe storms hit the UK over Christmas 2013, the business decided to change the way it responds to extreme weather events. Effectively, this meant we needed to build a new set of processes to help us reconnoitre incident sites and assess how best to deploy our field engineers.
When the steering group first met to decide how to build the new reconnaissance processes, the expectation of most of the stakeholders was that we’d create a new paper form for our 150 condition inspectors to fill in and send back to the central team for processing.
Instead, within two days, we built a prototype mobile script to collect and analyse the data in a much quicker, more consistent and more automated way. The steering group was absolutely delighted.
Generally, we are able to get scripts into production in four to six weeks – with no need to purchase any additional hardware or software, and no serious development work. All it costs is the time to write the script and train the users. So the business case for our mobile platform just keeps getting better, the more we do with it.
That’s the great advantage of a flexible mobile platform: you don’t have to make an all-or-nothing investment in a big-bang solution that covers every possible use-case from day one. And at the same time, you don’t have to buy, build and maintain a new system every time a new requirement arises. Intelligent scripting offers the best of both worlds, and the disadvantages of neither.
Find out more about how Electricity North West use Fieldreach to help them deliver a more responsive service to its customers.