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GIS is all in the mind

Better asset data will be key as the industry strives to keep customer bills down. But can the mindset of field workers adapt to an innovative approach in data management?

Field workers are using a mobile GIS application running on laptopsField workers are using a mobile GIS application running on laptops

Severn Trent Water wanted to improve the accuracy of its network asset data to avoid any impact on service delivery. By introducing an innovative approach using mobile GIS (Geographical Information System) from Esri UK, asset data is now becoming more complete and reliable, allowing better network management, helping to prepare for Open Water and contributing to Severn Trent offering the lowest average combined household water bills in England and Wales.

The quality of asset data at Severn Trent Water had been declining over time, which was affecting service delivery. Like many water utilities, historic data was not always found to be correct, while the manual method of working with data meant it was not easy to rectify errors, so changes were not being done consistently.

The process relied on using sketches and hand-written annotations, which then had to be returned to the office and digitised before being added to the central asset register. Another downfall of this lengthy system was that errors could sometimes be unwittingly introduced. Projects to improve asset knowledge had also only taken place every few years, to coincide with AMP cycles, for example.

Mindset
Severn Trent’s innovative approach now makes it possible for its 1,100 field workers to confirm, correct or collect asset data for the first time, using Esri UK’s GIS software to automatically update its asset database.

To pave the way for the new mobile GIS system, first Severn Trent had to change the mindset of all field engineers, including contractors. A programme was created to promote the benefits of them taking ownership of asset data and illustrated how they could make a difference. By showing what had previously gone wrong when asset data was the root cause of a network problem, it was designed to help staff understand the consequences of ongoing poor data quality.

Another key factor was explaining how improvements in the accuracy of asset records would also make their day-to-day jobs easier and less frustrating. As a result, staff now feel empowered to do something about the accuracy of asset records and want to make changes so colleagues and the business as a whole can benefit.

Today, field workers are using a mobile GIS application running on laptops, created using Esri UK’s GIS software, so they can generate asset data on a map in real-time, as they carry out work around the network.

The mobile GIS links seamlessly with the central asset register, which has led to 12,000 updates being fed automatically into the database every month, without any manual intervention. These critical updates are immediately visible and usable by Severn Trent’s staff and external users, which total around 4,500 every day. A further 1,200 more complex changes are processed by office-based technicians before being added.

Breaking with the norm, Severn Trent introduced a ‘confirm the data is right’ option, to validate any existing asset information that is found. This was in addition to the traditional correction of any data errors, along with collecting any missing data.

The new working practices have been live for a year and are already dramatically improving the accuracy of asset data, as Steve Allen, GIS manager at Severn Trent Water, explains: “The direct benefits of the new approach are measured in terms of time, cost and quality. Nine out of ten updates field workers make, are now instantly visible to all staff – from engineers to senior management and, as this now happens automatically using GIS, it also saves on cost. In addition, data quality is improving all the time, as there is now a robust and reliable system in place to manage this. Overall, the solution involved achieving a fine balance between people, process and technology.”

Proactive work
The ability to confirm how often data is correct has also given Severn Trent management a valuable way of measuring its confidence in existing asset information, which was not possible before. This is helping inform where additional, proactive work is needed on the network to add missing data or correct old records.
In terms of benefits to the business overall, the cost of not creating the new approach is immeasurable, as Allen continues: “By increasing the accuracy of asset data, we have a better view of the network and can manage it more effectively which improves service delivery.

"From planning, maintenance and emergency response, to achieving water quality and sewer flooding ODIs, having better asset data is invaluable. Ultimately it contributes to Severn Trent offering the lowest average combined household bills and delighting our customers every day with the service we provide.”

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