By Scott Rogers
To stay competitive, a company must continually reinvent itself. Allegheny Power’s reinvention began in 1997 when the utility decided to replace its work management, outage management and AM/FM systems simultaneously. Once all of the enterprise systems were nearly complete, a mobile initiative was kicked into high gear. To fully realize the productivity gains established by Allegheny Power’s reengineering process, the mobile computing initiative had to be successful.
Allegheny Power’s mobile applications were designed with the target user in mind.
Productivity gains are the sought-after, but often elusive, desired outcome of every mobile initiative. Removing barriers, improving utilization, shortening the information chain, and providing timely access to essential information are the promises of mobile computing. The reality is that few utilities have executed mobile computing successfully. Doing it wrong is an easy process: By simply assuming that a repackaged back-end system will meet its mobile needs, a utility will find itself firmly on the slippery slope to failure. The project is likely to die a slow death in the pilot phase, never gaining the user acceptance required to go further.
Originally, Allegheny Power’s vision was rather straightforward-duplicate those portions of the existing office-based systems that collect job-related information. As it turned out, this vision was more difficult to implement than originally planned. Allegheny’s users were overwhelmed by the complexity and the number of steps required. The utility learned that it is impossible to take a large office-based system and mold it into a field tool.
Allegheny’s Mobile Solution
Failure was not an option. Allegheny Power’s new focus centered on choosing mobile applications designed with the target user in mind. In addition, the utility was careful to ensure that the implementation would scale to support 600 mobile users.
Linemen can view all field manuals within the PadWORKS applications.
The project began anew. After an extensive search, Allegheny Power selected PadWORKS from Utility Associates for the mobile work management application. Utility Associates is the utility focused spin-off of Pad Systems, and its expertise is known within the industry. By partnering with Utility Associates and using an established product, Allegheny hoped to avoid the pitfalls it had faced during its first foray into the mobile arena.
PadWORKS solved most of the problems encountered, and ultimately became Allegheny Power’s mobile work management application. First and foremost, the application was designed with the users in mind. The application’s graphical user interface (GUI) is very flat, meaning users do not have to drill down through dozens of windows and menus to get to the desired data. The flat GUI eases navigation and reduces training time. The software and data distribution server, which is a significant feature within the PadWORKS software, easily scales to Allegheny’s 600 users. In addition, the system architecture enables specific business rules to be added without vendor customization. When business processes change, the application is flexible enough to keep up. PadWORKS is also extensible. Allegheny Power was able to incorporate its online manuals into a stand-alone, integrated viewer that enables users to view the manuals in the field. The architecture also fits Allegheny’s long-range plan of having one user interface that houses all required mobile functionality.
Expanding the Solution
Building on its success, Allegheny Power decided to broaden its field initiative beyond work management. The utility selected and began working with MapFrame to provide GIS information to its field crews. WalkAbout Computer’s Hammerhead tablet computer was selected as the system’s mobile hardware component. Designed specifically for use in outdoor settings and weighing only about 3.5 pounds, this high-performance tablet computer can be used inside or outside a vehicle.
Linemen can view GIS information within the PadWORKS applications.
Initially, Allegheny Power viewed mobile GIS in a fairly narrow way. Getting a mapping system out to the field had become a priority because Allegheny’s Smallworld GIS did not have the capability to generate paper maps for field crews. The mobile mapping system needed to be more than a replacement for paper maps; it needed to provide the ability to access facilities data at the job site or quickly find an asset or specific geographic location. Still, the mapping functionality was to be a stand-alone application without any connection to outage management or mobile work management systems.
A potential stumbling block to implementing mobile mapping was data size. Although Allegheny Power is divided into service centers, the mobile technology team felt strongly that facilities data for the entire service territory should be available on each pen computer. Since the service territory is contiguous, there are times when it is extremely helpful to have access to data throughout the entire 29,000-square-mile area. In its native Smallworld format, though, the facilities database is approximately 35 GB-much larger than any mobile computer can handle.
One alternative was to simplify the format, but simplifying the format meant translating the information into a “picture only” format. To be effective, the mobile GIS needed to provide access to graphics and attribute data. To conquer this hurdle, the GIS data was compacted using a variety of compact data representation techniques. This resulted in a 450 MB database that resides on the mobile computer.
The mapping system, which was deployed in spring 1999, resulted in a highly flexible system that provides multiple ways to quickly find a location or an asset. For example, field crews can:
- Enter a structure or pole number and the system will zoom to the object;
- Display a circuit by selecting from a pull-down list of circuit names;
- Select a substation from a list and then display all circuits associated with that substation;
- Enter a street address and the map will zoom to it;
- Select a city or town name from a list and the system displays a map centered on that location;
- Locate a customer by their phone number or account number;
- Trace the circuit to provide electrical connectivity information.
Other useful features include the ability to display a detailed map of a selected area showing structures and their attributes (with compatible unit code, phasing information, etc.). This capability allows field crews to evaluate the relationship of structures to one another, a helpful feature in maintenance and repair activities.
Pole T528 can be brought into view by simply clicking on the Map Tab. The map automatically zooms to the appropriate area. Point T528 is then centered and the display zoomed to the appropriate level.
The mapping application’s prime source of landbase and facilities data was the Smallworld GIS. Since Allegheny also wanted address-matching capabilities in the field, however, a commercial street database from Geographic Data Technology was integrated with the existing data.
Allegheny Power’s field personnel prefer mobile mapping because it gives them access to task-specific information in an easy-to-use form. In addition to pull-down lists, “gestures,” simple marks made directly on the pen computer screen, are used extensively. For example, field crews can zoom in on a map by drawing a circle around the area of interest. They can zoom out by writing a “Z” on the screen. It is also easy to retrieve attribute data by tapping on a map symbol.
Gestures are fully supported. In this case, the view will zoom to the area encircled.
It was the success of mobile GIS that led Allegheny Power to think about taking field computing to the next level. An integrated field system with mapping as its backbone provides a spatial reference common to all applications. Whether repairing facilities, reporting job information or inspecting poles, users can quickly and easily access GIS data. In essence, the map viewing application “disappears” as a separate program, emerging, instead, as part of the larger task at hand.
Another benefit to integrating the various field applications is that it provides users with software that appears to be a single system instead of a group of separate programs. With a common interface, training and communications are much easier.
To further this goal, the MapFrame map viewing application was integrated into PadWORKS. With this high level of integration, crews are now able to leverage the mapping data to streamline the data entry requirements of the back-end work management system.
As hoped for, the new system is easy to learn and use, and is resulting in increased productivity in both the mobile settings and the back office. The major goals of the field initiative have been met.
Allegheny Power learned several lessons during this project. First, Allegheny learned it is important to find solutions designed specifically for the field. Trying to adapt a desktop solution to a mobile setting is frustrating. In addition, the expected results cannot be achieved if the application is not easy for field personnel to use.
Second, spatial data is an important foundation for almost every type of work done outside the office. The spatial character of the field-the “what” and “where” aspect of operations tasks-calls for the inclusion of facilities information to optimize the effectiveness of mobile applications.
Third, while integration is difficult, it is worth it. A single application with a common interface that conceals the complexity of the underlying programs will yield the best results in terms of true “people performance.” Plus, it takes significantly fewer company resources to both train personnel and gain acceptance for this new technology.
Would Allegheny Power do this again? Based on the results, yes. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that-at this time-no one vendor has all the answers, and none of the mobile computing elements comes in the form of an off-the-shelf solution. To succeed in developing an integrated field system, an organization must have the resources to manage all aspects of the project. It is also important to select vendors who are willing to work together and who share the utility’s vision that field automation is crucial.
Scott Rogers is Operation Systems Technology Manager at Allegheny Power. He can be reached at email@example.com.