The popular adage says a picture speaks a thousand words – and in the case of pothole reporting, the pictures sent by highways inspection and maintenance staff not only replace the need for words, they help to cut the administrative bind in the public sector and boost workforce productivity.
That’s the situation at Borough of Poole Council, where Simon Legg, street scene operations manager, says the organisation has benefited from replacing what was previously a manual, paper-based approach with a cloud-based, connected method of reporting potholes that uses Alloy, the asset management software system from technology specialist Yotta:
There’s now complete transparency of the work our inspection and maintenance staff are doing. You can interrogate every job in the system. It’s just open – that’s the key difference. Everything everyone does is visible now. The straight-through processing we have means our people in the field don’t have to waste time driving around looking for the next job. It’s pinned on a map and the details for the job are sent to their mobile devices.
Legg says the Alloy system – which replaces an over-reliance on text with an integrated approach to photographic evidence – has helped transform how the council undertakes highways inspection and maintenance work. Legg explains how Poole employees receive and process work in the field automatically via ruggedised Samsung Tab S2 and S3 devices:
Our highways inspectors receive a map of jobs, so they can select their work, walk the inspection route, pick up defects as they go and attach photographs. Once they’re happy they’ve finished that inspection, they close it and – within a few minutes – our maintenance teams can pick up that report. They can then see that new work alongside all other jobs they need to fulfil in the local area. They can also see the photographs associated with the work. And then they follow a similar process when they’re out in the field – they go to the job, plan their work at site, repair the defect, take photographs and close the job off, so there’s no paperwork for them to have to carry around.
Dealing with a burning platform for change
Poole started investigating how it might move towards this automated form of asset management in 2016. As the council analysed its options, Legg says it was recognised the organisation would need to take a fundamentally different approach to the paper-based method that had dominated until this time:
We had an older computer system from WDM that was between 12 and 15 years old. We were totally dependent on our inspectors working out in the field with laptops, coming back and docking them, and then – every morning – printing out any jobs that they’d raised on paper and placing them in someone else’s paper to sort through. Then you’d have these bits of paper that would represent the next job and which could be accidentally lost.
Governance provided another influencing factor for the move towards automation. Legg says there was a change in the code of practice for highways maintenance in 2016 and local authorities had to undertake thorough risk assessments. The council’s insurance company was also keen to receive photographic evidence of road repairs. Legg says the combination of an inefficient way of working and tough compliance requirements represented a burning platform for change:
We had to find a computer system that met our needs. There was no transparency of our end-to-end processes, from the work coming in to it being completed. We also wanted to get people out in the field, doing valuable work and fixing defects, not shuffling bits of paper. And we wanted to streamline our systems for these workers, so that people could record information far more easily. We’ve purposefully gone very heavily towards photographic evidence – and now our people don’t have to spend lots of time writing things down.
Refining the service for continual improvements
After a period of evaluation, Legg and his colleagues at Poole selected Alloy. The evaluation process took place through late 2017 and early 2018, during which time Legg and his colleagues assessed a range of alternative systems, including one from incumbent supplier WDM. However, Legg says Yotta came to the fore during the demonstration process. The team provided clear answers regarding implementation and the potential for long-term software developments. Legg says this proactive approach made a fresh change from his dealings with other IT vendors. As other line-of-business managers in the public sector have found, using the power of the cloud to purchase technology means having to deal with technology vendors – and this can sometimes be a painful process. Legg was relieved to find Yotta offered something different:
Suppliers often want to host and then control your data. You need to build your systems around their software solutions. We didn’t get that from Yotta. Instead, they said they’d provide a working platform to us – and whatever data we want to feed into the platform is up to us. There’s no predetermined stance on what our inspection and maintenance system needs to look like to suit their software. It’s built around what we want.
Contracts were signed in June 2018 and the Yotta system went live last November. Legg says the council continues to look for further refinements. The team at Poole has worked alongside Yotta to create integration between the Alloy platform and the council’s customer relationship management system, supplied by Firmstep. This system integration allows the public to visit a map on the Poole web site and to submit their own photographic evidence of potholes. The jobs being worked on by council inspectors are also pushed to the public-facing web site, so citizens have awareness of which potholes have already been recognised. Legg says the aim is to expand the approach over time to tackle other areas of infrastructure asset management, such as street lighting, and managing trees and green spaces:
We have all sorts of assets, such as litter bins, that could be brought into the asset management system. What the further extensions of that approach would require is approval to expand the service. Every use comes with a license cost and there’s data to migrate and format. It’s not a given that every asset will be recorded in the system, but there is an understanding that we’ve got an approach that works and it makes sense to push as many assets to the platform as possible.