Watchers and Alerts: renewals, assets and maintenance defects

Software applications need to offer proactive management tools to enable users to cope with ever-increasing data volumes. Effective measures are needed to minimise the financial and non-financial costs of missing important events such as renewals or critical data changes.

Integrating proactive alert functionality, such as email, into an application is a key aspect of improving data management. These days this isn’t rocket science so we decided to make sure that our email integration provides more than a simple reminder service.

Maintenance triggers and alerts
Maintenance triggers and alerts

Key Deliverables

  • Monitor expiration dates – such as renewals for insurances, leases, certificates or vehicle taxes.
  • Provide alerts when other users create, update or relocate specific records to a new position. For example, when defects of a particular priority are created or assets of a particular type are installed.
  • User customisable trigger events including when alerts are triggered.
  • User customisable email content.
  • Enable records to be automatically updated by triggers, such as, setting a date or changing a record’s status.
  • Create chained events so that trigger events can in turn trigger later ones.

How does it work ?

  1. User definable query filters search for records of interest based on any attributes. For example, all records created after a particular date, or all records of a particular type, such as vehicle leases, due to expire in the next 60 days; amounts, priorities or any other attribute data whether it be for documents (contracts, leases, insurances, certificates etc), assets or maintenance defects.
  2. Geo-location can also be used in searches. This allows the search to be restricted to particular areas of a site or building allowing the software to let users know when data in specific areas triggers an event. For example, this allows the installation of new assets to be automatically tracked improving performance monitoring.
  3. Watchers are then created which automatically apply the filters. Watchers allow the user to:-
    • Define the events a user Is interested in tracking such as creating, updating and changing the location of a record or simply check for expiring dates and renewals.
    • Define the frequency with which the software should check for events.
    • Enable users to define their own customisable email messages adding to the information in the email the software generates.
    • Send the email to one or more recipients.
    • Watchers can undertake a number of optional tasks:-
    • Perform updates as an event is triggered. For example update a date field to show when a reminder was sent or automatically change the status of a record;
    • Create an event as a result of a previous event being triggered. This powerful process creates chains of events or actions;
    • Create activities – maintenance defects can automatically trigger an activities action for a contractor.

These features enable a comprehensive set of data events to be watched for and acted upon. Users responsible for their own site or facilities data are better empowered. Service providers managing their clients’ data, such as maintenance organisations, can automatically deliver added value communications enhancing their customer service.

Buried Services – making the invisible visible

Introduction

On the 2nd March the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) is hosting a seminar “Improving visibility and resilience of our Buried Service” because “there remains no central repository of data for buried services and underground apparatus, nor any consistent means of sharing it

The introduction of a data standard for underground assets is a positive initiative in facilitating information sharing. However a central repository isn’t the only option and this blog briefly considers a federated approach. A future blog will comment on a hybrid system.

Federated Systems

Centralised, national solutions have a chequered history of success whether for adoption in a single organisation or across multiple organisations each with their own priorities and pressures whether they are commercial, financial, legal or security related.

For example, many will remember the national CSRWR (Centralised Street and Road Works Register) which was due to be implemented across England and Wales before being cancelled. CSRWR was replaced by a standard communication protocol called ETON (Electronic Transfer of Notices).  ETON enables street works software developers, and organisations with their own systems, to exchange data directly among themselves – a federated environment.  Originally intended as a temporary solution it’s so successful it continues in use today removing the need for a central system.

Federated multi-academy maintenance data
Federated systems communicating over the web in an ETON style solution.

ETON is an example of coopetition competitors working together on a common cause while retaining the ability for them to innovate and compete for market share. This is good for industry and good for customers.

 

 

Another example of a federated approach is that used in Open BIM which uses IFC (Industry Foundation Classes) as an “open, neutral data format”. Open BIM:-

  • Supports standardisation
  • Maintains choice in the market for users as “small and large software vendors can participate and compete on system independent, ‘best of breed’ solutions.”
  • Doesn’t restrict competition nor innovation

These Open BIM principles could be the foundation for a federated systems approach to managing buried services and underground assets. As well as the physical exchange of data though we need to consider how some-one wanting information about a particular location would achieve that without a central system.

The answer is that data standards and protocols enable organisations to exchange information and make enquiries without needing to be initiated by, or routed through, a central system. This also has the advantage of retaining control of asset information within the federated systems (whether in-house or commercial products) which asset owners may prefer for commercial, security and other reasons. It also ensures there’s no single point of failure.

Finally, The ICE agenda also describes how a system could be – “Easily accessible and free, with charge-able data/services downstream”.  Our initial focus should be on the need for an open standard and not the commercial model for the implementation of a central system.  The private sector has led the way in the development of freemium services and some existing service providers already offer free at the point of access services in this sector.

We should keep the market open and let free market forces influence how suppliers offer their services. Customer choice should be maintained. I wouldn’t want to be at the behest of a single supplier determining chargeable services – would you?

Conclusion

A standard framework and protocol for data exchange will help make the invisible visible. The physical implementation of this standard is another consideration and other alternatives such as federated systems:-

  • Encourage a vibrant and disparate software and services industry;
  • Stimulate innovation
  • Preserve customer choice.

Positional Intelligence for Underground Assets

One of the challenges in subsurface utility engineering (SUE) is a lack of reliable positional intelligence about underground assets. Where are they, and once located, what information do we have about them. Better positional intelligence leads to safer and more effective working practises which in turn improve the bottom line.

“Daylighting”, defined in CI/ASCE 38-02, is the highest level of accuracy, providing information on the vertical and horizontal positions of underground utilities and attributes such as type, size, condition and material.

Tagging underground utilities
Tagging underground utilities

Daylighting is an apt term as it implies bringing greater clarity to underground asset data.  While we cannot physically raise assets above ground to bring them into the daylight we can take steps to ensure data is visible, accessible and current thus improving the positional intelligence available to us.

A life cycle approach to improving positional intelligence requires data from site plans and surveys (e.g. from CAD), on site (as built / as maintained) data, asset and maintenance management systems and Geographical Information Systems (GIS). A key dependency is asset location.

Locating Underground Assets

Missing or inaccurate location records result in issues such as increased service strikes; heightened risks to health and safety and increased works costs. The location of underground assets can be recorded using a single method or several to reflect the degree of accuracy required; level of risk; budget and time available. For example:-

  1. Passive Remote Frequency Identification (RFiD ) – with or without GPS
  2. GPS
  3. Geo-tagged photographs
  4. Engineering survey methods such as GPR.
  5. Textual descriptions including attributes facilitating integration into other systems e.g. datum and node points and section details along a pipe.

PAS 128 “Specification for underground utility detection verification and location” references the potential use of RFiD for tagging underground assets. RFiD tags can cost effectively and accurately mark potential areas of failure such as joints or valves. Data associated with a tagged asset can be stored in the cloud. This is vital to ensure data is accessible; there’s little point in burying a tag and its vital asset information.

Accessibility is enhanced in an intuitive, visual context. For example, AltoSUE™ uses a geospatial cloud based database and maps and / or site survey plans provide locational context. Overlaying data on site plans is invaluable as the map detail may not be accurate nor up to date for construction use.  An output from a PAS128 survey will be a CAD plan of the utility services. Making these plans available on mobile devices overlaid with tagged asset data as well as the ability to use background maps enhances on site working.

Tagged underground asset portal
Tagged underground asset portal

Integrating on site and cloud based technologies improves the efficiency of data recording and sharing.  Collect using tablets or smartphones; upload to the cloud and make it available to on and offsite users immediately or with minimal delay.

Data Convergence

The positional intelligence of underground assets is enhanced by enabling other records to be easily accessible on and offsite such as:

  • project information
  • engineering records
  • health and safety
  • risk assessments
  • 3D data

3D models add value to the repository of underground asset data. However, treat these with caution as they often represent ‘as designed’ states; not the ‘as built’ nor later ‘as maintained’ states. The industry is still working towards practical and cost-effective solutions to the challenge of using 3D models with a variety of innovations under development and coming to the market. Keeping asset life cycle data current has always been a challenge and will become more so as Building Information Modelling (BIM) becomes widely adopted.

Conclusion

Better positional intelligence is fundamental to improving SUE. A holistic approach to managing underground assets requires a number of discrete but integrated processes:-

  • Identification of underground asset location via RFiD, geo-tagging etc
  • Capturing data on site
  • Managing and facilitating access to it on and off site
  • Supplementing on site data with other records e.g. site survey plans as well as maps and engineering data to aid with the quick and safe relocation of underground assets
  • Integrating SUE data into corporate systems for asset and maintenance management purposes

Daylighting our SUE data provides a safer working environment for on site workers; less disruption and more efficient and profitable works activities.

The themes in this blog are explored in more detail in our white paper – “Daylighting Underground Assets’ 

 

 

Better access to Facilities and Site Management Software

Facilities management (FM) professionals using manual processes or struggling with complex, functionally rich software need a new paradigm allowing easier access to software. Facilities and estate managers are responsible for a huge variety of estates varying in extent and complexity. Controlling the information associated with these estates is challenging.

Larger estates have more data to manage but typically have greater resources; smaller estates with less of a data management issue have fewer resources so that in relative terms the pressures are similar. For example, managing site records, infrastructure and asset data might be a part-time role as is common in the education sector.

To help manage the disparate needs of these sites a range of software solutions are available:-

  • Infrastructure site records management systems;
  • Maintenance and asset management systems;
  • Computer aided facilities management (CAFM) systems;
  • Document management systems;
  • Geographical Information Systems (GIS);
  • Computer Aided Design (CAD) software.

The above solutions tend to focus on medium to larger sized estates and provide substantial benefits from a management perspective. The required investment in consultancy, training, licensing and on-going support fees is worthwhile due to the complexity of these environments. However, site or facilities managers responsible for less extensive estates may find themselves disenfranchised from solutions. They will often tackle their site records management challenges using paper or manual processes or in-house systems based on e.g. Access® or Excel®.

A recent survey conducted by Facilities Management Journal (FMJ) and Causeway found that up to 65% of estates with 6-10 buildings use paper or manual processes to manage property data and even for those with 11-100 buildings just under 50% were managed manually (1).

The antithesis to this situation are those sites with the capacity to adopt solutions but find themselves with systems which are over complex. As the complexity of requirements increases so does the sophistication of the software as illustrated in figure 1.

Facilities Management Software Solutions
Fig 1: Facilities Management Software Solutions landscape.

Manual / paper based  – No systems in use.

Entry level – Some degree of software used to ease management typically through in-house means e.g.  Access®, Excel® etc

Med-Tier – Greater use of software whether more developed internal software or the use of commercial packages.

Enterprise Tier – Large estates, complex data management requirements within a complex IT environment necessitates the use of complex commercial packages.

For some estates this creates a dynamic where the software becomes too complex for their needs which results in functional redundancy as parts (or all !) of the software isn’t used. The worst case scenario is when the software drives the business and not vice versa. Processes and work flows become complicated by the software – not as a result of a business need. They become more complicated simply because they can.

However, a new paradigm encompassing several factors is now available to help site and facilities managers:-

  • innovative technology;
  • flexible design;
  • short and simple implementations;
  • using the cloud as a delivery mechanism, and
  • flexible commercial terms

This new paradigm reduces entry-level barriers to software adoption. Previously disenfranchised users now have the option to consider software solutions because the factors above have created a new solutions landscape. For example, those managers dependent upon manual and paper processes can now gain access to solutions scaled and fit for their purpose.

Equally, those with a need to manage sites on a temporary basis e.g. over several months on a construction site can now access software quickly and efficiently. Site records and the location of critical underground infrastructure, whether permanent or temporary, is sharable between client, contractors and sub-contractors.

Interestingly, managers also have a wider degree of choice. A choice which means they could even consider downsizing from an overly complex or expensive solution to one more appropriate to their requirements and without inherent lock-ins.

(1)     “Managing the state of the estate”, FMJ, Causeway, September, 2014

Site Records Management Video

Illustrating the key concepts of our site records solution for site and facilities managers required an explainer video. How did we arrive at this decision and what lessons did we learn ?

Site and facilities managers work in a complex environment. They manage a vast array of data ranging from site survey data and plans through to health and safety records, risk assessments, assets, inspections and defects etc.

Asset and Maintenance data
A diverse range of Asset and Maintenance data

Maintaining site records for compliance with statutory regulations as well as for operational reasons is vitally important. Given the challenge of these responsibilities how best to explain AltoSites™ a cloud based solution managing this data ?

A picture speaks a 1,000 words so a short explainer video ought to say a lot more. Watching a quick insight into a solution or product is extremely useful when trying to quickly understand whether something is relevant to your needs. So we decided to use an explainer video to showcase the key benefits and features of AltoSites.

Key factors for our video

  • Our industry and the managers maintaining sites and facilities

A key challenge was deciding what to include and what to leave out. What information does a viewer need to see to help decide whether AltoSites deserves further consideration ? For us the challenge was how to convey the simplicity and ease of use of AltoSites whilst illustrating its key benefits.

We decided to focus on the visual use of maps and CAD plans within a browser environment upon which site records and assets are managed.

For many site and facilities

Floor plans and asset managemen
Floor plans and asset management

managers this is the first time they will have had access to this level of visualisation. The ability to use maps and CAD plans interactively to locate and query data without expensive third-party software whether you’re in a built environment or on a new construction site provides significant benefits.

  • Video design and imaging

Having decided on the content how best to show this within the video ? A search on the web quickly revealed many styles ranging from 2D or 3D cartoon character type approaches; white board simulations and graphics through to real life filming.

We’re in a business to business not a business to consumer industry. We felt that our viewers needed a professional and intelligent approach which didn’t risk trivialising site records management.

We discounted the cartoon based imagery often led by a character, as potentially being inappropriate and distracting. The white board videos are good for presentation style videos but lacked the ability to give insight into the real software.

Managing defects on a plan and map
Managing defects on a plan and map

We opted for a graphical representation which follows the concepts and workflow used within AltoSites combined with a professional voice over and the non-intrusive use of music in the background.

Key Lessons Learned

  1. Focus – identify the key messages you need to convey
  2. Prototype – test ideas and flow with storyboards
  3. Balance – the script is as important as the visuals
  4. Brevity – 1:30 – 2 minutes in length is generally acceptable which means at most 250 – 300 words  (this was a challenge !)
  5. Flexibility – be ready to accept changes in direction or emphasis as your concept and ideas develop – ensure you have this flexibility built into your project costs and timelines.
  6. Coherence – ensure there’s consistency between messaging, graphics, brand, voice over and music. No single element should compete with others for attention.

Our AltoSites’ explainer video is here and end of screen credits and thanks go to:-

The $64million dollar question is what did you think of our video ?!

Site Infrastructure Records – Something for Nothing ?

Among the challenges faced by facilities managers, site managers, bursars and school business managers responsible for looking after site infrastructure are how to:-shutterstock_142560139 (1)

  • Maintain control of site infrastructure records;
  • Search and access records quickly and efficiently, and
  • Maintain backups of site data.

Ideally these challenges should be met without incurring unnecessary overheads in direct costs or additional time – effectively providing something for nothing. Within AltoSites we adopted a pragmatic approach to these challenges to minimise the draw on a manager’s time whilst providing significant benefits in terms of managing site infrastructure records. Let’s look briefly at each in turn:-

Maintain control of site infrastructure records

AltoSites provides a means to quickly and easily store records on a secure system whether that’s Word, Excel, PDF’s, Site or Floor plans etc.

Search and access records quickly and efficiently

    • AltoSites enables you to define your own data which can be used for search purposes – saving time when it comes to searching for information in the future.
    • Storing the physical records in a database enables you to do key word text searches within documents e.g. find all assets with associated documents containing the words ‘gas isolation’.
    • Locating records and documents on a map and/or site plan provides a clear visual context making them easier to see and understand.

      Clusters of data on a map
      Clusters of data on a map
    • AltoSites exposes the valuable data in site and floor plans for use within a browser alongside all of your other asset and infrastructure site records. For example, switch layers of data on and off such as those related to gas, water and electrical utilities.
    • CAD Floor plan in a browser - layers with overlaid defects
    • You can define your own spatial search areas. This is more than searching for data relating to Building A, 2nd Floor, Room 5. It means providing the ability to create a polygon area on a site which could include multiple buildings or buildings and external estate and then retrieving assets and infrastructure site records within the bounding area.
    • Finally – we provide a means to combine one or more of the above options for more advanced searches.
    • Spatial polygon defect search across a CAD floor plan
      Spatial polygon defect search across a CAD floor plan

Maintain backups of site data

Routine backups of your PC’s documents directory or shared drives maybe being undertaken (are they ?!) but how often are the backups stored offsite for ease of access in a disaster or emergency ? If you have a Site Disaster and Emergency plan is that easily accessible off site ? AltoSites provides this by default through virtue of being cloud based – meaning that no extra effort is required on your part because as you use the system your data is implicitly being secured on the cloud.

Something for nothing ?

Well not quite but not far off. Being able to manage your site’s data in the way described above helps you operationally and also ensures critical information is being securely stored offsite giving you additional benefits. This is important whether your site has tens or thousands of site infrastructure records to manage.

Good Morning Vietnam !

As Robin Williams said and I’m sure we’ve all seen our share of other films depicting Vietnam from years ago.

With these images in my mind and news stories of a

eTown HCMC
eTown Ho Chi Minh City

vibrant emerging economy I was intrigued to be invited by Harvey Nash (HN) and NashTech (NT) to visit their Offshore Development Centre (ODC) based in e Town in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

Truth be told many years ago, as a development manager, I had the opportunity to jump on the outsourcing bandwagon. However, whilst there were considerable savings in daily rates to be made five key concerns led me to decide not to follow suit:-

  • As a commercial off the shelf software company concerns over IPR protection;
  • Cultural and domain expertise concerns – WYSILWYG – What You Specify Is Literally What You Get (without any thought or suggestions from the offshore developers);
  • Outsourcing developer and business IPR never seemed a good idea to me. The development team’s strength is its business and domain knowledge as well as its technical skills;
  • Rotation of offshore staff across multiple clients potentially limited the ability to build up basic knowledge of my business which was important in terms of efficiency and quality deliverables;
  • How to effectively manage the offshore organisation potentially 1,000’s of miles away in a different time zone.

However, NT offer an intriguing model combining offshore NT and onshore client resources. Given Altuity’s specialised focus on cloud and mobile based site records and asset management software such a model was worth considering.

With nothing to lose, but with potentially lots to gain, I and several other organisations went to visit the ODC. And to be honest having heard so much about Vietnam it was a perfect opportunity to satisfy an innate curiosity about the country and its people.

First impression upon leaving Ho Chi Minh City airport was one of surprise – not the under-developed, chaotic environment I’ve experienced elsewhere in some Asian countries and imagined to be the case in Vietnam. It was well developed; the main city infrastructure was properly maintained with lots of investment in evidence.

Opportunity for interactive discussions

Over several days we had presentations from UK clients on their experiences (all positive – even under after hours questioning at the bar away from HN / NT staff !).

HN UK and NT Vietnamese staff explained the offshore model, their approach, skills, culture and company ethos. We were given the opportunity to tour the project team offices and meet the teams within e Town.

This was no sweat shop operation (apart from when the Brits stepped outside).

It was good to appreciate that Vietnamese staff have all the benefits you’d expect from a responsible employer.

The Vietnamese are professional, open, friendly and technically skilled although frustratingly look remarkably young. I was reminded of the expression regarding policemen getting younger every year – the same is true of developers. However, did you know Vietnam has 10,000 IT graduates every year so maybe it’s not just me getting older…

The ODC is arranged in client focused teams with team members staying together on projects for clients over several years where needed.

It was interesting to see the teams developing a loyalty to their clients wearing for example branded T shirts and the clients often arranging and contributing towards work and social events for ‘their’ developers. These teams work in close collaboration and communication with their UK counterparts depending upon how the NT client wishes to operate. Sometimes, for example, testing was top covered in the UK. Larger clients might have their own staff on site whereas other clients worked completely remotely. To my mind core business knowledge is not lost and UK staff play a vital on going role in development.

NT, in the UK, manage the relationship with the client helping with technical and commercial communications. Importantly for Altuity, as a UK company, this means there’s a local ‘go to’ account manager and contracts are under UK law.

On a short tour of the city we learned about the American War (we were informed it wasn’t the Vietnam War); how re-education camps helped citizens to adjust and saw some of the iconic sites such as the buildings where the final US helicopters departed Saigon (as it was then). An evening river tour enabled us to see and experience more Vietnamese culture and food as well as understand how quickly the city is developing – particularly as part of the river tour through the city was similar to sightseeing in Tilbury docks.

Has my view of outsourcing changed ? Absolutely – if you want an on-going offshore capability that you can easily ramp up (or down) the ODC model is worth considering and Vietnam as a business and technical environment is a strong contender. I’m considering its use in Altuity as we expand our spatial site records and asset maintenance and asset management capabilities over the cloud and on mobile devices. We’ll be able to invest in UK developers and offshore staff.

If you’d like more information on NashTech click here

Simplicity from Complexity

For my first blog I thought I’d explain the rationale behind one of Altuity’s key approaches to business – simplicity from complexity.

We live in a complex, interconnected world. However, this complexity isn’t always needed – we inadvertently complicate it ourselves or others complicate it for us and yet beneath the complexity we’re often striving to do a relatively simple task.

 

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”

Leonardo da Vinci

For example, look at a remote control for the television. What was once a simple device has become multi-functional and multi-purpose whereas all I want to do is change channels. When I use Office products such as Excel or Word – I might use 50% (?) of their functionality and for me that 50% is more than sufficient. Unfortunately I can’t just pay for the 50% I do use.

The same complexity exists in management systems.  Enterprise level solutions are perfect for enterprise level problems. Some organisations need the complexity and rich functionality these offer to satisfy demanding needs. However, other organisations facing the same challenges but on a smaller scale do not require that complexity leaving them with software over complicated for their needs; or software too simplistic or a dependency on manual processes leaving them disenfranchised from systems entirely.

Some functionality offered in enterprise level solutions would be of significant benefit to these disenfranchised organisations. For example, the ability to manage data spatially in a map based environment but without the need for a Geographical Information System (GIS). Or the ability to use as built / site survey plans, created in Computer Aided Design (CAD) software, in a browser to locate site data rather than being restricted by delivery in a PDF format.

How can we open up software to help these users and make inaccessible software functionality available to them without needing to invest in systems which are over-complex and expensive ? How can we do this in a way which simplifies this functionality by focusing on the key fundamentals of what our users want to do without unnecessary compromise ?

Seeking this ‘Simplicity from Complexity‘ is what challenges, excites and motivates us every day at Altuity. I hope you’ll join us on our journey to avoid unwanted complexity.