Asset managers crave location data

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Harvest time at the vineyard

As resources manager at Scheid Vineyards, Greg Gonzalez is focused on the next harvest. He needs to put equipment in place when the grapes are ready and the weather is right. It's a chess game complicated by the location of the company's assets: 146 harvesters, sprayers and trucks to tend to 4,200 acres at 10 vineyards spread over a 70-mile stretch around Monterey and Salinas, Calif.

Vineyard crews play a central role in knowing what's going on in the field, and since 2010, the company has been analyzing machine data and tracking activity using the Geoforce application. GPS transmitters using CDMA cellular service tell workers where the vineyard's harvesting equipment is. Accelerometers record how they move. Other sensors record weather conditions and sugar readings in select vines.

scheid vineyards riverview image Scheid Vineyards

The Riverview vineyard at Scheid Vineyards.

Taken together, the results allow managers to evaluate operations: Where and when to move heavy harvesting machines. What harvester movements and idle times say about the efficiency of the machines and their operators. When usage patterns show it's time to get a mechanic to check on equipment.

Because Geoforce offers mostly text readouts, Gonzalez says the company decided to test out real-time map views. The vineyard's using a GeoEvent application for Esri's ArcGIS that renders Geoforce HTML-based data into a dashboard so managers can more easily evaluate operations.

"In agriculture you are doing a lot of reacting to Mother Nature," Gonzalez says. There's a big difference between the growing conditions at Hames Valley, where temperatures can hit 130 degrees, and those in the Soledad region, "where maybe it tops out at 88. So managing your resources based on your areas and getting things done efficiently and timely is a big key to profits when it comes to harvest."

Black-box sensors monitor driver performance and safety

Al Powell, the department of transportation fleet manager at Express Energy Services in Houston, can't see all 1,200 vehicles he's supervising. But that doesn't mean he isn't watching.

drill site rentals Express Energy Services

Express employs drivers and operators for trucks, tractors and specialty equipment engaged in testing and drilling oil wells, laying pipelines and plugging wells when they are done. The company uses a map-based dashboard from Fleetmatics, which installs a black-box-like telematics device in each vehicle. The GPS sensor and accelerometer detect location, log speed and directional headings, and relay data every 90 seconds while a vehicle is in motion; the system also records trends over time. Fleetmatics displays vehicle location data on a Web-based dashboard using Google Maps and also shows Street View imagery.

From his dispatch center in Houston, Powell can direct vehicles to where they are needed among the company's 31 sites in six states, whether it's the well-testing center in Montgomery, Pa., or the plugging operation in Houma, La. In addition, Powell uses Fleetmatics reporting functions to assess driver performance and to manage risks associated with severe weather.

For example, Powell says, by correlating weather reports and forecasts with vehicle locations, the company can warn drivers when Texas heat reaches into the triple digits, or when it's 30 below zero on the North Dakota plains.

And the system can tell him whether drivers are operating effectively. Heavy use of truck brakes at the wrong time of day -- say 1 a.m., as opposed to rush hour -- signals a problem. Poor driving habits waste fuel. Drivers are rated monthly on a 100-point scale, and anyone who scores below 85 gets invited to a meeting. "I run an operation where the facts are the facts, and the bottom line is [that driver] should not show up on the list next month," he says.

Powell credits the fleet management system with reducing fuel purchases by about $110,000 per month.

Asked about learning to use the system, Powell says: "I would say the only training you need is common sense."

Citizens' assets

Most of us don't think much about the pipes that feed our faucets or the traffic light on the corner unless something goes wrong. For public sector managers like José Colon of Washington, D.C., and James Bates of Louisville, Ky., the job is to prevent problems. And they have works in progress to update long-standing processes using IT systems to harness GIS capabilities.

For Bates, manager of infrastructure records at the Louisville Water Company, new capabilities mean extending the utility's GIS system that tracks the locations and conditions of 4,150 miles of water mains. New functions will manage additional assets like plant facilities, pumping stations and water tanks. Louisville Water is working on a data collection and management project that will feed a new Oracle work order and asset management system tied to its Esri GIS applications, part of a general IT modernization at the utility, Bates says. More data, well managed, is expected to yield important returns.

The objective: Establish a lifecycle asset costing system that ties work performed to assets managed. Bates says: "We should be able to ask the question, 'How much did we spend last year doing maintenance on a particular type of hydrant? Does that work cost us too much, or do we need to replace them?'"

dc dot

The Washington, D.C. Department of Transportation at work.

In Washington, the inspection of assets is all above ground. Two years ago, the D.C. Department of Transportation invested in street-level imagery of public streets and alleys. The images, collected by Cyclomedia, gather data on street conditions, signs, lighting, parking meters and more, and are accurate to a scale of 5 centimeters. (Faces and license plates in the images are blurred out.)

Colon, the department's CIO, says that by integrating the Web-based Cyclomedia data service with his agency's GIS system, the District can improve city planning and public safety while saving staff time for inspections and field visits. Inspectors can preview sites where there has been a zoning complaint or injury claim, becoming familiar with the location so they can save time on their investigation and reporting, with the goal of improving service for the public. Planners can view locations of crosswalks, checking for wheelchair ramps. Event managers can map out the best spots for first aid tents, traffic control and emergency vehicle access.

Having collected this data, the agency now has a baseline inventory of the assets it manages -- from parking meters to street lights, speed bumps to wheelchair ramps to crosswalks. The District saves time and money by categorizing asset location data from an office rather than sending workers in the field to help figure out where everything is.

Colon says the system alters existing workflows for employees, who are called on to bring a smartphone or tablet to record new images so staff can compare before and after photos. The agency receives 250,000 service requests a year and has filled 40,000 potholes so far in 2014.

"We've seen a change in the culture of our agency. People are starting to accept the technology and devices and hardware. The next piece is training the folks, doing the necessary handholding so you make the training process easy for them," Colon says.

Going forward, there's even more potential for using GIS models, says Dennis Wuthrich, CEO and founder of Farallon Geographics, a San Francisco-based GIS consultancy that has worked on asset management projects including cultural heritage assets. As the volume of machine data grows, today's tools also open up new possibilities for semantic data models that can, for example, track relationships among multiple material things and management systems.

"What we are really starting to think about now are including semantic models embedded in these geospatial representations of assets, so that we can support more interoperable data sets," Wuthrich says. In other words, businesses will be able to correlate things in the physical world (tangible assets) with other kinds of data, and those different data sets will be able to communicate with each other.

Take, for instance, engineering systems that describe a network of pipes or railways or electricity transmission lines, and the financial systems that describe the operations of a business. Getting the two to talk to each other automatically would open up new areas of analysis and understanding.

Wuthrich says, "We may need to start incorporating semantics into our models so that as we integrate [GIS assets] with another line-of-business system, machines can start to do the reasoning between different domains, like financial resources versus engineering resources."

Michael S. Goldberg is an independent business and technology writer and editor based in the Boston area. You can reach him at michaelscottgoldberg@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @michaelgoldberg.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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