End to End

Accela Asset Management lets government agencies and utilities manage multiple functions in a single, integrated software package

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Digital information greatly simplifies and streamlines management of municipal and utility infrastructure. But sometimes the challenge is to integrate all the different kinds of data that have gone digital: pipe surveys, GIS mapping, GPS information, documents, work orders, reports and more.

 

Accela Inc., an 11-year-old company that specializes in Web-based solutions for government agencies, tackles that challenge with its Accela Asset Management module. It is part of an Accela Automation package containing modules to support permitting, community development and planning, code enforcement and other functions.

 

The asset management module is designed to help users track and manage all facets of an agency’s assets: water, wastewater, fleet, streets parks and recreation, and others — within a single application. It automates functions that include maintenance, investigations, inspections, costing and inventory.

 

Among its attributes, the program is designed to integrate with GIS and SCADA systems to analyze data on assets in a way that is highly visible and supports sound decision-making, as when an agency needs to evaluate the condition of an asset and decide whether repairs are necessary.

 

Mitch Bradley, director of asset management solutions, demonstrated Accela Asset Management Version 7.0, along with the related Accela Mobile Office product, in a Web-based presentation on Feb. 4.

 

Walk-around

The Accela Asset Management program is designed to operate within the look and feel of an agency’s internal Web site. Some communities and utilities also choose to make some of its functionality available to residents and customers — such as for reporting system events and service concerns. Driving forces in its development, according to Bradley, include:

• Transparency: Making information visible to citizens, employees, and contractors alike.

• Immediacy: Enabling quick transfer of information and fast response.

• Usability: Making it easy to use for employees at all levels, including field crews and maintenance workers who may not have expert computing skills.

 

The application has simple user interfaces that allow the different classes of users to access the various functions.

 

The application includes Accela GIS, which can import ESRI GIS server data. The company has also licensed a Bing map base layer from Microsoft Corp., giving users free basic mapping capability whether or not they have GIS capability.

Accela Mobile Office, meanwhile, lets work crews carry the full functionality of the program into the field. They can access the central database remotely via wireless or Internet connection, or operate disconnected, synchronizing data with the central system at the start and end of the workday.

 

The package also uses Microsoft Silverlight technology, designed to help integrate functions across platforms and support multimedia, graphics, animation, and interactivity in a single interface, all to make workflow easy for users.

The mobile module makes navigation in the system intuitive and simple, providing immediate access to all areas of the application from the home screen. Large buttons and menus provide an easy-to-use interface for agencies that use touchscreen-enabled hardware.

 

Operation

Bradley demonstrated the two applications by following a sample citizen-reported event from the time of reporting by way of a public Web site all the way through generation of a work order, resolution of the issue in the field, and reporting of the result back to management.

 

The demonstration began at the Citizen Access section of a Web page for the fictional City of Bridgeview. Here, Bradley played the role of a citizen working from the public Web site to report an event near his home at 3217 Dyer Street.

Selecting Service Request from a menu, he chose Sanitary Sewer Overflow and filled out basic information, including the citizen’s address and the time of the observation (Figure 1). Bradley noted that each type of service request brings up a template customized by agency managers for that specific purpose.

 

A click on Continue sent the information to the back office side of the application. The system assigned a reference number to the service request in case the citizen would want to check on progress later.

 

Leaving the public site, Bradley logged into Accela Automation in the role of a supervisor within the water and sewer department. He clicked on an Assets tab and accessed a Service Requests page, where the request just entered now appeared at the top of a list, sorted by time of submission.

 

A click on that item brought up summary information entered by the citizen as well as blank fields for more information to be added by city workers during the process of investigating and resolving the problem.

 

Bradley then launched the GIS module, bringing up a map of the neighborhood indicating the Dyer Street address. On that map he zoomed in and out, and then turned on a GIS layer showing sewer lines and manholes (Figure 2). A click on the sewer main in Dyer Street brought up information about that specific pipe.

 

He also demonstrated a search using the 3217 Dyer address. When the search returned the result, he used the mouse to drag-and-drop the address into the map, which then highlighted the precise location.

 

From the Service Requests page, Bradley was able to launch a work order process. When he selected line cleaning from a task menu, the system brought up a work order form calling for information specific to that task. He filled in the form including instructions (“Reported SSO, please flush the line”) and submitted the form.

 

He then clicked on Work Orders, and the newly created order appeared at the top of a list. He selected that work order and, by way of an Asset tab at the top of the form, was able to access complete information about the sewer line to be cleaned, including:

• Work history (e.g. recent cleanings).

• Pictures and video from past inspections.

• Contract documents.

 

Bradley then switched to the Accela Mobile Office application to simulate how field crews interact with the asset management program. This application is client-installed, rather than Web-based, so that it can function without a connection back to the central office. This allows for the possibility of “dead spots” in wireless connectivity and accommodates communities that prefer not to invest in wireless capability.

 

Typically, a field crew supervisor would dock his or her laptop in the central system at the start of the day and synchronize it with the latest data. Synchronization through-out the day is possible for communities with wireless connections.

The mobile application uses a large-button format built with touch-screen devices in mind (Figure 3). “Field workers typically have gloves on and prefer not to work with a mouse or keyboard,” Bradley says.

 

Bradley navigated into a list of work orders assigned to the crew. The application automatically created a map (Figure 4) showing the route with job locations marked and with driving directions from one job site to the next. (The user can choose routing based on shortest distances or shortest travel times). On the list on the right side of the screen, Bradley dragged the bottom item to the top, and the program redrew the route. He also showed tools for:

• Determining distances and calculating area.

• Uploading images, such as digital photos, from the field.

• Creating simple drawings and entering instructions on images (Figure 5).

• Reviewing historical records on the asset, including video footage.

• Entering job costs for labor, vehicle and parts/supplies (Figure 6).

 

Bradley entered information required for completion of the work order and clicked submit. Once the mobile system is resynchronized, office staff members have access to the complete record of the job and its completion. He then returned to the Accela Automation program to show that the report filed from the field had been delivered to the system.

 

A summary page showed the job cost and breakdown; a document tab enabled viewing of the annotated image created in the field.

 

Observer comments

The Accela applications demonstrated appear to make a great deal of data available at any point during the workflow process so that municipal or utility staff can “drill down” for information to guide decision-making.

 

The cost-calculation function is of interest in that it enables field crews to see and understand the costs of work they do — possibly helping them to become better stewards of taxpayer or ratepayer funds.

 

The Asset Management and Mobile Office modules seem well adapted to the needs of typical users. Touchscreen capability makes the Mobile Office under interface easier for field crews to operate.

 

Both applications would seem to require an up-front investment in customization and training that would pay off in high productivity when the technology is deployed and used from day to day.

 

Manufacturer comments

Bradley noted that Accela Automation gives municipalities or utilities flexibility to tailor the system to their needs, such as by customizing forms to collect information specific to a given type of service request or work order.

 

“Then once I tell the system what I’m doing, that drives the content of the work order,” says Bradley. “The form displays only the information that the agency has decided is relevant to each task. That way, if many departments are using this asset management solution, they’re not having to agree on what the work order form should include. The fleet, parks, sewer and other departments all can get their own custom applications within one commercial software package.”

 

Furthermore, the system enables work orders to be shared among departments and allows more than one group to review and work on a document simultaneously. For example, if a sewer-repair work order requires a pavement cut, the street department may need to be involved. “The workflow within this application accommodates the need for different departments to come in at different times,” says Bradley. “They can all be working off the same work order. And the workflow brings all the information back together once all groups have done what they need to.”

 

Bradley notes that the Accela applications are internationalized and at present support language packs in English, Arabic, Spanish, Australian English and traditional Chinese.



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