Building a Better Infrastructure with Mobile Solutions
By moving to a rugged mobile computer system with GPS, Margate Public Works saved time and reduced paperwork, while improving accuracy and reporting compliance.
PDAs with GPS tracking improve reporting and save time for a Florida public works department
Mobile technology is becoming more and more a necessary piece of the infrastructure puzzle for many cities — and even in small communities, officials are finding that mobile solutions can vastly improve the efficiency and accuracy of record-keeping.
In the 53,000-person city of Margate in Broward County, Florida, the public works department needed a change. The department was completing its on-the-go reporting and record-keeping efforts using pen and paper, and the method was proving to be both cumbersome and unreliable.
By moving to a mobile computer-based system with GPS technology, Margate was able to save time and reduce paperwork, while improving accuracy and compliance with federal reporting and record-keeping standards.
The idea originated when Sam May, director of the public works department, decided to seek out a computer-based system he could use with street sweeper and mosquito-spraying trucks. He wanted a solution that could track where the trucks drove, but also specifically where the equipment was used.
“There were a lot of companies that had devices that would provide the GPS location,” May says. “What I wanted was a way to track when the broom was down on the street sweeper or when the unit was engaged on the mosquito sprayer. We wanted the driver to be able to track his own progression, what he’s done, and where he’s been. For the mosquito sprayer, we could use that information to meet guidelines for reporting to the Florida EPA.”
May stumbled upon the solution he hoped for while attending an American Public Works Association (APWA) meeting. He learned that Logic Concepts, a Greenville, S.C.-based infrastructure solutions company, had created a software product that could track operations with a simple single-button system. The program, called Atlas360, gives mobile workers a straightforward way to record the details of their routes, without having to deal with complicated interfacing on computer and GPS units while driving.
“We quickly saw that the system would do a lot more than we were originally looking for,” May says.
The software’s developers could also customize the product for Margate’s needs, by setting specific parameters for simple dropdown menus. May saw the potential to use the system not only for his original vision, but also in a larger range of efforts, including stormwater management and herbicide spraying.
Nick Cucunato, division leader for stormwater in Margate, agreed. “There are a number of issues that go along with storm drain maintenance, and you can list them all and put in whatever parameters you want,” he says.
A cooperative effort toward a mobile solution
Satisfied with his selection, May and Cucunato gathered a group of department members to serve as a customization team that would work with software developers to fine-tune the program. “We sat down with everybody concerned and asked them what information they wanted in the system and what they needed it to do,” Cucunato says.
This cooperative approach worked even better than they anticipated.
“I don’t think that process will ever end,” May says. “People are always going to find new ways to use this. And if they can think it up, I can call Logic Concepts and try to make it happen. That’s why we wanted it to be fully customizable.”
With this wider range of uses came the need for a very specific piece of technology: a mobile device that could run the new program, and that could withstand rough handling and environmental obstacles.
“We told them what we needed and that it might be dropped in water,” May says.
Several mobile devices were evaluated for use with Margate’s program. The development team ultimately selected the Nautiz X7 from Handheld, a rugged PDA that meets U.S. military standards for withstanding drops, vibrations, sand, dust and water, and lasts up to 12 hours — more than a full work day — on a single charge.
The department runs the Atlas360 software on a department laptop and four purchased Nautiz X7s, which are placed in mounts on vehicle dashboards. The drivers simply press a button to indicate that the machinery is in operation, and press it again when they turn it off.
“It took one session to show them the menus and how to access everything,” Cucunato says. “There were some questions the first couple of weeks, but otherwise it’s very intuitive.”
The system uses GPS “bread crumb” tracking to create a visual path that shows where the vehicles have traveled and engaged their equipment. It also integrates with Margate’s Esri GIS solution, so managers can easily review the map to see which areas have been covered.
“The drivers can see everything they’ve done for the last month and determine if they’ve missed any areas,” Cucunato says. “If a homeowner calls us and says the street sweeper hasn’t been down their street in a long time, we can check that on the map. The driver can even note if there was a car parked in front of a specific residence by selecting that from the dropdown menu while he’s running the sweeper, so we can check that information later if we need to.”
Drivers can also use the new mobile system to indicate locations on their routes that are in need of maintenance or attention, using geo-tagged photos and notes. Plus, the system auto-generates work orders and reports.
“Once the data is collected, we can export it into any type of report or format we want,” May says.
Mobile technology improves reporting
Margate’s new system has been operational for less than a year, but the department has already identified several other record-keeping needs it can address, including reporting requirements for herbicide and aquatic herbicide spraying, asset management and storm drain cleaning.
For example, in catch-basin cleaning operations, workers can use the rugged PDAs to take geo-tagged photos of sites, log inspections and record the work they perform as it happens. Similarly, herbicide spray workers can easily indicate how much chemical they used, and where.
Using the old system, herbicide sprayers had to remember information — often for a whole day of work — and enter it into a spreadsheet when they returned to the office. Errors and omissions were frequent, and there was no reliable way to identify when and where they occurred.
“Now, once they dock the device to the computer, PDAs with GPS tracking improve reporting and save time for a Florida public works department,” May says.
Switching to a mobile solution has made it easy for Margate officials to export data from the PDAs into complete reports, such as those for the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program. The new reporting capabilities have also been essential for accurate documentation of data associated with the city’s canal bank stabilization project, which is funded through a federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) grant.
“We have to do a lot of documentation for that grant,” May says. “We’ve been able to take photos and tag them with GPS coordinates. We can document everything we’re doing using the mobile device and then automatically create reports for us for the NCRS.”
May estimates that this solution saves one hour per day for every employee who uses it. It has also eliminated inaccuracies and omissions that were common in the days of written reporting.
“There were times when the guys would forget to write a report, or they had to wait a few days to finish,” May says. “Then they’d have to try to recreate everything from memory. This solution takes the human element out of it. They don’t have to worry about remembering the details, because they can have photos on the device and tie those to a specific address, so the reports are more accurate and complete, too.”
Margate’s public works department is now exploring ways to implement these exciting changes in more ways, including in other city agencies.
“The water department could use this for repairs. The police department has nothing like this; they do everything on paper for code enforcement,” Cucunato says. “It’s fully customizable, which is the great thing about it. We’ve only scratched the surface of what this can do.”