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Virginia mobilizes utility protection data, cutting costs and saving time

A focused mobile GPS strategy helped Virginia cut its utility protection costs while reducing downtime.

The Virginia Utility Protection Service (VUPS) has streamlined operations and cut costs by tapping into a mobile phone-based application that uses GPS-enabled location-based services to help automate data entry.

In most states today, utility protection is a case study in paper-rich bureaucracy. Various government agencies and private utilities must all be consulted during major construction or underground wiring projects to ensure that excavation doesn't sever wires or rupture a pipe. Project managers must pull files from multiple organizations, which send out professional locaters to mark where their utilities are and where work crews can dig safely.

If construction crews pull the wrong address, it means a day's work lost. If they designate too large or too vague an area over the phone, it can mean multiple trips to mark one location or wasted time marking areas without pending construction for professional utility locators, often employed or contracted by the utilities.

"Over-notification was a big problem," said Rick Pevarski, CEO of VUPS. Oftentimes, construction or utility teams would phone in survey requests to their offices, which would then transcribe them into Web form. It was to reduce these problems that VUPS published a request for proposal on mobilizing survey requests.

Sprint-Nextel and Vettro answered that proposal by proposing a simple phone-based application that uses a phone's built-in GPS to submit more exact locations (within 3 to 10 meters) directly to VUPS, cutting out the back-office middlemen and one more place for something to go wrong.

So far, the program has seen remarkable results in live trials: Participants reduced notification tickets by 8% per location request. These notification tickets are needed to identify an area for utility surveying, but bad or missing information means multiple tickets, often to clarify earlier tickets. With the extra accuracy that GPS provides, VUPS estimates that could save more than $6 million annually in ticket-handling costs alone as the program is rolled out statewide.

The precision GPS measurements, along with updated maps, have helped VUPS locators to reduce by 89% the area they must mark off, cutting down on wasted work and freeing up locators to handle more location requests per day. Similar improvements were found in several other utility protection benchmarks, such as a reduction in delayed location surveys.

"There wasn't anyone using it who said they didn't want to continue using it," Pevarksi said.

He said the focused approach VUPS took to the GPS project was a key reason it has been so successful.

When you're looking at any project, you want to build this massive thing," he admitted. "But we really boiled it down to the core: Can you submit a ticket?"

Jack Gold, founder of consultancy J.Gold Associates, agreed that the tighter the vision, the better the chance of success.

"The single biggest challenge, and the biggest problem, is defining the problem correctly," Gold said. "It's always better to do something simple and right."

It is critical that an organization make sure the final product is actually helpful to the end users, he said, which means getting input from them from the very beginning.

"They know what they do every day," he said. "What does IT know about digging ditches and building pipes?"

Vettro, which handled the mobile software component of the project, spent two weeks doing ride-alongs with end users and closely watching how they filed tickets.

"Even if we have the workflow handed to us, we sit there with a user following the process all the way from beginning to end," said JiYoung Kim, vice president of marketing with Vettro. She said this allowed them to come up with added functionality that would further simplify the process, such as allowing users to fax their tickets from the phone.

Still, Kim said, the key to success is clear: process-based goals.

"Usually, there is a red flag when customers want to boil the ocean," she said. "If you tell me you want to mobilize SAP, that doesn't tell me what the user is doing in the field, and in what order."

That focus also has the benefit of a more streamlined development process. Vettro said that after consultations, the software saw only two revisions before the final production version was ready.

Gold said a project with so few revisions was a good sign they had a clear idea of what they wanted from the beginning, which can be difficult in any mobile deployment, but particularly government-led ones.

"Often, but not always, public-sector projects are more complex simply because of all the stuff around them," he said, pointing to fickle constituencies and complex bureaucracy. "They are often prone to failure because of more cooks in the kitchen."

So far, however, this project seems to have been successful: VUPS plans to expand the program statewide, and Vettro said similar programs are now being kick-started in nine other states.

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