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The new foundation for ‘smart’

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/ jamesteohart)

Planners, local governments and tech enthusiasts have, for many years, evangelised a connected utopia, with free-flowing traffic, advanced safety measures and revitalised communities. However, despite best intentions, some of these projects are struggling to deliver. Local governments are facing challenges such as a lack of citywide coordination; limited understanding of the existing infrastructure; and low awareness of the importance of data.

As a result of investment, education and experience, the scope of the smart city and smart infrastructure has evolved. The new ‘smart’ integrates people, places and things, drawing together data on all three categories to drive real transformation in citizens’ lives. Now, ‘smart’ stretches beyond a city’s boundaries, encompassing broader regions and areas in which we live, work and travel. ‘Smart’ is built on data at a foundational level, on assets and infrastructure you may never have considered. Ever thought of ditches and drainage as smart? Me neither. But bring together real-time data facilitated through IoT devices, make it accessible via mobile devices and smartphones, and suddenly you have a powerful, detailed overview of your region: a strong foundation for ‘smart’. 

Some of the UK’s councils are trailblazing this approach. Aberdeenshire Council, Dorset County Council and North Lanarkshire Council, like all UK councils, have assets in the thousands. From roads to street lights, bridges to playgrounds, each of the councils’ assets requires inspection, maintenance and repair, and data to be recorded and shared on each. Using intelligent asset management software, these councils have already created a new foundation for ‘smart.’

Aberdeenshire Council

Aberdeenshire’s council area spans 2,439 square miles, with a population of over a quarter of a million. The council is responsible for managing hundreds of thousands of assets, including public works assets such as 45,000 street lights, 1,600 bridges, 3,400 miles of road, 70,000 drainage ditches, cemeteries and playground equipment.

To track the status of its assets and to improve employee collaboration, Aberdeenshire Council migrated to intelligent infrastructure management software. The council has a mobile asset management programme that uses smartphones and tablets to enable the real-time flow of information between headquarters and field workers. Seventy Aberdeenshire inspectors use this in the field, recording any asset flaws they find and feeding that information into the software. A public portal allows residents to log in, note problems they’ve found with council assets, and point out the problem area on a map.

Now Aberdeenshire can consolidate disparate inspection, maintenance, and repair software systems into a single solution. Hundreds of dashboards record the status of more than 90 types of assets, while improving workflow and communications, reducing inefficiencies and helping Aberdeenshire move toward a more holistic “street scene” view of its assets. This view allows the council to see not just its assets, but its assets in relation to each other – helping to build a smarter region. Improved communications have helped to break down departmental siloes, and citizens also benefit from the software: by using the corporate web portal linked to the software, residents can more easily report issues.

The council is also piloting a programme to integrate the software with Geographic Information Systems and IoT technologies which would help coordinate and ease the effects of flooding in the region. The pilot program employs IoT devices to trigger an alert on its asset management software, when water reaches a predefined threshold in the drainage ditches.

Dorset County Council

Three quarters of Dorset’s coastline are included in the Jurassic Coast Natural World Heritage Site because of its geologic and paleontological significance, and more than half the county has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty by the government. On top of this, 75 per cent of the Dorset County coastline has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. Unsurprisingly, tourism is the county’s predominant industry. One of the primary responsibilities of Dorset County Council is ensuring that roadways are well-maintained, for visitors and residents alike. Staff need visibility into maintenance and conditions of the roadways, as well as “street furniture” such as drains, signs, gullies and verges.

The council wanted to improve the productivity of staff in its infrastructure management division and facilitate a faster response to inquiries from the public.  It needed a system that would fully support mobile working, with better mapping and better reporting. The County Council rolled out intelligent infrastructure management software, and now residents can report concerns online, inspectors immediately receive an alert, and the mobile platform enables them to access all relevant data in the field. If the asset requires work, maintenance staff will see it in the work schedules on their mobile devices, and mapping functionality makes clear where problematic assets are located.

After completing an inspection or repair, field staff can remotely upload their record of the work. Meanwhile, dashboards provide instant access to performance data, helping managers and staff spot productivity issues. With the previous paper-based process, it took six to eight weeks for works records to be entered into the system. Using intelligent asset management software, the same data records are available approximately 45 seconds after the works are completed on the ground.

North Lanarkshire Council

North Lanarkshire Council governs the area east of Glasgow, including many of the city’s suburbs. It manages assets across 185,000 properties, including parks, woodlands, cemeteries and recycling centres. Similar to Aberdeenshire Council and Dorset County Council, it wanted to improve visibility into asset management activities; to improve the productivity of its field officers; and to accelerate its response to enquiries from members of the public. Reporting graffiti, for example, had become a long drawn-out process with the interval between receiving an enquiry and logging it into the system taking up to three or four days.

The Council rolled out a mobile-enabled intelligent infrastructure management platform, with dashboards in an app which allow staff to monitor and update in real-time the status of any asset and its maintenance data.  Using the mobiles enables officers to stay out in the field. They’re more productive and the council saves money on paper, fuel and office space. The new platform has resulted in an accelerated response time for resident enquiries. Field officers now spend more time on inspection and maintenance, and they, along with contact centre representatives and supervisors, all have access to detailed information on asset status.

In the graffiti example, all public enquiries that come into the contact centre now immediately reach the handheld device of the appropriate field officer. Officers see details in the system and can connect to a map that helps locate it. The officer can upload ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures and a description of the job. As soon as the officer hits ‘update,’ employees across the council see that the graffiti has been removed.

A smarter future

Local governments are building a strong foundation for ‘smart’, by using mobile-connected platforms to increase visibility of their assets. Data on these assets helps them identify trends, patterns, make predictions and drive analytics-informed decision making. This insight is the true foundation councils need to build a smart future and make a real difference to the citizens’ futures.

Simon Alderson, Vice President EMEA Software, Pitney Bowes (opens in new tab)

Simon Alderson is Vice President EMEA Software, Pitney Bowes, having spent 11 years at Pitney Bowes in leadership roles. Simon has extensive business strategy and leadership experience largely gained in the technology industry.