Demanding Data

Nov. 16, 2017
Local governments use data to address infrastructure issues

About the author: Michael Meyer is associate editor for W&WD. Meyer can be reached at [email protected] or 847.954.7940.

As America’s infrastructure continues to degrade, the need to monitor its condition has grown. Utilities that are aware of their system’s condition are equipped to maintain it as efficiently as possible. W&WD Associate Editor Michael Meyer asked Jake Schneider, president and CEO of Cartegraph, how local governments can use data to efficiently address their infrastructure issues.

Michael Meyer: What are the infrastructure problems currently facing local governments?

Jake Schneider: I think the quick and easy answer, and the one that most people would say, would be that there’s a quality problem. This problem is driven by the lack of investment in monitoring and maintaining our infrastructure assets. But what I’ve learned is that the problem is more than just money and maintenance. I believe the problem fundamentally starts and ends with data. A lot of the organizations that come to Cartegraph don’t have the data they need to understand all of the infrastructure they have. And they recognize that they’ve been making decisions and investments without that critical information.

The way I look at this is that local government organizations really need to start investing in understanding what assets they have in their infrastructure network, what condition those assets are in and how much they cost. These are the basic and fundamental data points of infrastructure management. From this reliable foundation, organizations can then start to analyze that data to answer important questions—why are things happening, what are the trends we’re seeing, [and] what could we do differently?

Meyer: Who is responsible for addressing these problems?

Schneider: Organizations that oversee water maintenance and distribution are funded by taxpayer dollars. Because of that, they need to commit to being better today than they were yesterday—finding ways to continually deliver the level of service citizens expect.

Take the Joint Water Commission (JWC) in Washington County, Ore., for example. As the primary drinking water supplier for nearly 400,000 residents, our client felt [it was] spending too much time filling out paperwork and reacting to problems instead of preventing them. So, [it] moved toward mobile workflows and streamlined [its] asset management processes. As a result, [it] became a more proactive organization—spending 97% of [its] time on preventative maintenance and just 3% on reactive repairs.

Meyer: What types of data should municipalities track?

Schneider: To fuel data-driven decision-making and truly understand day-to-day water operations, I feel high-performance organizations should capture data in three categories: infrastructure assets, work orders and resources. Again, with assets, I recommend collecting the type, location and condition, while work data should focus on maintenance activity, priority, status and start/stop dates. With resources, municipalities should track labor, materials, vehicles and equipment for a clear understanding of how much they’re spending on routine and unexpected activities. By analyzing these three categories, municipalities have the ability to prepare solid budgets, run projections, measure maintenance return on investment, develop emergency response plans and more.

Meyer: Given the limited budgets under which most municipalities operate, what is a good way for one to begin collecting data?

Schneider: Every municipality will have a different starting point. Some are using sticky notes and paper to track work; others have detailed asset databases in [a geographic information system]. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, which is why we’ve developed a prescribed method to meet each municipality where they are and step them forward.

My advice for any organization, though, is to begin with a specific goal in mind. Whether you’d like to start tracking how many hours you spend on proactive vs. reactive maintenance like JWC, or want to capture that baseline data before the next disaster strikes, these goals will help you move in the right direction and toward something that can really make a difference for your citizens.

After you accomplish your first goal, celebrate that win and turn your attention to the next one. And remember, you’re not alone. Whether you’re just starting out or have more advanced water operations, it’s all about improving your performance one day at a time. High performance is a journey, not a destination. 

Dealing With Disasters

Effective data management also can help local governments deal with natural disasters. It is impossible to precisely predict how infrastructure will react to to calamities like the recent spate of Atlantic hurricanes, but a municipality with effective data management will at least be prepared to deal with the aftermath.

"If you don't have a complete asset inventory or a streamlined way to track your work before the storm hits you're going to be challenged to provide the appropriate reports to [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] later on: activity plans, time records, material usage, photos and more," Schneider said. "I recommend you start with a baseline of asset locations, conditions and costs; then, after the disaster strikes, you'll be able to accurately track and report the amount of damage to your assets, the work needed to restore the network, and how much it costs for reimbursement. There are more advanced ways to prepare for unexpected situations, but capturing this baseline data is a critical first step."

About the Author

Michael Meyer