Mobile working for councils: pity the potholes
Written by: Land Mobile | Published:

In Dorset, mobile working technology is making it easier for councils to keep their roads in good condition. Land Mobile has the details

Potholes seem to be never far from the news these days – and it’s not surprising, given their number. According to Confused.com, in 2017/18 more than 905,000 potholes were reported on UK roads. In addition, thanks to the rise of social media, photos of the more eye-catching or vexing ones are often shared on local Facebook groups, often accompanied by memes of people being submerged up to their necks in them.

On a more serious note, a House of Commons Transport Committee report – ‘Local roads funding and maintenance: filling the gap’ – perhaps somewhat obviously, given its title, says “the key issue is funding – there is not enough of it and what there is, is not allocated efficiently or effectively”. A similar point was made recently by the Local Government Association, which states that the amount of money councils have been able to spend on routine road maintenance fell from £1.1bn in 2009/10 to around £701m in 2017/18 – a 37 per cent reduction – and that the missing funds could have covered the cost of repairing 7.8 million potholes.

The Transport Committee report also argues: “Innovation is essential if the efficiency and effectiveness of local road maintenance is to continue to improve, which it must in the face of limited funding.”

Down in Dorset, a good example of innovation can be found. But before our tale can begin in earnest, some context is needed. From April 1997 until March 2019, the Borough of Poole was the unitary authority responsible for local government in Poole, Dorset and the surrounding areas. But in February 2018, the government approved the ‘Future Dorset’ plan, a decision which led to Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole borough councils being merged into one singular unitary authority – BCP Council – in April 2019.

Prior to this merger, the then Borough of Poole Council’s highways department had been looking for a new way to drive efficiencies across its inspection and maintenance programmes. At the time, its administration was done in a largely manual and paper-based way – inspectors and maintenance teams would have to visit the office in the morning to receive instructions for the day’s work and then return again in the evening to develop reports, print them out and leave them in the appropriate in-tray. This approach was time-consuming, prone to errors and not fully transparent.

To address these issues, it started looking for an alternative – and after an in-depth evaluation process decided to implement a solution called Alloy from Yotta, which describes itself as a connected asset management software and services provider.

“We were looking for an approach that would drive efficiencies across our whole highways inspection and maintenance processes but that would also enable us to expand the approach over time to tackle other areas of infrastructure asset management such as street lighting, and managing trees and green spaces,” says Simon Legg, street scene operations manager at Borough of Poole at the time, and now in the same role at BCP Council. “Yotta’s Alloy software fitted the bill perfectly in all these respects.

“We were especially impressed with the flexibility it offered us,” adds Legg. “As it is cloud-based and runs as-a-service, we don’t have to worry about infrastructure and IT service costs, or the time and resource needed to run and manage the system on-site. At the same time, however, we can link all our data into it to achieve greater insight across our asset types. Critically too, it allows our engineering and maintenance teams to work remotely and with greater levels of efficiency and productivity.”

The system is also flexible in terms of workflow and configuration. “Rather than us having to build our approach around Alloy, we could use the solution to suit our chosen approach,” explains Legg. “Yotta listened closely to our requirements and was very understanding of our needs. Rather than telling us ‘If you want to raise a job, this is how you do it’, they were extremely helpful in demonstrating how we could use the system to drive workflow efficiencies, and define and configure our assets to get the most value from our working processes.”

A leap of faith
So how did the Poole highways team go about making the switch? “We created a month-long gap in our inspection programme, says Legg. “So, in September last year we ceased inspecting and raising new jobs on our old system and then in November we started using the Alloy product. In October we just dealt with the legacy work and repairs in the old system and any emergency works that crept in. Effectively, we created a window for ourselves to manage that transfer.”

Legg adds that there was some time pressure due in part to local government changes in the region and, as a result, “we didn’t allow ourselves enough time to get all our data in order before we made that full migration and we’re still migrating things [over]”.

Prior to the migration, which Legg describes as a “leap of faith”, the authority carried out “some training and some building of the system with Yotta. That started July-August time last year.” A key part of this was training staff in the general use of the tablet devices on which the Alloy software client runs. Legg adds that one challenge was “moving people away from being given bits of paper to using an electronic device, and then building their trust in that it was recording things that they wanted. So, it was two-pronged; it was [building] trust in the [Alloy] product but also trust in the shift to working [with] mobile devices.”

The devices in question are Samsung Galaxy tablets with protective covers, and while Legg acknowledges there is some cost associated with wear and tear on the covers (and their replacements), it is acceptable given that the overall solution is “saving thousands of sheets of paper”. The tablets were procured by the authority’s IT department, after agreeing the required specification with Yotta.

Being able to focus on the task at hand
Currently, highways inspectors and maintenance teams from the former boroughs of Poole and Christchurch are using the Alloy software on their tablets and it is likely that they will be followed by those in Bournemouth. Inspection jobs can be uploaded automatically onto their devices together with photographic images of the defects and location maps. The teams then visit the site, quickly identify and assess the issue using Alloy, fix it, take a picture of the work they have done and then close the job, all without needing to use paper or visit the office. This approach means there is little or no chance that documents will get lost and it is easy to see what progress has been achieved on specific jobs. In addition, the system automatically records who has worked on which document and which changes have been made, significantly reducing the chances of errors creeping into the overall process.

“We’re not yet at the stage of physically getting jobs fixed quicker,” says Legg, “but the work is flowing quicker from people reporting things to us, us being able to inspect and raise a job or defect and them getting some acknowledgement of that, so that part of it is speeding up; the next part of it I’m trying to tackle is, now that we’ve got better at identifying work and raising jobs, we need to be better at fixing them. That’s the knock-on effect – [the Alloy system] enables us to get on and do some good work.”

The next steps
More benefits are being unlocked, as Legg explains. “The training and development [around] the system is ongoing and we continue [to find] better ways of working and new ways to make use of it. [While] we were live and operational in November, we’ve continued to develop and evolve and build the system from [then] on as we’ve learnt our way round the product ourselves and [increased our understanding of its capabilities].”

He gives a couple of examples of this. “We’ve enabled [an efficient] workflow [for the] relining of roads – it’s automatically pushed out to our lining contractor rather than us having to print off orders and pass these to them, or they come and collect them once a week or once a month. [As soon] as the inspector goes ‘Yes, let’s do that work’, it’s automatically firing straight out to them. [We’re also] building some reporting functionality to extract records and data to assist in our defence from third-party claims [eg, from someone tripping over a pothole or a kerb – see 'Counting the cost' (below)].” Legg adds that the authority’s inspection system is part of its statutory defence against such claims.

“We’re looking at the functionality of being able to extract in a simple format all the historical inspection records and defects and associated jobs that that’s raised. That will hopefully move us from a process that took an inspector half a day to maybe something we can do in 30 minutes – there are some significant gains there for us.”

In addition, once all of the Poole team’s historical highways inspection and maintenance data has been cleaned and transferred over to Alloy, the authority will be able to start using Alloy to plan its future programme of work and to spot where there are clusters of issues that need to be addressed or where there is a need for funding and investment. There are also plans to integrate Alloy with an internal customer relationship management (CRM) system, allowing raised jobs and identified highway defects to be shown on a public website, improving the transparency of the overall process. Legg adds that they are also creating links between Alloy and the team’s GIS (geographic information system) software to allow data to flow between them.

Finally, Legg says: “There is a discussion opening up around what other assets and services functions could be managed with Alloy. For example, we’ve [entered] some test data around street lighting and trees, purely [to see if] it can cope with it – it clearly does and it works, so there are some conversations opening up around other street-related services, maybe litter bins, grounds maintenance, that kind of thing, but it’s in its infancy. My mandate was to sort out [our] highway inspection and maintenance problem; what may then flow out of that is a separate discussion, but it’s being thought about and considered.”

We have seen that while ditching paper-based processes requires a leap of faith, the rewards can justify the seemingly daunting task of switching to a modern cloud-based mobile working approach. Finally, given the uphill struggle local authorities face when it comes to keeping our nation’s roads in good repair, every new weapon in their arsenal is to be welcomed, especially if it has a part to play in ending the current plague of potholes.

Counting the cost
According to the Asphalt Industry Alliance’s Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) Survey 2019, more than 1.86 million potholes were repaired in England and Wales in the 2018/2019 financial year (equivalent to one being repaired every 17 seconds). It also noted that potholes account for 89 per cent of road user compensation claims against local authorities and that in the same period on average English authorities had to fork out £6.2m from 535 claims, which also incurred an additional £16.3m in staff costs.

Authorities said intense rainfall last winter, followed by a hot, dry summer, contributed to the number of potholes formed across the network. The survey also reported that the average time needed to clear an authority’s maintenance backlog was 10 years (down from the 14 reported for FY2017/2018) and the one-off cost for this work amounts to an average of £69.9m per English authority.


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