Advances in technology present both a challenge and an opportunity for municipalities, municipal service providers and utility companies. The challenge lies in living up to what has become the new normal in societies across the world – delivering fast, convenient and innovative services to an increasingly technologically savvy population. The end-users and beneficiaries of municipal and utility services are the very same consumers who track their taxis or meal deliveries in real time, obtain short-term property rental from the comfort of their homes, and buy a vast range of consumer items with one click of a button.
As this slick and convenient service experience becomes the norm, municipal authorities managing a range of different services on a tight budget – and utility companies in a tightly-regulated and highly-competitive market – might face negative feedback if they fail to keep pace with rising expectations. Fortunately, advances in technology have also given forward-thinking municipal and utility service providers plenty of opportunities to enhance their operations, while recouping their initial investments through efficiency gains and more flexible delivery of services.
Technology trends in municipal services
In its 2018 report, the American Public Works Association (APWA), an organization with chapters across North America, identified five key technological trends in public works, which can also apply to utility providers operating in the same environments. Two of the trends mentioned in the APWA report – autonomous vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) – have yet to have a significant impact on the delivery of municipal services and utilities. The other trends however, are already showing great promise in improving service delivery. This is particularly true of advanced visualization tools, whose high‑precision utility locating and management capabilities reduce the cost and time that municipalities expend on maintaining infrastructure. Those key technology‑based trends include:
- Advanced asset management
- Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
- Advanced field services tools
Not strictly a technology in itself, asset management increasingly relies on computer software and hardware to support highly-trained professionals and maximise its effectiveness. The latest software packages can help simplify the extremely complex tasks involved in municipal asset management, freeing up managers to concentrate on high-level decision making by automating much of the necessary data analysis and the production of work orders for maintenance and replacement. Investing in the software, the hardware used to generate usable data, and the necessary training, can reduce the overall costs of asset management by improving efficiency and eliminating expensive errors.
Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
Due to the complex, wide-ranging and time-sensitive services delivered by municipal authorities and utility providers, neither general technological progress nor specific advances in asset management and telematics would have significantly benefited these organizations without the vast data obtained through geographic information systems (GIS). This is why the APWA report identified GIS as the most important technological trend in public works.
Access to a GIS allows the user to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage and present spatial or geographic data. Whereas in the past, managers, planners and front-line municipal and utility workers had to consult vast numbers of paper maps or separate computer files containing different data sets, GIS technology now allows them to apply and combine huge numbers of data sets, and overlay these on maps of any scale from an individual street to the whole municipality. The range of data available – from information on human populations to the layout of underground pipe and cable systems to the geological composition of the land – means that GIS is used in every municipal department from education to planning, public works to utilities. GIS can also be integrated into a city government’s or utility company’s other computer systems, so that purchasing, asset management, planning, maintenance, budgeting, and crisis management can all be better-informed by detailed geographic and spatial data. This has significant and measurable effects on efficiency and helps avoid errors in decision-making.
Advanced Field Services Tools
For municipalities, maintenance of utility infrastructure is one of the most challenging area of work. While GIS has been a staple tool in the never-ending battle to keep track of and safely access underground utility infrastructure, there has always been a need for tools that enable locators to more accurately visualize the complex maze beneath their feet.
Innovative technologies like vGIS are demonstrating that, when complemented by Augmented Reality (AR), GIS data has the potential to transform the street-level work of municipal authorities and utility providers. While the visualization of data has been an important aspect of GIS systems from the beginning, the vGIS system adds new levels of detail and usability to the visual representation of GIS information. Using smartphones, tablets or holographic headsets (Android, iOS or Windows), vGIS creates an augmented reality display over the real-time image of a physical job site, allowing the user to see the precise location of underground sewage systems, water pipes, gas lines and electricity cables. The user can also see overhead cable systems where their actual view of these is obstructed.
With research demonstrating its time saving and efficiency‑boosting capabilities, GIS-powered Augmented Reality shows great potential to improve the management of municipal utility assets. By enabling users to more quickly and precisely plan excavations, minimize impact on vehicle and pedestrian traffic, avoid accidental line cuts, and improve worker safety some of the most common challenges to public works are eliminated or significantly reduced. Senior engineers and planners can use AR to gain a more intuitive overview of large and complex worksites, alternating between the ground-level augmented reality view and a bird’s-eye view of the whole site. The view can be shared with in-office support teams, enabling managers to simultaneously monitor multiple work sites.
The term ‘telematics’ can be used to encompass global positioning systems, automatic vehicle location and telematics themselves, which consist of an array of sensors and measuring devices attached to the fleets of vehicles used in municipal works and utility operations. The data generated by the sensors can be used by managers in combination with GPS and AVL data to improve the utilization and efficiency of fleets of trucks, as well as specialized equipment such as snowplows and cherry pickers. The data can identify underused and overused vehicles and equipment, and eliminate unnecessary maintenance work by basing scheduled maintenance on actual usage rather than time. The City of Toronto, for instance, has been expanding and developing its use of telematics since 2003.
Technology driving municipal works into the future
As a trend, technology-focused solutions to the challenges facing municipalities is likely to endure into the future. Industry watchers will no doubt expect to continue to see innovative uses of new and existing technologies, as demonstrated by vGIS’ integration of affordable, consumer-driven technologies with existing professional-grade software and systems, to help municipalities overcome perennial challenges. Such technology solutions represent an opportunity for municipalities to make significant efficiency and productivity gains and significantly improve service delivery to end users.