Community Engagement

In with mobile, out with binders

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Hannibal, Missouri’s dedication to historical preservation offers visitors a sense of what the small city on the banks of the Mississippi River may have looked like when Mark Twain walked its streets more than one hundred years ago.

While Hannibal’s residents are proud of the city’s history, its 115-year-old public power utility realized that it needed to break free from its historical way of doing things to better serve its customers and adopt more efficient ways of doing business.

By leveraging the latest technology applications, Hannibal Board of Public Works, which provides electricity, water and sewer to the city’s 17,800 residents, has quickly been able to improve operations in many areas including customer service and field work.

Until recently, when field workers for Hannibal Board of Public Works had trouble finding a meter or underground asset, they had to call back to headquarters for help. Calling seemed a bit dated in an age of texting and apps.

And the task at headquarters was gargantuan. Staff had to “dig through a mountain of books,” eight-inch-thick binders, about 11,000 pages in all, searching for the address, says Matthew Jones, who serves as senior information technology specialist for the public power utility.

“As you’d be looking through the antique pages, you would hope that they would not disintegrate,” he says.  Eventually these documents were made available electronically but only accessible from an office computer.

Similar problems existed in locating water system and hydrant valves. The records were particularly vague for buried equipment, and again only available on the office computer. “The measurement was from the back of the curb or center line of the road. Trying to locate all that in the middle of the night during a snowstorm when there was a water leak was sometimes difficult,” Jones says.

Fortunately, these arduous tasks have come to an end thanks to a partnership Hannibal began four years ago with the National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC). This partnership allowed the organization to justify the purchase of mobile technology to enhance field efforts.

“We’ve come a long way as a technology driven organization. We have basically revamped every task we do, except for manual labor in the field of popping in the meter, turning the wrench, or setting the pole,” Jones says. 

Bringing together new and old

As part of its journey, the utility in January adopted NISC iVUE AppSuite, which gives a single, mobile device the ability to access a range of data — accounting, customer care and billing, operations or system administration, etc.

Now, field crews can locate meters via a GIS tracking system or find the historic records online using the mobile device. The records have been catalogued and digitized, so they are searchable by address. Crews in the field also now have access to 11,000 water service installation records and the location of more than 600 water system valves and 800 water hydrant valves, information that was compiled and uploaded to the mobile devices.

The utility’s power services enjoy similar new efficiencies because of iVUE AppSuite. Jones cites improved customer service, hard and soft cost reductions, and streamlined business processes.

Since revamping, the utility can respond quicker to customer calls, with less paper shuffling.  Work orders that once took two to three days to process – because they had to move from desk to desk – now get done the same day.

“Before, I would create a service order for a specific department, the supervisor would issue the service order, a piece of paper would go to the field crew. They would scribble some notes on it and pass it back. It would get passed around the next day to two or three people in the office to get the task resolved,” Jones says. “Using an electronic means, we are able to accomplish all of that in a short time.”

NISC has a workflow developed for every service order type, and within a workflow there are multiple tasks, some of which take place in the office and some in the field. As the crew completes the task on the mobile tablet, the office sees a near real-time update back on each computer in the customer service department.

“From a time-savings standpoint, we gained a great deal of efficiency,” he says.

Disconnections and reconnections occur less frequently because crews receive real-time alerts in the field when payments are made. This spares workers from making multiple trips to premises to disconnect and reconnect.

Utility crews also can undertake ad-hoc tasks or assignments in the field without need for an actual service order because of information they can access readily on their mobile devices. They can access, for example, AMR data for troubleshooting.

Recognized for reliability

Jones and Customer Service Coordinator, Emily Dexheimer, will speak about their utility’s mobile workforce transformation at the American Public Power Association’s Customer Connections Conference, Nov. 4-7 in Orlando, Florida.

Mobile workforce technology is not new. “But then what I found out is that a lot of utilities do not know what direction to take yet. Hopefully, I can give those organizations an idea of what we were able to achieve. We’re a small utility, we only have 77 employees. We don’t have a deep budget. We’re a technology staff of one and a half,” explains Jones.

Hannibal Board of Public Works in 2018 earned a Diamond level designation, the highest level of achievement under the Association’s Reliable Public Power Provider (RP3) program. The utility earned a perfect score of 100. The RP3 program recognizes utilities that demonstrate high proficiency in reliability, safety, workforce development, and system improvement. Utilities keep the RP3 designation for three years.

Lessons learned

What advice does Hannibal have for similar utilities considering technology investments? Start with a technology gap analysis before moving forward with a new software platform, Jones says. Conducted by an outside engineering firm, the study teases out weaknesses in a company’s systems, so that it can determine steps to allocate resources most efficiently.

From its analysis, done in July 2012, Hannibal learned that its previous billing system was the “crux of a whole mess,” Jones says. “It didn’t integrate with anything. It didn’t pass information from service order to GIS to anything in the field. We needed a more intelligent customer information system,” he says.

Hannibal issued a formal request for proposals and received six bids. The utility chose NISC because of its reputation working with public power utilities. NISC offers a multi-industry solution, fitting for Hannibal as it operates three separate businesses under one umbrella. Hannibal also appreciated NISC’s location. With offices just 80 minutes away in Lake Saint Louis, Missouri, NISC staff could easily be onsite during Hannibal’s 2014 system conversion.

Jones sees use of NISC’s platform not as an end point, but as a start in what is an evolving process for the utility.

“It’s not one of those things where you create it today and in five years it is still working the same way. We have found ways to enhance or change it. Just simple things like changing the workflow on service orders, simplifying the process and being able to inform more people at the same time,” he says. “We are keeping an open dialogue with NISC.”

For more information about NISC enterprise software solutions, visit NISC’s website.