Canadian Consulting Engineer

On the Move

By David Van Vliet, P.Eng., Ian Richardson, P.Eng., Stephen Quigley, P.Eng., Alek Hage, P.Eng., Conestoga Rovers Associates...

June 1, 2004  Canadian Consulting Engineer

By David Van Vliet, P.Eng., Ian Richardson, P.Eng., Stephen Quigley, P.Eng., Alek Hage, P.Eng., Conestoga Rovers Associates

Hundreds of sampling points each day. Multiple readings collected at each sampling point. Whether they are collecting field data on soil and groundwater, air emissions, landfill gas monitoring or even doing asbestos surveys in buildings, environmental engineers face the same questions. First, how do they manage that information so that there are few errors. And second, how do they get that data from the field to the final report more efficiently.

Conestoga-Rovers & Associates (CRA) based in Waterloo, Ontario, has found that by implementing mobile computing technology it is possible to significantly reduce the costs of collecting and managing field data, while at the same time improving the quality of the information.

Most field data collectors record their observations manually in field notebooks. At the end of each day or week those observations are transcribed into spreadsheets. Sometimes the data, is transferred onto additional pieces of paper and then transmitted to the office for further analysis and reporting.

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The paper-based data handling process is not only error-prone but also inefficient and time consuming — too many cooks in the kitchen handling the same pieces of data. Additionally, the field data collectors may not have easy access to previous data samples from each location to verify their new readings.

Mobile computers make business information portable. Many engineers carry personal digital assistants (PDAs) to manage their contact lists, schedules and “To Do” lists. When PDAs became popular in the late 1990s, people thought they had great potential for collecting field data. However, the early PDA technologies were poor instruments for this purpose. The cost of “rugged” mobile computers was too high. They did not easily support large databases, and it was difficult to efficiently synchronize data from remote locations into a central database. Early attempts at developing PDA-based field data collection software also failed because field professionals were uncomfortable with the new technology.

Mobile computing technology has changed considerably in the past few years, however, and we see it used by many sectors, including health care and public safety, airlines, the automotive industry and sales automation.

In September 2003, CRA decided to develop an in-house updated mobile computing solution. Some of the criteria were:

Field staff must participate in the software design process.

Mobile computers must support bar code reading. They also must be “rugged” and able to perform under all weather conditions.

Field staff must be able to easily upload their data into a centralized corporate database accessible by all office staff.

The software must be easily configurable and adaptable for new types of field monitoring programs.

The application must be able to support real time survey coordinates from an integrated GPS unit.

The result was CRA’s e:Monitor field data collection application. The table on page 50 summarizes the technology.

Before implementing the technology corporate-wide, CRA carried out a pilot involving 12 different projects and field programs. The projects included landfill gas collection systems, ambient air monitoring, groundwater sampling, soil sampling, and industrial equipment sampling. We found the following benefits.

Benefits

Productivity and cost savings. Data can be electronically recorded immediately when collected. The pilot tests indicated approximately 50% cost reductions for the handling of field data in the office.

Responsiveness and access. Environmental managers often need to make immediate decisions (e.g. in water treatment plant maintenance) based on new and old data. Using the mobile computing technology, the lag time between collecting data and having access to historical data in an electronic database is virtually eliminated. People in the field benefit by being able to compare new data with legacy information.

Accuracy. Reduces the potential for errors in transcribing data from field notes. Data transfers seamlessly from mobile computers into a centralized database. Data collected each day can be printed out, if needed, and kept as a record of field activities on a given day.

Professionalism and competitiveness. Communicates a high degree of professionalism and due diligence, consistent with a commitment to quality and cost-effectiveness.

Control and management. Standardizes data handling, consistent with ISO 9001 and other quality management systems.

Elmira Pilot

CRA has worked with Crompton Co. since 1990 at their facility in Elmira, Ontario. This work has involved a variety of environmental engineering activities, including designing and constructing remedial systems to contain chemicals on the site, and carrying out groundwater and surface water monitoring to ensure potential contamination is contained. Over nearly two decades Crompton has collected a large amount of multimedia monitoring data, with almost 600,000 records existing in a relational database.

CRA recently began using its mobile computing technology to help monitor the groundwater elevation at the Crompton site and to evaluate the performance of a containment system that has been operating since 1991.

The mobile technology provided immediate benefits to the field data crews and office staff, particularly by enabling them to have historical monitoring data available while in the field. This historical data not only validates new data as it is entered, but helps staff quickly to understand the performance of the system over time.

David Van Vliet, P.Eng., Ian Richardson, P.Eng., Stephen Quigley, P.Eng. and Alek Hage, P.Eng. are with Conestoga Rovers & Associates (CRA), an engineering and information technology consulting firm with headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario. E-mail dvanvliet@craworld.com

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