Asset managers crave location data

Visually seeing and tracking your company's assets can help save money, time and trouble.

Each of the concrete and steel wharfs at the Port of Rotterdam, Europe's busiest shipping hub, hosts the loading and unloading of billions of dollars in goods over its useful life. Managing and maintaining these waterfront structures so that the world's largest cargo containers can dock at them means the difference between collecting revenue and watching ships sail elsewhere.

The scale of this challenge becomes clear when you look at a map of the Netherlands coast. The port snakes along a 42-kilometer stretch of the Nieuwe Mass tributary system, with the tail near the historic city center and the mouth jutting westward into the North Sea. An expansion called Maasvlakte 2, which reclaimed land from the North Sea, opened for business in June; it gives the port a land and water footprint about twice the area of Manhattan.

So it makes sense when Erwin Rademaker, a program manager at the port, explains that his team worked for several years to develop PortMaps, a georeferenced asset management system. It tracks locations of ships in transit as well as fixed assets including quay walls, railways, roads, energy pipelines, buildings, shipping terminals and more.

Development took time, not only because there's a lot going on, but also because Rotterdam has been an important port for centuries. There have been many methods for collecting and reporting data over the years. Reinventing old business processes and developing tech to support them took time.

What's different now for Rotterdam's IT and asset managers -- and for other enterprises adopting new location-enabled asset-management systems -- is that they can use an advanced set of technologies that record location data from more vantage points, and with greater precision, to be analyzed and visualized, says Randy Rhodes, a Gartner analyst. (See "All together now," below.) "When we think about assets, overhead infrastructure or physical buildings, or roadways, tunnels, harbors -- all of this now can be precisely understood by a wide variety of sensors," Rhodes says.

Another factor is that the end-user population has high expectations for easy-to-use applications because of the wide proliferation of smartphones and tablets. With so many smartphone users holding a map in their hands, there's a rising interest among users to see what's involved when a work question includes "where?"

Rhodes says this demand presents a challenge for IT organizations not prepared to make the shift to user-friendly apps, particularly with geographic information systems (GIS) and their historic technology cousins, computer assisted design (CAD) systems, deployed for asset management. "Not everyone understands how to manage GIS or CAD environments," he says. Those technologies have been quiet within businesses "and now [they're] front and center because of the upswing of mobile devices," he adds.

Businesses implementing GIS-based asset management systems cite lessons familiar to IT project leaders: Business drivers guide them. Data quality is paramount. If the new applications change existing business processes, it's likely that end users will need training. Applications that are simple to use engage more employees and lead to better results.

A look at the experiences of the Port of Rotterdam, Scheid Vineyards, Express Energy Services and other organizations demonstrates the range of ways asset managers are using these systems to monitor their investments, assess risks and find opportunities in the things they already own and run.

"Three clicks to insight"

At the Port of Rotterdam, two factors drove the development of the PortMaps system. First, the port's existing systems could not support its goals to grow from 400 million tons of cargo per year now to 750 million by 2030. The port's jumble of 40 or so disconnected applications were created for specific groups like lease managers and maintenance crews. These applications often used different terms to describe the same things. GIS data used by some of the applications included 1,500 layers of information, Rademaker says.

The second driver was the need to get users on board. "We would use the map as a single point of entry, available for any user, without any training, in just three clicks," Rademaker says. The goal was to "make it a simple system, like the iPhone. Easy to navigate."

So Rademaker's team started over. In one year, they held 90 workshops with stakeholders to discuss their work and information needs, all to define data structures and functionality that a new system would support. Organizing the data models took another year. The project team came up with three data categories: water, land and the fixed border between them.

All assets -- moorings and pipelines and financial agreements like leases -- were connected to these categories, and maps would draw lines based on those connections. (For example, a light pole is attached to a road on land.) To streamline data management, the team set the number of asset descriptions in each category to 10 items: lease sites, roads, railways, green areas, pipelines on land; waterways, ship berths and harbor areas on the water; and quay walls and water banks with mooring facilities.

After six months of implementation work -- including a final bakeoff between two proof-of-concept implementations, in which teenage children of port employees tested the system's user friendliness -- PortMaps launched in January. It runs on Esri's ArcGIS platform using that system's geographic data, and includes financial and administrative data from an SAP ERP system and Microsoft SharePoint for documents, images and files.

As of this summer, PortMaps was serving up about 1,000 maps a day to some 300 users: Project managers, asset managers, field inspectors, nautical operators, environmental analysts, cartographers and shipping route analysts. They log on, search for what they need and find maps with data about the area they are focused on.

Rademaker says the system's model and underlying architecture are designed to last at least 10 years. "A quay wall will last for 25 years," he says, using the Dutch term for wharf. "Ships are getting bigger and bigger, and we have to try to predict what is going to happen." That means information about assets has to serve as a valuable asset in itself, preparing the port for the future.

Harvest time at the vineyard

As resources manager at Scheid Vineyards, Greg Gonzalez is focused on the next harvest. He needs to put equipment in place when the grapes are ready and the weather is right. It's a chess game complicated by the location of the company's assets: 146 harvesters, sprayers and trucks to tend to 4,200 acres at 10 vineyards spread over a 70-mile stretch around Monterey and Salinas, Calif.

Vineyard crews play a central role in knowing what's going on in the field, and since 2010, the company has been analyzing machine data and tracking activity using the Geoforce application. GPS transmitters using CDMA cellular service tell workers where the vineyard's harvesting equipment is. Accelerometers record how they move. Other sensors record weather conditions and sugar readings in select vines.

Taken together, the results allow managers to evaluate operations: Where and when to move heavy harvesting machines. What harvester movements and idle times say about the efficiency of the machines and their operators. When usage patterns show it's time to get a mechanic to check on equipment.

Because Geoforce offers mostly text readouts, Gonzalez says the company decided to test out real-time map views. The vineyard's using a GeoEvent application for Esri's ArcGIS that renders Geoforce HTML-based data into a dashboard so managers can more easily evaluate operations.

"In agriculture you are doing a lot of reacting to Mother Nature," Gonzalez says. There's a big difference between the growing conditions at Hames Valley, where temperatures can hit 130 degrees, and those in the Soledad region, "where maybe it tops out at 88. So managing your resources based on your areas and getting things done efficiently and timely is a big key to profits when it comes to harvest."

Black-box sensors monitor driver performance and safety

Al Powell, the department of transportation fleet manager at Express Energy Services in Houston, can't see all 1,200 vehicles he's supervising. But that doesn't mean he isn't watching.

Express employs drivers and operators for trucks, tractors and specialty equipment engaged in testing and drilling oil wells, laying pipelines and plugging wells when they are done. The company uses a map-based dashboard from Fleetmatics, which installs a black-box-like telematics device in each vehicle. The GPS sensor and accelerometer detect location, log speed and directional headings, and relay data every 90 seconds while a vehicle is in motion; the system also records trends over time. Fleetmatics displays vehicle location data on a Web-based dashboard using Google Maps and also shows Street View imagery.

From his dispatch center in Houston, Powell can direct vehicles to where they are needed among the company's 31 sites in six states, whether it's the well-testing center in Montgomery, Pa., or the plugging operation in Houma, La. In addition, Powell uses Fleetmatics reporting functions to assess driver performance and to manage risks associated with severe weather.

For example, Powell says, by correlating weather reports and forecasts with vehicle locations, the company can warn drivers when Texas heat reaches into the triple digits, or when it's 30 below zero on the North Dakota plains.

And the system can tell him whether drivers are operating effectively. Heavy use of truck brakes at the wrong time of day -- say 1 a.m., as opposed to rush hour -- signals a problem. Poor driving habits waste fuel. Drivers are rated monthly on a 100-point scale, and anyone who scores below 85 gets invited to a meeting. "I run an operation where the facts are the facts, and the bottom line is [that driver] should not show up on the list next month," he says.

Powell credits the fleet management system with reducing fuel purchases by about $110,000 per month.

Asked about learning to use the system, Powell says: "I would say the only training you need is common sense."

Citizens' assets

Most of us don't think much about the pipes that feed our faucets or the traffic light on the corner unless something goes wrong. For public sector managers like José Colon of Washington, D.C., and James Bates of Louisville, Ky., the job is to prevent problems. And they have works in progress to update long-standing processes using IT systems to harness GIS capabilities.

For Bates, manager of infrastructure records at the Louisville Water Company, new capabilities mean extending the utility's GIS system that tracks the locations and conditions of 4,150 miles of water mains. New functions will manage additional assets like plant facilities, pumping stations and water tanks. Louisville Water is working on a data collection and management project that will feed a new Oracle work order and asset management system tied to its Esri GIS applications, part of a general IT modernization at the utility, Bates says. More data, well managed, is expected to yield important returns.

The objective: Establish a lifecycle asset costing system that ties work performed to assets managed. Bates says: "We should be able to ask the question, 'How much did we spend last year doing maintenance on a particular type of hydrant? Does that work cost us too much, or do we need to replace them?'"

In Washington, the inspection of assets is all above ground. Two years ago, the D.C. Department of Transportation invested in street-level imagery of public streets and alleys. The images, collected by Cyclomedia, gather data on street conditions, signs, lighting, parking meters and more, and are accurate to a scale of 5 centimeters. (Faces and license plates in the images are blurred out.)

Colon, the department's CIO, says that by integrating the Web-based Cyclomedia data service with his agency's GIS system, the District can improve city planning and public safety while saving staff time for inspections and field visits. Inspectors can preview sites where there has been a zoning complaint or injury claim, becoming familiar with the location so they can save time on their investigation and reporting, with the goal of improving service for the public. Planners can view locations of crosswalks, checking for wheelchair ramps. Event managers can map out the best spots for first aid tents, traffic control and emergency vehicle access.

Having collected this data, the agency now has a baseline inventory of the assets it manages -- from parking meters to street lights, speed bumps to wheelchair ramps to crosswalks. The District saves time and money by categorizing asset location data from an office rather than sending workers in the field to help figure out where everything is.

Colon says the system alters existing workflows for employees, who are called on to bring a smartphone or tablet to record new images so staff can compare before and after photos. The agency receives 250,000 service requests a year and has filled 40,000 potholes so far in 2014.

"We've seen a change in the culture of our agency. People are starting to accept the technology and devices and hardware. The next piece is training the folks, doing the necessary handholding so you make the training process easy for them," Colon says.

Going forward, there's even more potential for using GIS models, says Dennis Wuthrich, CEO and founder of Farallon Geographics, a San Francisco-based GIS consultancy that has worked on asset management projects including cultural heritage assets. As the volume of machine data grows, today's tools also open up new possibilities for semantic data models that can, for example, track relationships among multiple material things and management systems.

"What we are really starting to think about now are including semantic models embedded in these geospatial representations of assets, so that we can support more interoperable data sets," Wuthrich says. In other words, businesses will be able to correlate things in the physical world (tangible assets) with other kinds of data, and those different data sets will be able to communicate with each other.

Take, for instance, engineering systems that describe a network of pipes or railways or electricity transmission lines, and the financial systems that describe the operations of a business. Getting the two to talk to each other automatically would open up new areas of analysis and understanding.

Wuthrich says, "We may need to start incorporating semantics into our models so that as we integrate [GIS assets] with another line-of-business system, machines can start to do the reasoning between different domains, like financial resources versus engineering resources."

Michael S. Goldberg is an independent business and technology writer and editor based in the Boston area. You can reach him at, or follow him on Twitter @michaelgoldberg.