Digital Platforms for Field Data Collection: Taking a Field-First Approach


The way data is collected in the utility industry has evolved rapidly in recent years. Digital methods of collecting data have outperformed older data collection methods such as paper/hard-copy surveys in convenience and efficiency. However, workers in the field are the primary users of these platforms and may have difficulty adjusting to the implementation of digital data collection methods. 

Considering the many benefits of new digital data collection methods, it is important to understand what aspects of these strategies may make field-workers’ jobs more tedious and take a field-first approach.

Digital Platforms, Forms, and Survey Designs

There are several types of forms workers must fill out during their day. Some of these forms may include Job Safety Analysis (JSA), vehicle inspections, incident reports, stop-works, and of course, the forms or surveys relevant to the job being performed. 

User-friendly Interface

When these forms and surveys reside within the same application, this can provide accessibility and consistency for crews in the field. This also means workers will be trained on how to run fewer applications, and as their familiarity with the application improves due to consistent use, they will be able to fill out forms more efficiently and competently. It also means they will not have to take the time to close out one application and open another since it is all in the same place. 

Field Use vs Office Use

People running operations in the office, which may include designing forms and surveys and reviewing form submissions, have a vastly different experience with these platforms than workers in the field. Because these experiences vary, office workers may not understand what works and what doesn’t when running applications and collecting data. Redundant data entries that are required to be filled out prior to submission is one such issue. It may seem like a good idea on the back-end, but can be challenging on the front end. 

Occurrences like this can spark frustration in those who are using these applications in the field, so it is important to collaborate with field workers on how to make forms and surveys serve their purpose and thoroughly provide the data needed while also limiting redundancies that slow down operations.

Forms Used in the Field: Industrial Compliance and Safety

In both the utility and oil and gas industry, JSAs are required before beginning any job. A JSA serves the purpose of making field-crews evaluate different dangers they may experience throughout the day and list the ways they will be mitigated by the crew. 

Incident reports are required when any type of injury or near-miss occurs and is a part of regulatory compliance in the industry. It should be filled out and submitted as soon as possible. 

A stop-work is a form used to document the use of a field worker’s “stop work authority” which allows a project to be halted until a safety threat can be corrected or mitigated. These often follow the use of an incident report, but can also be submitted for weather concerns such as lightning delays, vehicle safety problems, and more. 

Forms Used in the Field: Field-work Surveys and Reports

Of course, there are the surveys used to collect data in the field in the utility industry, and these are not a one-size-fits-all. Special care should be taken to make sure these forms are job-specific and are thorough enough to provide the data relevant to the job.

In most cases, a field work survey or report should include the date, time, and location of the data being collected, and these should be required fields in the reports so that supervisors and other stakeholders can confirm when and where the data were collected. 

Technology in the Field

Field conditions can be unpredictable. Rain, snow, heat, lack of cell service, and tablet or iPad battery life can all impact field workers’ ability to operate the various technologies in the field for data collection. Additionally, the nature of the work being performed can sometimes put devices at risk of being damaged. 

Technology Issues

There is an abundance of solutions to these challenges. First and foremost, consistent iPad or tablet maintenance can prevent tech batteries from dying in the field. This can include consistently updating applications, checking the tech’s battery health consistently, and communicating with field workers’ regarding any issues they experience throughout their work day. 

Cellular Data Connection

Field work can sometimes take place in remote areas where cell service is weak. This can reduce the ability of field workers to operate applications that are reliant upon constant cellular data connections. These issues can be prevented by making sure applications can be operated offline. 

It is also important to note that when a job requires the collection and transmission of live-data to track projects in real-time, it is important to make sure that iPads or tablets have enough data to use for these purposes. 

Weather and Damage Prevention

Weather is quite unpredictable, and depending on the type of job being performed, the show must go on. Therefore, adequate protection for iPads or tablets is very important. Protective cases with screen covers can help prevent things such as water damage when they are used in the rain. 

It is well known that cold temperatures can reduce the battery life of various technologies. If a field assignment is to take place in freezing weather that will expose an iPad or tablet to the cold for extended periods of time, it is important to keep chargers in work vehicles or portable chargers. Additionally, workers can tuck their devices into their coat while the device is not in use to keep it warm. 

Depending on the work being performed, iPads and tablets can be vulnerable to things such as being dropped, which may result in broken screens and other types of damage that may make them inoperable. This is another reason adequate protective cases for devices used in the field is a necessity. 

The Power of GPS and GIS in Communication 

Integrating GPS or GIS functions in forms and surveys can be powerful. Imagine that you had a crew surveying the location of utility lines and they come across an issue such as a waterline leak or damaged electrical line. More likely than not, your surveyor is not the same worker who would perform those repairs. 

Field reports submitted to the cloud or tracked in real-time can include thorough descriptions of the incident, environmental conditions, and photographs. When you include accurate GPS coordinates, it is most effective in guiding supervisors and qualified personnel to the right location prepared to deal with the situation at-hand. 

In Summary

Navigating digital transformation in the utility industry does not have to be complicated. By partnering with the right company, you will be able to seamlessly integrate high-efficiency data collection software into your field team’s every day. OpSource is here to help you make the transition to the digital landscape. Want to boost efficiency, increase productivity, and drive communication? Contact OpSource today to learn more.

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