For the last five years, the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency has been evaluating the way it provides services and devising ways to re-engineer its archaic methods. The county Board of Supervisors and chief administrative officer studied national trends and knew their agency could be more accessible and efficient.
“We had to take an honest look at how we provided services from start to finish,” said Nick Macchione, the agency’s director and deputy chief administrative officer. “It was time for some business process re-engineering.”
Macchione’s work addressing his agency’s inefficiencies led other county departments, including the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), to take a look at their outdated operations.
Every year, six full-time inspectors in the HCD inspect 14,000 units of Section 8 housing — the county’s largest rental subsidy program. They do this to meet the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s requirements, which stipulate that Section 8 units meet the minimum housing-quality standards. Based on these regulations, the units must be inspected at move-in and at least annually thereafter.
Section 8 housing units can be located anywhere in San Diego County, which covers 4,200 square miles — from the Mexico border, up to the city of San Bernardino and out to Arizona.
That means HCD housing inspectors are serious road warriors — and scheduling and routing their activities was a long and labor-intensive process.
“The data would tell us what needed to be inspected and a supervisor would sit down with a ruler to coordinate everyone’s schedules by hand,” said David Estrella, director of the HCD. Each month, the scheduling and routing process took at least 25 hours.
Once Estrella and Assistant Director Todd Henderson started to review the process, they realized that much of it could be automated. They asked their IT team to figure out how technology could be used to schedule the routes and download them to mobile GPS units.
After a handful of product demonstrations, Estrella selected what he decided was the best tool for the job: TourSolver for MapPoint software.
TourSolver is a software package that performs route optimization and scheduling and has the ability to upload routes to in-car GPS units and create directions to each appointment. “This IT solution is essentially a mash-up that combines data from our program database, incorporates it in Microsoft MapPoint, and then schedules and routes each inspector’s daily set of appointments,” Henderson said, adding that TourSolver addressed the department’s goal of becoming more efficient in handling the task of scheduling and routing about 14,000 inspections annually.
“We looked at similar applications and found that TourSolver best fit our requirements, including the ability to plan for future inspections, the ability to route many addresses over multiple days and multiple drivers,” Henderson said. “And it had low implementation and ongoing costs.”
When Estrella plugged in the cost for the GPS units, licenses and training, he determined there would be a return on investment in approximately three months.
“The initial startup cost was very affordable, and we determined that the supervisor’s 25 hours of upfront scheduling would drop to five hours per month,” Estrella said. “That was the biggest net gain for us.”
It was time to implement.
After the procurement process was completed and the software was approved and engineered to work with HCD workstations, the inspection unit underwent training. The whole process took about two months.
Today TourSolver pulls data from an annual inspection report coming from the core software system used for administering the Section 8 program. This data is saved in an Excel format and then imported into Microsoft MapPoint, in which the addresses are mapped. Then TourSolver looks at the mapped points and a second Excel worksheet with available schedules to create the most efficient routes and schedules. This information is exported and a mail merge is performed to send appointment notices to participants. The same information is used in a second mail merge to create the forms and documents needed for the inspections.
In the past, inspectors would spend between 45 minutes and an hour using MapQuest to plot their inspections manually. Now they grab a TomTom navigation system, plug it in to the computer and download their route in less than 10 minutes.
“The GPS directs them all day long, starting from our parking lot,” said Henderson.
He and Estrella are pleased that in addition to efficiency, the GPS improves safety because its audible directions free the inspector from looking down at papers or maps. The system also reduces the likelihood of an inspector getting lost.
As with anything new, the program is ironing out a few kinks as the workers use it. “Because of the size of our jurisdiction, there are pieces we’re still perfecting,” Estrella said. “In newer communities or areas that haven’t been updated yet, we still have to use the old-school methods, but it’s a very small percentage.”
The entire department has learned that technology is only as powerful as the information that supports it. “The software uses our own data, so if our staff inputs something incorrectly — say, ‘Mane’ instead if ‘Main’ — that can be a problem,” Henderson said. “We have to be accurate or it can throw everything off and waste time.”
Still, both men agree that’s a small price to pay for the abundance of benefits the new system offers.
“Scheduling and routing more than 900 inspections a month can be very challenging,” said Clint Magoffin, a housing specialist and Inspection Unit supervisor. “The TourSolver and GPS initiative has decreased the amount of time it takes to complete my monthly tasks by approximately 20 hours. We are able to use the system data to send out appointment letters, tracking logs and complete fieldwork logs. It really is amazing.”
Matthew Munski, another housing specialist in the Inspection Unit, agrees. “Using the GPS system to complete residential inspections has been a great asset and convenience,” he said. “The GPS system plans the most expeditious route to the residence, which saves the county money, gas and time. I spend less time driving around searching for a residence, which translates into better customer service.”
TourSolver software has allowed the HCD to redirect resources formerly used for manual routing and scheduling to other tasks. The savings is estimated to be more than $30,000 per year.
To implement the TourSolver project, the department spent $10,300 on IT integration, software and GPS devices. Best of all, Estrella said, “ROI took only four months.”
Ellen Ullman is a writer and editor in Fairfield, Conn.