Cambridge, Ontario, Works Smarter by Coordinating Across Departments

The Canadian city is using a new cloud-based tool from IBM Smarter Cities that promotes efficiency by coordinating road work with water and sewer projects.

by John Twachtman / October 16, 2013

What started as a research project in Cambridge, Ontario, to demonstrate the use of cloud computing and data extraction for capital asset management has become a new function within IBM’s Smarter Cities offering.

The new capability helps government departments rethink how they work together, and find ways to make operations more efficient while better adhering to budget targets.

In Cambridge, the integrated infrastructure asset management program was used to coordinate water and sewer line maintenance with road work. The idea is that utility projects can be prioritized across all three areas. For example, if a section of the water line needs work, scheduling decisions are aligned with planned road maintenance projects so the road is only torn up once.

Katharine Frase, chief technology officer of IBM global public sector, shared a critical question that drove the demonstration project in Cambridge. “How do you get agencies that may each be measured separately and have their own views about what success looks like to work together?"

Even in situations where separate agencies know their work quality would improve if it was coordinated, Frase explained, it can be difficult to break out of traditional silos. “Cambridge really demonstrated that using cloud [computing] and using data extraction and analytics and visualization technologies, you can actually enable agencies to work more effectively together.”

In fact, Mike Hausser, director of asset management and support services for Cambridge, called the culture change the most difficult part of developing and deploying the program.

“It really becomes a change management exercise,” Hausser said, noting that implementing this takes final decision-making on these projects away from individual departments and moves it higher up the chain of command. “It’s a mindset that has to change at the top end, but it also is a mindset that the middle tier -- or whatever tier is traditionally in charge of those different utility decisions -- they have to buy into that overall larger concept.”

From Demonstration to Product

Hausser explained that prior to implementing the new system, infrastructure maintenance decisions were prioritized based on the roads in the most dire need of repair. As crews addressed those, they would look underneath to check on other assets.

“We looked at it differently, saying we recognize there are needs in the road, water and sewer … [but] the decisions on when to construct those is dependent on the criticality, depending on the consequences of failure, depending on the funding for each one of those and the overall return on investment for that as a whole,” he said.

Cambridge and IBM began working on the research three years ago, applying additional analytics to help make resource decisions.

“Our methods were fairly simple using standard GIS and database technologies and in-house programming,” he said. “At the end of the day, yes, [IBM] technology can be used to help us create a decision support tool that can incorporate those logistics and actually improve on the methods that we have by doing a lot more comprehensive analytics on the return on investments.”

And most importantly, the asset management product does not require development of new databases.

“The beauty of this is you are not creating a great unified database and you are not asking each of these agencies to lose control of their own data,” Frase said, because the system extracts data from existing systems, from very structured databases to spreadsheets. From all those data sets, the elements related to time and space are extracted, and moved onto a unified map that can be manipulated to show everything as a function of time.

During the demonstration phase, the system already showed its utility. Hausser noted that in 2009, Cambridge hit a peak of water loss of 25 percent, valued at $2.8 million in Canadian dollars. At the same time, the sewer system was experiencing 39 percent inflow and infiltration, equaling a $4.7 million expense.

In the three years since beginning work with IBM, water losses are down to 19 percent. Cambridge officials report saving $1.7 million in lost water during that time. Better targeted maintenance of the sewer system has saved $2.5 million over the same period.

"By changing how we make decisions, not necessarily by spending a lot more money, but by changing the decision process, we’ve saved some real, hard money,” Hausser said.