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Buzz Off! New Tech Tracks Pest Inspections in Virginia

Field technicians are using real-time data and mobile technology to increase the number of mosquito and gypsy moth sites they visit in Prince William County, Va.

by / September 19, 2012

Technology may never be able to fully eliminate bothersome pests such as mosquitoes, but it’s making it easier to spot and swat habitual insect breeding sites in Prince William County, Va.

Workers in the county’s Gypsy Moth & Mosquito Control program are using a custom-built, real-time data management system with a Web-based GPS-enabled map interface. Accessed via an iPad, the mobile field reporting tool has enabled field technicians to more efficiently find and mitigate insect sites, as well as record when the area was visited and what chemical or method was used for treatment.

Prior to the new system, workers would manually record site visits on paper forms and store them in a binder. They’d then head into the office to type the same information into a database, cutting short the amount of time they had in the field. That information would then be copied from one database to another as needed by county personnel.

Tim McGonegal, branch chief of the county’s Gypsy Moth & Mosquito Control program — a part of the Environmental Services Division within the Prince William County Department of Public Works — made the call to upgrade to a modernized reporting system a couple of years ago.

Field techs were spending up to seven hours a week on data entry, and anytime McGonegal had to run a report on their activities, he said it was like “pulling teeth” because the information was stored in multiple databases.

So instead of continuing a paper-based system, McGonegal came up with the application’s work flow and mocked up a set of electronic forms in Microsoft PowerPoint. After getting approval for the concept and selecting The Timmons Group of Richmond, Va., to design the system, the initial beta version was delivered in September 2011. The process to bring the system live took about a year.

The application features a variety of drop down menus and automated functionality, so very little typing and data entry work is required. McGonegal’s crew used the application for gypsy moth surveys through November 2011.

After the first trial run, some additional search parameters and reporting tweaks were made, and GPS tracking was added to the application so field technicians could more easily find existing breeding locations. The final version of the system went online in March, and the county purchased nine iPads for the crew and other personnel responsible for some field work. Total cost of the entire project was $40,000.

The department started using the technology for mosquito season and is up to 4,500 inspections so far this year — way up from past years, according to McGonegal, though he did not give specifics.

Practical Benefits

Adding the tracking functionality was a huge efficiency gain for McGonegal’s field crew. For example, in addition to plotting a more precise morning route, if field techs are in unfamiliar territory, they no longer have to rely on another crew member’s notes about the location to guide them to an existing breeding site.

“If they are in the middle of the woods with no real structures to orient themselves, they hit the tracking button, a blue blinking dot comes up and they can walk to the stand of trees accurately, without rely on an old description,” McGonegal said. “It’s really been a morale booster for the field crew; they all really like it.”

The system’s also been a winner back at the office. Instead of calling a technician’s cellphone to assign a site visit, McGonegal or his assistant can enter the information directly on the system, which will send it instantaneously to the person’s iPad out in the field. The change has helped improve response time to citizen requests.

In addition, the program makes pulling up detailed information and generating reports a lot easier for McGonegal. He said that at any time, a representative from the U.S. Department of Agriculture can make a visit and ask to see treatment records. In the past, the process of coming up with those records might have taken hours.

Now a report can be quickly created for each treatment area by map, including details on what technician was last at a site, the product used, and which type of breeding site it was. All of that information is available minutes after a tech completes a site visit. The data is also stored in the cloud, making retrieval more convenient.

Field technicians can also spend additional time checking out different types of potential breeding sites. In the past, because of the demand for data entry, technicians were just looking at storm water management ponds because there was no time to expand the program.

But now workers can take time to look and map places such as ditches, streams, swamps and other areas that could be trouble spots for pests. The department now has more than 1,800 breeding areas listed, which is double the amount they had prior to the new data management system coming online.

“Our volume of sites is getting larger and [the field crew] has time to do it because of the system,” McGonegal said. “As we grow, we may have to add another field tech, but for now, we’re handling it pretty well.”

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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