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Wireless Keeps Island of 165,000 Dry

Wireless Keeps Island of 165,000 Dry

A modern-day Atlantis of sorts, the city of Richmond, British Columbia, Canada sits on an island - the delta of the Frazier River. A haven from the watery depths surrounding it, the landmass is made mostly of sand and silicon deposits from the river itself. The environment is flat - perfect for a critical-needs wireless network.

How critical is the need? Some 180 pump stations situated around the island keep the city dry and inhabitable. Richmond city engineers often work around the clock to keep the pumps working, and the pumps tell them when they need attention, wirelessly.

IT Phone Home
"We use a radio frequency for our pump stations, each pump station having a piece of hardware made by Motorola called MOSCAD LITE," says Eddie Hung, IT manager in Richmond. Each MOSCAD LITE device sends constant updates on the pump's status to the operations yard by radio frequency.

The special frequency used by Hung's team is dedicated to the city of Richmond by Industry Canada, the department of the Canadian government overseeing the information highway and other matters related to industry and consumer interests. A central server at the operations yard polls each station 24 hours a day, seven days a week via this 900MHz frequency.

Server Solution
The data retrieved includes the pump status (on/off), the velocity of the water flow, and the pump downtime. This data is collected on the central server, a Compaq server running Windows 2000. The application at the helm of data collection is Intellusion. Intellusion collects around 2,000,000 transactions per week, of which ample use is made.

Information Builders, a New York software and services company that enables information retrieval and analysis, came on board to provide a solution to make useful reports of the data. "We needed something robust that could handle industrial strength reporting, as well as something that could tap into the application data storage," says Hung, "Information Builders used their adapters and their ability to sort and file the data into usable reports for our engineers and field people."

Information Builders provided an Internet-based application to produce the reports daily. This information allows the engineers to see trend analyses that help determine where maintenance needs to be relative to upkeep, drainage, and sanitation issues for the pumps.

Findings Fed Forward
Once data warehousing was in place, Hung and his people worked with Information Builders to make the data available to staff in the field. With this innovation, field staff would be quickly aware of pump failures and could respond sooner, perhaps saving a pump or pump mechanism.

The resultant solution, using a CDPD connection, transfers the data via a local wireless carrier. With Sierra wireless cards, field engineers connect to the Internet with Compaq iPAQ PDAs. With PDA software from AvantGo and Information Builders' reporting tool (WebFOCUS), the pump analyses, including water temperature and levels, are available to staff remotely, everywhere on the island. This includes a list of recently failed pump stations.

The Transition
"First of all, I can confidently say that we are operating three times more efficiently than before,"says Hung, IT manager at Richmond, BC.

"Let me tell you how we used to do this," he says as he begins to put things in perspective. "We used to have an audible siren alarm and a red light at every pump station. If something went wrong with a pump, a branch got stuck in a pump or an animal got caught in there, the pump stopped, the alarm would go on, and the light would go on and flash. We relied on the neighbors to call the city and say hey, there is a screaming noise going on; you need someone to come out here and fix it."

You can begin to see where part of the demand for a solution came from. Today, there are no more lights or sirens and Hung's crew is able to respond more quickly and efficiently. From a customer service perspective, the response is seamless, invisible to the consumer. There is no more waking of residents at 4 a.m. with sirens.

The Benefits
Hung exemplifies the usefulness of the trend analyses. "What is happening to our sanitation system (during the Super Bowl at halftime for example)?" he asks. "Is everyone flushing the toilet at the same time? What does that type of demand do to our pump stations throughout the island?" With this information, Hung's group can determine when and where to add sanitation pump stations. They can determine which kinds of pumps fail most often and plan for pump purchases, frequency of maintenance, or simply consider another brand of pump that may last longer. This newly available trend data provides the city of Richmond with a long-term view of its infrastructure needs.

Powerful Data Attracts Attention
Hung's department has had multiple requests to pull together additional types of reports from this data. They are now comparing the data to weather conditions. They are looking at the environmental effects of the height of the Frazier River at any given time. They look at how often the pumps run throughout the year (located in the Pacific Northwest, Richmond is in the middle of a rainforest environment). "Rain is a big part of our lives," says Hung.

Planning
The accumulation of useful data allows the city engineers to plan for the future, rather than just reacting to needs as they arise. They now have the capability to look at the infrastructure and environment from a 5-10 year perspective and everywhere in between.

"Their initial implementation was to collect data feeds from these units that measured water levels in the sewage system," says Michael Corcoran, chief communications officer at Information Builders. Over time, the data presented certain significant values that translated to warning signs from the pump infrastructure. To help track and use this significant data, Information Builders implemented WebFOCUS products, which integrate real-time enterprise data in order to make it immediately available to multiple users. These were used in conjunction with data synchronization software for PDAs from AvantGo. The AvantGo product goes out and collects Web pages from the Compaq server, downloads them, and displays them as small Web pages on the PDAs through a viewer.

WebFOCUS's part of the operation is to collect the data and create meaningful reports as files in HTML format. These are then available on the server. WebFOCUS pushes the reports to AvantGo on the PDAs as they are created. This is a real-time synchronization of newly created data reports; the information is always current. Whenever a trend or pattern is discovered in the analyzed data, an alert is sent and a report is instantly created and distributed to the wireless devices.

Declaring Platform Independence
Information Builders' product is platform independent. This means that the city of Richmond is free to use whatever wireless infrastructure, protocols, frequencies, hardware, and software they choose. This is exactly the kind of solution that Eddie Hung was searching for from the beginning.

"[Our software] plugs into MS Outlook and a variety of other e-mail messaging systems. Doing it at that level really gave us a transparency to the transport layer," says Corcoran, the chief communications officer of Information Builders.

"One of the reasons the relationship with us worked out," says Corcoran, "was that he [Eddie Hung] liked our approach. At the first level of deployment, they were using PalmPilots. In the second wave, they were looking at some Pocket PC devices. Then, maybe even RIM devices. He was looking for something that would work, that wouldn't lock him into a particular solution."

Hung figured from the beginning that the city of Richmond would want to add other applications. As such, it would be difficult to limit those applications with preset device types and other standards. They had to be open to the endless possibilities.

A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Bytes
Information Builders' solution provided for a variety of customizable graphical representations of the data. Any column of data can be viewed side by side with bar charts. You can also use your own custom symbols to identify and represent ranges and values. "If you wanted to build a consumer reports type application, you could plug in those types of attributes and arrows. We just manipulate those as the data changes and introduce the values," says Corcoran.

Data Mining
This data repository and solution set make data mining possible. Beginning with summary data you can drill down to detail levels. Using peer graphics, you can bypass seemingly endless lines of data and tell the levels of activity from the graphics; for example, you can gauge the rise and fall of the water line.

Viral Spread
Wireless exposure is good. When people from other departments in Richmond began to see IT staff walking around with the wireless devices making use of this data, they began to envision what their departments could do with it. "This is how mobile technology can take off in an organization,"says Corcoran. "You have to have a real application like this."

Conclusion
Richmond's wireless application is highly critical, constantly valuable, and seamlessly employed. Where they once sifted and analyzed pump data over long periods to determine why they had a flood, they can now see it coming in the trend data and prepare a response before it happens.

Engineer and staff hours once spent traveling to each pump are spent preparing and responding. Pumps that were lost are saved. An island of 165,000 sleeps at night, undisturbed by warning lights, sirens, or rising water. For them wireless technology has meant a realized increase in personal security and quality of life.

More Stories By David Geer

David Geer is a contributing writer to WBT, a journalist, and a computer technician. He graduated from Lake Erie College in 1993 with a BA in psychology and has worked in the computer industry and in the media since 1998.

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