Cincinnati, Ohio: Equipping the Field with Mobile GIS

At Unearth, we connect the office and field with OnePlace, and we take that responsibility seriously: teams use our software to streamline work that keeps society running smoothly.

In March, we visited Cincinnati to support crews who install natural gas pipes - a critical, yet dangerous job - and hear firsthand how OnePlace can better serve boots on the ground.

On that trip: Unearth’s Jay Smith and Gabby Shelley.

Unearth's Jay and Gabby seeing Mobile GIS used in the field

“It gave me a whole new appreciation of the work,” Jay shared. “It’s a hectic, dangerous, and noisy job. And our software needs to be the easiest thing that they do in their day.”

Normally, Jay and Gabby are based in the Seattle area, working from home, and speaking with field workers over the phone or Zoom - hundreds of miles from the utility trucks using OnePlace.

“Every day, these crews are doing very hard manual labor,” Gabby said. “It was eye-opening to go there and be hands-on.”

“When we’re viewing their work through a computer screen in Seattle, it doesn’t match what they’re doing in the field. You need to be onsite.”

Jay and Gabby joined two utility contractors to see how crews pre-inspect a site, install a natural gas pipe, and perform a post-inspection.

The Job: Serving & Protecting Communities

Before the gas line can be installed at a home, an inspection team must drive to the site - sometimes clocking 150 miles of driving in a day - and document the underground infrastructure.

Without this visibility, the installation team could accidentally drill through a sewer or water line - what’s known as a “cross-bore” - a dangerous accident.

Learn more about cross bores in Why Mobile GIS is Critical in Cross Bore Detection and Mitigation.

The pre-inspection team prevents deadly cross-bores by…

  • Locating underground pipes - water, sewer, sanitary - with a portable device
  • Running an advanced camera into the sewer system and piping video back into their truck’s mini-office to detect previous cross-bores or other pre-existing issues
  • Walking a handwheel above each pipe for precise measurements
  • Marking everything with spray paint
  • Drawing maps, indicating a zone where it’s safe to install the line, and reporting everything back to their natural gas utility

Then, the gas installation crew arrives, and that’s when it becomes even more fast-paced.

“When you’re actually there, you feel a heightened sense of risk,” Gabby observed.

They drill a six foot hole, pull out the existing line, and push a new pipe through - all the while being exposed to gas fumes.

“When you see those guys working, they’re working,” Jay said. “It sounds like they’re dropping grenades down those holes when a guy jumps in and pops off a pipe.”

And once the pipe’s installed, the post-inspection crew must come and verify the job’s completion and infrastructure’s location.

Throughout, accurate documentation is critical to successful installation and preventing a natural gas explosion. This is where Unearth comes in.

Jay watching how workers inspect underground infrastructure

The Challenge: Paper Records & Repeat Inspections

Historically, paper was central to this entire process, and crews lacked records of the infrastructure beneath their feet.

They’d locate the pipes, spray paint these points, jot them down on paper, and then pass this paper to someone in the truck who’d redraw everything on official locate cards.

“We heard one story,” Gabby said, “where a truck drove down the highway and lost thousands of paper locate cards that flew out the window in seconds. Think of all the hard work lost because of paper.”

Notably, each crew chose a geographic point to use as the basis of their walk-wheel measurements.

And since every new crew chose a different point and the spray paint eventually faded, no objective records remained. Each new crew repeated all of the locating whenever work was needed on the same property over the years.

With Unearth, contractors are taking significant steps to cut these inefficiencies, fast-track their work, and ultimately serve more customers.

The Solution: Mobile GIS

Unearth’s Mobile Geographic Information Systems (GIS) - OnePlace - equips field teams with the simple, digital mapping tools they need to draw underground infrastructure, attach sewer camera video, and mark where work can safely take place.

OnePlace’s integration with Trimble R2 devices also enables workers to precisely identify the GPS coordinates of pipes and - eventually - eliminate the walk-wheel.

“When they heard what we can do, their eyes lit up,” Gabby said.

Unearth's Mobile GIS platform, OnePlace

Jay shared, “We see a future where workers can locate pipes, walk along them with Trimble devices, and simultaneously record everything in Unearth on their mobile phones - saving hours of work.”

With a 100% paperless workflow, contractors cut out multiple steps in data collection and transfer while creating an accurate record of infrastructure that the natural gas utility can rely on for future projects.

Are we there yet in Cincinnati? Not quite, but we’re getting close.

Interested in Mobile GIS? Explore other examples where the software is transforming field work.

Field Adoption: “They were like kids in a candy store.”

One contractor’s already documenting everything in OnePlace. The only step that remains is eliminating the walk-wheel with Trimble devices.

For our second partner, we understood their initial hesitancy: adopting a new technology can be a burden. And the learning curve may appear insurmountable in a job that’s already very intense. Why learn another shiny, new app?

“We did meet some resistance,” Jay said. “But after walking through a demo and short training in a truck with six guys, they were like kids in a candy store. They popped out of the truck and started logging and plotting points instantly. We saw users training users. That’s really cool.”

“We had a guy who was 55 and had been doing his job for almost 20 years - and he was saying OnePlace is something we need to roll out to every crew, as soon as possible. That our software was a must-have - a sign of where the industry’s going.”

Gabby saw the same: “Initially, our crew leader was worried about it, and thought it was too big of an ask of her team. But by the end of our visit, she was like, ‘I want everyone to be using this - I want it rolled out immediately.’

“Despite claiming she didn’t know how to use her phone, she was teaching the whole crew in the field how to use Unearth herself.”

The Future: Improving How Unearth Serves the Field 

With pages of notes, Jay and Gabby returned to Seattle ready to improve OnePlace and our customer training.

“Being in-field and showing them how to plot was incredibly important,” Jay said. “Lightbulbs were going off.”

Gabby echoed this sentiment: “When we first trained them, there were ten of them in a truck watching our video on an Android phone. It’s a lot of information to take in at one time; things can get lost in translation.”

“Being able to understand their perspective and marry it with our solutions was really cool to see, and it gave everyone a higher level of comfort and trust not only in our software but the people behind it as well.”

“As a small software company, we can be more personal and form a tight knit group connection with our customers - so they don’t feel like they’re talking to a bot when they reach out.”

The personal connection Gabby and Jay formed with the utility contractors was clear after they’d said their goodbyes.

“When we shared about OnePlace’s chat function, all their ears perked up. And when we were in line in security, they were already hitting us on the chat with questions,” Gabby said, laughing.

“It’s really satisfying knowing this product will change how they’ll do their everyday work. Yes, learning a new software is a lot of information, but we’re working on conveying it in a succinct way, so we can all tackle it together - enabling incredibly important work in the field.”

Interested in Unearth’s Mobile GIS?

Discover how we helped another contractor, Tele-Vac Environmental, streamline its inspections in this case study, see our software in action in this short demo video, and explore our simple, yet powerful software.

Unearth's Mobile GIS for integrity management
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