Digital innovation in public service delivery

Seamus Doyle, Chief Information Officer of NI Water discusses the digital estate and the improvements and efficiencies digital technology continues to provide.

Highlighting the critical importance of the effective water and waste treatment service NI Water serves to its breadth of customers on a daily basis, Doyle points to health, the environment and the economy as areas of key delivery.

Delivering its “essential” service is supported by the company’s ever-improving information gathering digital estate.

Outlining the technology currently being used to draw down the critical monitoring information NI Water utilises, Doyle says: “NI Water has over 400 servers operating across two data centres. We have a province-wide network of 80 hilltop radio sites scanning around 4,800 sites and almost 90,000 alarm points. All the data collected is brought back to central sites every five minutes.

“We have 75 major sites with supervisory control and data acquisition, designed for real time control. This ocean of data is pulled back into our two work-controlled telemetry centres, one in the North West and one in central Belfast. All backed up with our call centre in central Belfast.”

Doyle outlines that the central plank and greatest desired outcome of digital innovation is better customer communication. This, he explains is achieved through various means, one of which is NI Water’s own data collection.

Explaining that improved digital data collection has helped combat the major challenges previously faced by field workers, such as bad weather conditions, Doyle points to the creation of a central incident management system which has dramatically improved customer interaction.

“When the weather is at its worst we rely on technology the most. We have found that the best way to treat customers is to give them the most accurate information you have available and to keep them regularly updated,” he says.

Highlighting the efficiency of the new system, Doyle looks back to adverse weather conditions in 2010/11 when the volume of customer contact caused the website to block connections, believing it was getting a denial of service attack. Customers then turned to the call centre, where there were 800,000 call attempts in one day.

In contrast, the new system, is constantly updated by field staff feeding into multi-channel of communications. The call centre is now equipped to handle 50,000 calls per hour and all communication points are fed the same information, updated every 15 minutes. During their last major incident in December 2014-2015, NI Water noted that their call centre peaked at just 1,334 calls on the busiest day because the website handled over 90 per cent of customer contacts.

A recently added improvement on the digital communication offering was a public map interface which offers an at a glance and post-code searchable details. This includes event details and alternative water supply information and contains identical information to that of the telephone services.

In terms of waste, Doyle points to innovations in the use of drones, remote control sonar on wetlands which have empowered staff to increase efficiency.

He concludes: “The utilisation of digital technology has allowed us to shift from active maintenance to predictive maintenance. The improvements that we are making and will continue to make in customer service and our energy and power management are crucial.

“We are on a journey to provide Northern Ireland’s citizens with the customer service they value and expect. Digital innovation is a constant companion on our journey.”

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