Water data on tap

Yorkshire Water staff work in some of Britain's most rugged landscapes. That's
why they need a notebook computer that they can use when dealing with floods and bursts in the rain, snow, or even underground

The past ten years has been a period of change for Yorkshire Water, which is responsible for over 40,000 miles of water and sewerage mains in Yorkshire, supplying 1.24bn litres of drinking water every day. Back in 1999 the company was near the bottom of UK regulator Ofwat's league tables and was under pressure to improve efficiency.

Now, it stands amongst Ofwat's highest rated suppliers. An investment in IT has been crucial to this turnaround, and Panasonic Toughbooks have been there every step of the way. Every Yorkshire Water engineer or water sampler carries a Toughbook, and since summer 2007 the company has been replacing its existing CF-18 models with the new CF-19Mk3.

These Toughbooks supply the engineers with their work schedule and provide all the data they need to deal with the job in hand. This includes details of dialogue with the customer and a history of previous problems, while Geographic Information Systems software enables the engineer to locate Yorkshire Water assets both above and below ground. In some cases engineers can actually control specific treatment works using their Toughbook from inside the van.

"We've effectively put Yorkshire Water in the van", IT director, Alan Harrison, explains. In addition to receiving information from HQ in the field, engineers can also update Yorkshire Water in real-time as a job progresses. In the event of a burst pipe, they can use the Toughbook's touchscreen to draw a map, detailing the impact of remedial action, then feed that data back to keep service centre personnel informed. "That's where the customer service impact is coming through," Harrison says. "By getting the data to the guy in the field, he can
actually make decisions quickly. Then he can feed back into the system so that everyone can see what's going on."

All this information is now shared with Yorkshire Water's contract partners, who may be responsible for excavations or replacements to the mains network. Yorkshire Water engineers can create jobs for these service partners out in the field, providing all the data they need to make the repair in one simple process.
This has resulted in Yorkshire Water's increased investment in Toughbooks; the number of deployed units has grown from around 400 to over 1,000 since 2001. Of these, 540 new CF-19s will be out in the field by the end of March, and this is merely the first phase of a three-year replacement programme.

Now working with its third generation of Toughbook, Yorkshire Water needed more than just an upgrade. "We were looking for support for 3G and WiFi, we wanted devices that processed information faster, we needed more capacity on
the disk, and we're always looking for improved screen performance. The CF-19 delivers all of that," Alan Harrison explains. The CF-19's improved 10.4in XGA display makes it easier to read the screen in bright sunlight, and the notebook's powerful built-in, high-speed wireless communications have proved crucial. Parts of Yorkshire have no GPRS or 3G coverage, meaning Yorkshire Water's engineers move with all the data they need already saved on their Toughbook's hard drive, updating whenever the coverage resumes. With a built-in 3G modem, the Toughbook CF-19 can connect to the company's networks and move large amounts of data at immediately. In addition, built-in WiFi allows the engineer to pull up at a Yorkshire Water works, connect to the network, and download updates at even greater speeds.

Still, one requirement never changes: the need for a notebook that can handle one of Britain's most rugged landscapes and dramatic climates. "Our guys are obviously out in all weathers. Some of the Toughbooks may end up in a hole that's full of water, at all hours of the day and night, in floods, in snow, in rain," notes Harrison. With its water resistant, magnesium alloy casing and heavily protected displays and hard drives - proof against -20°c temperatures and 90cm drops - the Toughbook CF-19 is built to cope. "Some of them will not be things that you'd like to take into your house in the state that they might get into," says Harrison, "but they keep working. They don't break."

It's not just the Toughbook that Yorkshire Water trusts; the company regards Panasonic as a reliable partner. "With the CF-19s they have bent over backwards to get us what we needed to the time-scales that we needed," Harrison says. He rates the CF-19 as the most reliable Toughbook yet. It's the linchpin of Yorkshire Water's continuing quest for better service. "They don't let our guys down - they're giving them the right information and we have people who are switched on; they deliver a great service." What's more, he notes, "the guys love them."

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