Inspect a Drainage Ditch? There’s an App for That

By: - October 9, 2018 12:00 am

Terry Zoller, right, a Minnesota Department of Transportation bridge construction manager, and inspector Josh Hebert examine the progress of a bridge being built in Stillwater, Minnesota, in 2016. A growing number of state agencies are using mobile apps for inspections for everything from road construction to forest inventories. Jean Pieri/Pioneer Press via The Associated Press

Apps are old news, and more than three-quarters of American adults now own a smartphone. But state inspectors only recently have turned to mobile apps, which are saving some of them hours a day and millions of taxpayer dollars.

In New York, horticultural inspectors visiting plant nurseries had to lug thick, heavy instruction manuals and fill out reams of paperwork for decades. It was frustrating and time-consuming.

These days, inspectors can review the nursery’s license information and history on an iPad, print out the inspection results using a sleek mobile printer the size of a box of spaghetti, share them with the nursery owner and immediately forward them to headquarters.

Inspectors also use the iPad to take photos and view satellite imagery of the nursery or greenhouse. And they can draw on the image with their finger or a stylus to pinpoint problem areas, such as a group of dead trees or an insect infestation, rather than document it by hand on a form.

By helping inspectors track trends and respond more quickly to potential threats, the apps help ensure that consumers are buying high-quality plants and trees that don’t carry diseases.

“The paperwork nightmare is gone,” said Margaret Kelly, an assistant director at the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. “Now, inspectors can spend their time looking at plants and using their horticultural knowledge, as opposed to shuffling papers.”

Last year, Kelly’s department joined a growing number of state agencies turning to apps to improve the inspection process for everything from forest inventories to road construction projects.

In Washington state, Minnesota and Texas, where state transportation officials sometimes use apps to inspect roads, bridges, noise walls, guardrails and other infrastructure, one study found that apps saved each inspector an average of about two hours of work a day.

And the quality of information “improved dramatically,” researchers found, because inspectors used the apps to collect nearly three times as much data, and it was more accurate and detailed.

Washington state officials say that on a paving project, for example, inspectors can use apps to quickly and efficiently document material deliveries, asphalt depth and the contractor’s adherence to specifications.

Amy Glasscock, a senior policy analyst for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, said her group doesn’t track how many state agencies use apps for inspections. But she knows the number is growing.

“Apps make a lot of sense for agencies,” she said. “If it saves time, it saves money. And there are always resource constraints for states.”

In New York state, more than 35 horticulturists are responsible for inspecting the state’s nearly 9,000 nurseries, greenhouses and retail markets where plants and flowers are grown or sold.

Until they started using apps, inspectors would load their cars with multipart forms, files, procedural manuals for taking samples and copies of laws and regulations, said the agriculture department’s Kelly.

The app has helped the department more quickly identify trends and respond to potential threats, such as plant diseases and invasive species, she said.

“We’re increasing our efficiency and the quality of our work,” she said. “We’re doing more thorough, in-depth inspections with a higher level of accuracy.”

The state’s Office of Information Technology Services spent about $200,000 developing the app in-house, and collaborated closely with the agriculture agency during that process. A computer programmer shadowed a nursery inspector to learn about the job, for example.

Other states are also saving time using inspection apps — and some are saving money.

Inspectors at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources use an app to conduct an annual inventory of 10 percent of the 4 million acres of state forests, said Tiziana Galeazzi, agency services director of the Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

Checking on forest density, the health of tree canopies and soil conditions used to take up 40 percent of a state forester’s time over a year. Using an app cuts that time in half.

Pennsylvania has saved about $27 million in administrative costs in the two years since road construction inspectors started using an app in 2016, said Department of Transportation spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick. Inspectors now can access data from the field rather than traveling back and forth to their offices.

And in Washington, the state Department of Transportation has distributed 1,200 iPads to field staffers who use them to document and inspect everything from guardrails to catch basins to drainage systems, said Joe Schmit, maintenance technology resource manager.

Before they started using apps, it was hard to accurately track changes over time at a site, Schmit said.

“They would have a piece of paper on a clipboard that they would stick on a wall some place in a local shop [office], and that’s where it would live,” he said. “If we had specific questions about a ditch flooding or damage to a roadway, it was borderline impossible to get any historical information about it.”

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Jenni Bergal

Jenni Bergal covers transportation, infrastructure and cybersecurity for Stateline. She has been a reporter at Kaiser and the Center for Public Integrity.