It’s no stretch of the imagination to believe that some day in the relatively near future, all municipalities in Canada will be like Cambridge, Ontario.

Starting in 2005, Cambridge partnered with IBM Canada to overhaul and improve the management of its infrastructure by creating a system called PALM (Planning Analytics for Asset Life-Cycle Management). It has allowed the city to efficiently analyze infrastructure asset data to anticipate problems and best coordinate resources, saving a great deal of money in the process.

Like all municipalities, Cambridge (population 135,000) is facing an infrastructure crunch. It has more than 250,000 infrastructure assets with a total value of $1.6 billion: more than 500 kilometres of roads and more than 2,000 kilometres of underground watermains, sewage pipes, storm sewer pipes, plus tens of thousands of related equipment and control devices. In the coming decades, these assets will all need work. But it’s critical, in order to avoid service emergencies, overspending, and large tax hikes, to wisely keep such assets in top shape. And how a municipality operates, maintains, and renews assets effectively largely depends on the information it can gather—and how it uses that information.

IBM’s PALM program, which will be known in future as ICPO (Intelligent City Planning and Operations), makes use of millions of discrete pieces of information, going back 10 years in most cases. This data was, and is, gathered and handled using systems like GPS, GIS by ESRI, the IBM Maximo work management system, and integrated databases by Oracle. Algorithms process the data and predict which assets will fail and when, helping city staff decide whether, for example, a sewer pipe should be re-lined or replaced, or what other work should be done at the same time a road is resurfaced.

The City of Hamilton, one of the first municipalities in Canada to seriously focus on asset management, was a primary inspiration for this work, according to Mike Hausser, Cambridge’s director of asset management and support services. “Their willingness to pilot different methods, technologies, and practices, and their willingness to share the results with industry, has shown that collaboration between municipalities and the private sector is the key to success,” he says. “The system helps our managers answer critical questions like, ‘What infrastructure projects, large or small, need to be handled next—and how? What funding will support it? And can activities be optimized so that maximum cost savings and use of investment capital is achieved?’”

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Each option comes with a cost-benefit analysis and incorporates the use of a financial planning tool that helps staff optimize funding sources for each project. It means, Hausser says, that recommendations made to council members by city staff are grounded in solid data.

Other specialized data-collection tools include traffic engineering systems (TES), which uses traffic and collision information to determine the need for changes to things like intersection design and speed limits. A GPS-enabled computer mounted on a bicycle gathers data on nearly 650 kilometres of sidewalks each summer, keeping track of which walks have been inspected and automatically creating work orders to address safety hazards and defect repair. Cameras and other sensors are mounted on robots that crawl through septic and storm pipes, gathering data using new CSA standards for visual pipeline inspections. All work orders are tracked so progress is monitored and problems are addressed within expected time frames. Also included in the Maximo system are ways to better manage snow storm response.

At this point, Cambridge has completed an inventory of all assets, and collection of data on the condition of assets continues. There are still a few information gaps—on the state of very old pipes, for example—but over time, these will be filled. At the same time, the City’s business practices, operating procedures, and protocols are all being modified to ensure new data relating to infrastructure modifications or additions are added to the system in efficient and automatic ways. All relevant information is processed and made available to all staff via Rolta’s OnPoint GIS portal, which Hausser describes as “a window to all infrastructure and property data with related business information, documents, drawings, and transactions.”

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The team is also employing annual needs assessments to prioritize operational, maintenance, and renewal programs based on information in the system relating to things like the condition of assets, levels of risk, and replacement costs. “The cost to replace assets is updated in the system each year,” Hausser explains. “It takes into account actual local construction costs, allowing projections of future capital costs with a high degree of confidence.” The needs assessment method within PALM is being refined by Cambridge and IBM staff with the goal of attaining higher and higher levels of sophistication and optimization.

In addition, the City is employing more mobile applications capable of real-time updating in the field. “As our workforce transitions to mobile computing, scheduled and reactive work will be arranged into appropriate optimized routes and sent digitally to crews, and integrated with the use of onboard navigation,” Hausser notes. “The system will be able to re-optimize as needed, to factor in things like new priority work orders or new work in their vicinity if they have completed other tasks early.”

Through greater efficiency, better project coordination, less staff time spent on capital forecasting, and improved long-term, sustainable asset management, the PALM system is expected to save Cambridge $100,000 per year. The Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) put the total provincial shortfall between infrastructure work that needs to be completed and the annual budgets of Ontario municipalities at $60 billion. Asset management is considered a crucial first step in tackling this gap.

For its hard work, Cambridge has been awarded AMO’s Gas Tax Capacity Building Award, which recognizes excellence in long-term sustainability planning. Cambridge is also the first municipality in Canada to be recognized by IBM as a “smarter city.”

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And Cambridge employees are sharing what they have learned, following the lead of those at the City of Hamilton. “We routinely participate in workshops, seminars, and conferences,” says Linda Fegan, Cambridge’s director of corporate communication and marketing. “We also have an ongoing collaboration with the neighboring City of Waterloo on implementing best industry practices through the use of Maximo, and collaborate with a number of municipalities through the National Water and Wastewater Benchmarking Initiative.” In addition, Cambridge has hosted lots of delegations from different provincial municipalities and agencies—such as Ottawa, Aurora, Kingston, and London—and from abroad as well, including China, Australia, and developing nations like Botswana, Uganda, and Malawi through Engineers without Borders.

In September 2012, Cambridge hosted a group from Central Goldfields Shire, Australia. Glenn Deaker, Central Goldfields’ operations manager, and a few colleagues had received a grant to study overseas innovation and Cambridge was first on the group’s list. “As it is a known leader in asset management, it was almost imperative that we met with the City of Cambridge,” Deaker says. “What impressed me about the City was their approach to asset management through community engagement, informing the stakeholders, and having them on board with your ideas.” Cambridge also has a huge data capture focus, which Deaker considers another crucial element of successful asset management. “How do you know what to replace or budget for when you don’t know what you have?” he asks.

“To go from having no inventory of assets in 2005 to what the City currently has is inspirational at the very least.”


Treena Hein is a freelance writer based in Pembroke, Ontario.




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