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The Time-Saving, Stress-Defeating Benefits of Digital Inspection Workflows

March 18, 2024

Back in the 15th century, a man named Johannes Gutenberg invented a way to rearrange little metal pieces with letters on them to easily form words and sentences, then press those phrases onto paper to create printed copies. The creation of the printing press marks a before and after; the before, a time when knowledge was exclusive and coveted, and the after, a time when it was made widely available. Knowledge spread. Ideas spread. Rather than being stuck in siloed areas, information could be shared with anyone who wanted access. Sound familiar?

Because, somehow, 600 years later, we’re still dealing with the same challenges regarding how information flows from point A to point B. We invented the printing press, and then eventually the typewriter, and computers, and the internet, and yet it wasn’t until recently that the majority of the construction industry stopped recording information in archaic, handwritten field books and started capturing information digitally. And just like the invention of the printing press led to an explosion of thought and idea-sharing, we’re still figuring out the expansive potential of digital data workflows in the construction industry.

In a recent interview for Infotech’s e-Merge conference, we spoke with construction and utility leaders who are uniting digital inspection technology with GIS data to create more informed, accurate, and collaborative digital inspection workflows. In this article, we’ll examine their own before and after and the ways digital inspection positively impacts their process. While it may not revolutionize the spread of knowledge itself like the printing press did, the right mix of digital tools can revolutionize your approach to inspection.

Before we dive into the associated benefits, we’ll quickly cover what we mean when we reference a digital inspection workflow throughout this article. It’s fairly straightforward:

  1. Create a project in a construction administration platform

  2. Capture GIS-enabled inspection data with a mobile application

  3. Seamlessly sync that data back to the construction administration platform for review and oversight

  4. Share data from the construction administration platform to map-based platforms, and ultimately, other departments

  5. Leverage data for everything from driving contractor payments to reviewing project completion percentages

Panelists were interviewed about their use of Appia, a mobile-friendly inspection and administration tool and Esri ArcGIS Field Maps, a platform for collecting GIS-enabled field data.

Eliminating Manual Transcription

Drive out to the job site. Record inspection data in a tiny little notebook. Drive back to the field office. Record your inspection data. Get into a dispute with a contractor. Realize the “8” you wrote is actually a “0.” Rinse, wash, repeat.

For many inspectors and project managers, that was the inspection process before the rise of inspection software that can be used on phones or tablets. “The hard bound books, it’s really hard to keep those,” said Matt Poirot, Chief Construction Engineering for the City of St. Louis. “You’re backtracking trying to fill everything out and get it up-to-date because if you’re going to make a payment at the end of the month, all your quantities, all your daily diaries have to be up-to-date.”

Matt Barnes, Construction Crew Leader for the City of St. Louis, added that keeping physical diaries on projects that involved federal funds. “[Digital inspection] prevents us from having to carry two diaries on the federally-funded jobs. We used to have two different books to fill out, one with quantities and one with remarks and the labor and equipment.”

With a digital inspection workflow that seamlessly moves inspection data into a project administration hub for easy sharing with stakeholders, all the pains of field books are eliminated. We do miss those tiny little pencils, though.

Perfecting Digital As-Builts for Asset Management

It happens in every sci-fi movie. Take Star Wars, for example. Our intrepid heroes need to blow up a Death Star (I say “a” instead of “the” because it seems like they have to do that in every movie now), so they pull up a digital rendering of the spaceship that highlights all of the plot-powered vulnerabilities. Say what you will about US infrastructure failures, but the Galactic Empire clearly isn’t much better. Our current capabilities aren’t that far off from what’s depicted in a galaxy far, far away when you combine digital inspection with GIS data.

“The importance of geo-locating items is becoming more and more important every day,” said Poirot. “All of our street lights are fiber, manholes, water mains, things like that are all in GIS so going forward, when we complete these projects, we'll easily be able to push that data right over to these other departments that are gonna maintain that asset.”

This process is much easier than the old way of doing things, which might involve intensive review of field notes months after the day information was captured. “When you get to close out the project, it might be the winter, a year later. You’re trying to go through and read your field notes to try to make a clean set of as-builts,” said Barnes.

Mark Yerington, Utility Solutions Manager for the City of Muscatine, shared his own sci-fi approximating example: “We have a full 3D model of our entire sewer system and had some progressive people around here. Having accurate locations really helps you drive decision-making into the future.” Yerington also mentioned that they’re trying to do the same thing for their pavement management efforts to understand the layers and composition of concrete and how it will degrade over time. No force sensitivity required.

Meeting Federal Standards & Audit-Proofing

I recently started using an app that tracks and organizes all of my purchases into distinct categories. This article isn’t an ad, so I won’t name it, but if you’ve watched football or listened to a podcast in the past year, it’s probably been advertised to you incessantly. When I went to do my taxes, it was a lot easier to make deductions based on things like school payments or HSA funds when they were distinctly categorized. The construction industry was way ahead of me. By tying digital inspection data to specific items and funds, organizations have been simplifying their federal reporting process for years.

Barnes referenced American Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance as a specific example of how digital inspection workflows assist with meeting federal reporting requirements. “There’s millions of curb ramps and sidewalk segments we have to track as part of the [ADA transition plan]. With this software, we’ll be able to have field staff automatically update the transition plan map in Esri as soon as the project is completed. If you’re inspecting a curb ramp, you can update that point, add it to the map, and then it’ll be an up-to-date ADA transition plan, which is required by the feds,” he said.

Digital inspection workflows also help when projects require teams to track complex funding packages that contain a mix of federal grants and state/local funding. Poirot shared an example where a project with the Missouri Department of Transportation required separate item tracking for three federal grants, which meant tracking 150 line items was really like tracking 450. When inspection data is captured digitally and tied to specific funding sources, all of that time-consuming effort is eliminated. Plus, the added precision of the data ensures that federal reviews go smoothly. “It’s definitely kept us on track and it’s audit-proof on this project that we have multiple funding sources,” said Poirot.

Maximizing Staff Resources

How many retirement parties have you been to over the past year or so? How many meetings have you had about attracting, training, and retaining new employees? Chances are, more than you would like. Call it “brain drain,” call it the “silver tsunami,” call it whatever you’d like - the fact is there’s an undeniable workforce shortage in the construction industry. Skilled labor is hard to find, and with the ongoing departures and retirements of the most experienced people in the industry, unskilled labor is getting harder and harder to train. Embracing digital inspection is one of the ways to maximize the resources you have on hand, get people up to speed quicker, and attract new employees who want to work with technology they understand and use every day.

“You can have multiple users doing their inspections,” said Yerington, referring to the ability to have multiple users contributing to the same data set whether they are a utility inspector or a city inspector. Poirot echoed the added efficiencies when discussing how using a digital inspection platform has enabled them to leverage more of their employee base. “We’re able to have water crew operators and distribution operators collect the information… with minimal training and we have buy-in from them,” he said.

Thanks to the ability to contribute to one connected data environment, sick time or vacation time doesn’t get in the way of project progress. “If somebody was out of town for a day or was sick or something, you’d have to try and get the diary to another inspector to cover that job just for a day. Whereas now, it’s seamless. You just log in and go to that project and put in the information.”

When it comes to onboarding new members to the team, Poirot says they’re able to meet the expectations of younger generations. But another unforeseen benefit is getting the buy-in from long-time employees who are now able to be more efficient and less stressed about their jobs.

“I think that some of our biggest success stories are the people that have been here for 30 years are buying into this digital technology. Getting a 40-year career lineman to go out and collect this digital information for us, it's something that was never part of their job title. But they have buy-in because they see the value in it,” he said.

Responding to Information Requests

Every roleplayer on a given construction project is beholden to a different stakeholder, whether it be the project manager, project owner, the federal government, or the tax-paying public. And they all want some version of the same thing: information. Thanks to workflows that send digital inspection information to construction databases that connect to shareable dashboards, that information is easier to provide than ever before.

An owner wants to know where the budget is at? There’s a dashboard for that. A resident wants to know how much longer construction is going to take on their route to work? There’s a dashboard for that, too. Have another department that wants to see where all manhole installations are on a given roadway? You guessed it, dashboard.

“We have a street department, we have the traffic division, we have the water department,” said Poirot. “Being able to push all this data over to them and let them put that right in their maps would be really helpful.”

Recalling the previously mentioned asset management benefits, Yerington also touched on how vital it can be to have quick access to in-depth, geo-located information that’s collected during the digital inspection process - especially during unforeseen circumstances caused by weather.

“We had about 20 inches of snow here a couple of weeks ago. We had a water main break and needed to shut down some valves but they were covered by two feet of snow. They just took their Field Maps and their high-accuracy GPS out there and walked right up to them. [The data] told them where the elevation was at and they were able to find it and not extend that outage.”

Drumming Up Support from Leadership

You may be reading this entire article while nodding along and daydreaming about the added efficiencies that digital inspection workflows might bring. But without leadership at engineering firms and state/local agencies to invest in this technology, the benefits will remain projections. One way to help generate backing from executive leadership is to showcase how it will also help them be more responsive and helpful to their constituents. Yerington referenced the aforementioned dashboard functionality as a way to communicate value to leadership, as well as supporting better decision-making thanks to the quality of data.

“With dashboard functionality, they can see what the progress is and where the numbers are at. Your customers, your ratepayers, your taxpayers, you can provide information to them…keep everybody informed and just try to provide as many visuals that you can to your leadership or your customers,” he said.

Poirot’s advice to management was more blunt, but may resonate just as strongly. “My selling point is that it’s hard to hire people these days… this will get these jobs built with not enough people.”

Learning More

As a provider of construction administration and inspection solutions, we’ve worked with Esri to integrate our Appia platform (which records project progress, including items, materials, equipment, personnel, funds, etc.) with ArcGIS Field Maps and Esri dashboards. This seamless integration enables the capture of GIS-supported item data during the inspection process. It allows organizations to bridge the gaps in departmental workflows by moving seamlessly between construction administration and geospatial data.

If you’re interested in learning more, browse our Appia x ArcGIS FieldMaps page or contact us.


Nate Binder
Digital Marketing Manager
A proud graduate of Florida State University, Nate works with subject matter experts and sales professionals to produce targeted marketing collateral.