August 7, 2023
Ntegra's Journey with AI at the Northumbrian Water Innovation Festival 2023
In July 2023, Ntegra had the privilege of being invited to participate in Northumbrian Water's annual Innovation Festival event at Newcastle Racecourse in Gosforth Park. Sponsoring a sprint for their latest application project - 'Field ChApp', an application utilised by NWG's field operators to record and collate data pertaining to their on-site operations. Our mission was to verify if Generative AI could transform how NWG's engineers input data from their fieldwork.
With a mobile workforce of over 1500 engineers, data collection from site works and repairs is critical to operational planning and regulatory reporting. However, the opportunity for inconsistencies and errors in data within a complex reporting environment significantly impacts how NWG sets out to collect operational data and reporting needs must be carefully balanced against the friction and time burdens placed on the field workforce. These constraints are amplified by challenging working environments that are frequently underground and in poor weather conditions.
Imagine then, if the advances in Generative AI technology have the potential to support the fieldworker in the collection of job data. Could we reduce the burden of manual data input? Could we make the process more accessible and efficient? Could NWG collect more valuable data more consistently? We set out to address these questions in our sprint at the festival.
Revolutionising Data Capture
One of the major challenges voiced by the NWG employees related to the difficulties they experienced in accurately capturing data from their field operators' job sites. This was partly due to a cohort of seasoned field operators who, despite their proficiency in maintaining the company's infrastructure, exhibited reluctance towards using mobile apps.
The existing application was a form with multiple dropdown menus, followed by a comment box and an input field for uploading images from the job site. Some of these dropdown menus offered dozens of options. The task of navigating through a long list of options, just to characterise a job site, proved to be a source of frustration for field operators - it frequently resulted in them selecting the first available option ad hastily submitting. In turn, the resultant inaccurate data was storing up problems for the company when allocating resources and assets.
Our team proposed a solution: a simple comment box capable of accepting either typed or voice inputs. By leveraging Natural Language Processing (NLP) from Azure's OpenAI service, the application could analyse the text and autonomously populate the form. This strategy would transform the onerous task of filling out a complicated and detailed form into a streamlined review process. The field operator could simply type or voice-record their observations about a job and the NLP would take the text, analyse it and fill out the form. Consequently, the field operator's role would merely be to confirm the automatically selected dropdown options. The Ntegra team believed this could be a game-changer for NWG, substantially reducing the 'time-to-quality-data' as well as improving the field operators' user experience, in turn allowing them to get to their next job more quickly.
Other potential features were also considered and noted down for future reference:
The revelations and insights acquired from the two-day hackathon underscored the vast potential of AI and Machine Learning (ML) in augmenting user experience, and crucially, in improving the quality of data capturing. As AI imaging technology continues to advance in the healthcare sector, particularly for cancer screening, we also delved into the possibility of employing AI services to analyse photos uploaded into the NWG app.
This was a tantalising prospect for our NWG colleagues, who began envisioning the potential uses of AI in identifying malfunctioning assets in the field, and even extrapolating contextual and inventory data to predict when assets might require repair.
It was a tough couple of days, with lots of hard work, but the overall experience of attending the Innovation Festival was immensely rewarding. Before we left, we gave a presentation to our NWG colleagues and a couple of AI experts from Microsoft, all of whom seemed impressed with what the team had built over the previous two days.
Finally, it is my pleasure to end this post with a few reflections from the rest of my outstanding colleagues who helped do a fantastic job representing Ntegra at the 2023 NWG Innovation Festival.
Head of Digital Engineering
“Great few days up in Newcastle for the NWG Innovation Festival. This was my first visit to the festival and I was blown away by the sheer size and collaboration going on between so many different companies. We had such an amazing opportunity in our hack to solely focus on helping to deliver something that would bring huge efficiencies to the NWG teams in their day-to-day work and to see it come to fruition was inspiring. The engagement we had from the NWG team was great and we really felt part of their team and vision. I was incredibly proud of the Ntegra team for turning around such a fantastic POC in less than 2 days! Can't wait to see where it takes us...”
“It was wonderful to experience NWG's Innovation Festival in person and having heard the excitement about the event over the past few years, it truly lived up to expectations. It was inspirational to see teams passionately collaborate on new ideas and great to be part of a team working on enhancing an existing application to improve how data is input and collated in the field. It was an intense few days but I'm very proud of what we were able to achieve, aided by the fantastic support we were given by members of the team and NWG employees.”
“The NW Innovation Festival was a very positive experience. We managed to showcase to stakeholders an impressive and functional POC in such a short amount of time; very proud of our whole team and what we achieved using our agile process.”