A Fasttrack Design Review Write up
Have you have ever had to wait in your house or office for an engineer to turn up to fix something? If so, you probably appreciate a well run field service organisation that has invested in putting the necessary systems in place to ensure that a suitably qualified engineer arrives on time and with the necessary spare parts to fix the problem on the first call.
One such system is FieldPower designed by FieldPower inc and implemented in Microsoft .Net by Zylog Systems Limited. FieldPower is out there now, being used by many companies, especially in the Telecommunications sector. FieldPower is a comprehensive Field service management system, doing everything from integrating with the customer call centre systems through to sending jobs to the mobile devices of Field Service Engineers. Overall, FieldPower enables its users to ensure that high quality field service is delivered to satisfied customers at minimum cost.
So when it came to thinking about version 2 of FieldPower, the design team attended a Microsoft Fasttrack design review session to help give them some ideas about how they could make the best use of some of the latest Microsoft technologies to create and even better solution and help them grow their market share.
One of the first technologies we were keen to discuss with them was Windows Workflow Foundation (WF). Anytime you are building a system with a number of core business processes, especially long running ones or ones that require human interaction, then its worth looking at WF, as its a great piece of technology that allows you to lift the business processes out of your code, and define them more explicitly in XML. This has a number of big benefits. Firstly, it makes it easier to fully understand the business processes, and to let them evolve over time, without having to change the application code. Secondly, it lets you customise the business rules and process on a per customer basis from a single code base, which many ISVs find invaluable. The net result is you get a richer and more fully functional workflow engine, and you get to reduce the amount of plumbing code you have to write and maintain yourself. Fortunately WF comes with a design surface that allows users to graphically design the process flow. Alternatively, the workflow can be generated under program control.
For more information on WF, check out http://netfx3.com/content/WFHome.aspx.
Another area we explored with the FieldPower design team was data mining and Business Intelligence. Like many such systems, the FieldPower application accumulates a lot of information over time. Information such as the work the Engineers do, the quality of the work done and how much time and resources were expended to deliver the actual service levels. Whilst the FieldPower system does provide several parameterised reports analysing work done, it doesn’t really enable users to perform more ‘ad-hock’ analysis or to look for trends and make predictions. Fortunately, as FieldPower is built on SQL Server, data mining is something that the developers can now tap into. A good place to learn more is http://www.sqlserverdatamining.com/ssdm/
A great way to get up and running is to focus on the Data Mining Add-In for Excel 2007, which is a particularly popular tool. It allows end users to perform powerful analysis on spreadsheet data in a familiar environment. This is the new toolbar:
Armed with this add-in, it is possible to explore data and discover hidden trends and relationships between products, customers, markets, employees, and other factors. This information can be used to discover trends, anticipate needs, understand behaviours and discover hidden opportunities that can improve business processes and directly impact profitability:
The other major topic we explored was location based services and capabilities. As you might imagine, FieldPower coordinates co-ordinates the operations of many engineers on the road, with the needs (and SLA’s) of customers. The ability to visualise the current deployment situation against a geographic and logistical backdrop is a great advantage. The great news for FieldPower is that Microsoft Virtual Earth is a great platform for hooking into and building applications on - http://dev.live.com/virtualearth/
Virtual Earth is offers the FieldPower developers an integrated set of services that enables the creation of ‘live’ displays showing field force deployment (territory by territory), customer locations and the best route (allowing for current traffic conditions and know rush hour situations) for a particular engineer to take to get to the next customer. This ‘situational awareness’ is expected to result in much better ‘dynamic dispatching’, i.e. responding effectively to emergency call-outs.
Using the Virtual Earth Interactive SDK, the following shows traffic overlaid on a map:
The Virtual Earth API allows web developers to supplement Virtual Earth's maps with pushpins and lines. MapCruncher http://research.microsoft.com/mapcruncher/ brings mashups to a whole new level by allowing developers to import entire maps to supplement the existing road and aerial imagery with detailed, application-specific information. The FieldPower team see MapCruncher as a means of enabling their customers to enter Field Service regions and areas into the database to help support scheduling and visualisation:
Finally, during the Fasttrack meeting, we also discussed how SQL Server 2008 introduces new spatial data types and new functions that open up many new possibilities for building geospatial and location based applications. Once you have mapping data (collections of latitude/longitude coordinates) in the database, it’s then possible to query these for interactions, boundaries, distances, etc. The systems can then use Virtual Earth to display this data.
For example, the following screen shot shows the census blocks in a ZIP Code region with the number of restaurants computed. The number of restaurants in each block, relative to the size of the block yields a density value, which appears in the display as a region shaded from white (low density) to red (highest density):
For more information on SQL Server 2008 and the new Geography data type that can be used to store geodetic spatial data and perform operations on it, visit http://www.microsoft.com/sqlserver/2008/en/us/spatial-data.aspx
Overall, as a result of the Fasttrack review, the FieldPower design team have been able to enhance their specification for FieldPower version 2, beyond what was originally envisaged and they are confident that the updated specification can be implemented in a timely manner and can provide their customers with a more flexible application.