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The True Cost Of Good Data

We live in a world driven by data. First thing in the morning, many of us check the weather, our email, social media, and the news. Many of us use fitness sensors that record our sleep and movement data, and our navigation apps pull live traffic data into an interface we can quickly interpret.

We are served targeted ads based on our location data, browsing history, and other social behaviors on our computers and phones every day. Advertisers and data storage providers are quick to put a price on this information, with the Big Data industry expected to reach over $180B this year.

When my team talks about data, we mean something a little different than the ubiquitous term that has become such an integral part of our daily lives. We're talking about pole data—nearly comprehensive information about a utility or telephone pole that is necessary to maintain a robust electrical grid and safely accommodate new communication attachments. Good pole data needs to be comprehensive, as well as accurate, transparent, and defensible.

Just like Big Data, there's a major cost to collect and process great pole data, but miscalculations of these costs have done the industry a disservice. Too often, contractors are encouraged to race to the bottom on a bid, only to find that the price they promised could bankrupt the whole project. The client ends up frustrated that they are continually change-ordered, and the contractor's deliverable suffers because they are desperate to stop the bleeding.

Every time a project is priced correctly, the industry is better served. Here are three costs to acquire good pole data that should not be overlooked:

1. Workflow optimization

Getting your team up to speed on a project with a new client requires a lot of capital. There are substantial onboarding costs such as recruiting, interviewing, and training, as well as logistical costs to deploy to a new market (hotels, food, new fleet vehicles). One cost that isn't so obvious is the time it takes to go back and forth with a client to figure the exact deliverable they want to see, then working with your team to develop the most efficient workflow to make that deliverable happen.

In today's world, your team will need to leverage technology and automation to beat the competition. To do so will take time, energy, and staff that understand both the client's needs and the capabilities of your software solutions. If this wasn't enough of a challenge, your technicians will have to be flexible and patient as your team irons out the kinks in their new workflow. What you're looking for is the rare combination of technical skills and a high EQ; when you find it, you'll have a project manager who can anticipate the needs of your clients and engineer a solution that still leaves your team a healthy margin.

2. Varying conditions

Collecting pole data can jump from easy to impossible without a moment's notice. Weather conditions can make a simple workflow much more complex, and variables such as vegetation and pole location can slow a quick collection pace down to a crawl. While it's safe to assume that not every pole will be surrounded on all sides with dense thorns six feet high, neither is it safe to say that conditions are so good your team can churn through 250 poles each day. Accounting for unknowns may seem like an impossible task (because it is), but some clever tools can be used to narrow down pricing and make sure you aren't trapped at an unattainable price point later on.

A classic example of this problem can be seen on LiDAR projects. In some cases, a contractor will bid an astonishingly low price due to the speed and accuracy of data collected using a car-mounted rig. Unfortunately, when it's time to clean up that data(manually collect backyard poles, downguy/anchor info, cut through heavy brush), the agreed-upon price per pole is nowhere close to sufficient, causing either a major drop in quality or unexpected invoices from the contractor. There are many schools of thought on how to price these situations, but regardless of your methodology, your team should estimate what percentage of your overall job consists of these difficult poles and how much more expensive they are than the rest of the job.

3. Project Overhead

No matter how much you slice a workflow into measurable, discrete pieces, there are invisible costs that will always break your calculations. Invisible costs can add up quickly, such as answering client and team questions, resolving QC, and adjusting the schedule due to weather or to meet client expectations. There are dozens of tasks that project managers take on that might not fit into any of the neat columns your hour-tracking spreadsheet holds, but that doesn't take away from their significance. Without them, the project probably wouldn't exist.

To better estimate these costs, you may have to sit down with your team and find what is taking up your PM's energy. Most of what's on their plate can't be remedied (though investing in team feedback may save some QC time), but you can begin to estimate time being spent on each task. If these invisible costs are eating away at your margins, it's probably a sign you that the pricing needs to be renegotiated or that your workflow needs to be re-worked. In your next proposal, highlight your team's flexibility and willingness to go the extra mile when delivering excellent data—if the client doesn't appreciate or value your transparency, they may not be a client you want to begin a new relationship with.

Thanks for reading! For more information about our team and how we leverage technology to collect and deliver good data, check out katapultengineering.com. Questions or comments? Email me at aschmehl@katapultengineering.com!

Adam Schmehl