Completed footbridge in Rwanda. Source: Bridges to Prosperity; Photo: Collin Hughes
Construction management software system leverages Salesforce with the addition of apps.
By Elaine Chang
An estimated 900 million rural dwellers worldwide do not have adequate access to a formal transport system, according to The World Bank Group. As a result, they may be forced to cross makeshift bridges spanning canyons and rivers or ford fast-moving water on foot to travel to school, visit a medical clinic, or walk to work.
Bridges to Prosperity (B2P; https://bridgestoprosperity.org) is seeking to solve this rural isolation and its economic consequences (www.engineeringforchange.org/news/how-engineering-bridges-can-save-developing-communities) by building sturdy new footbridges and scaling operations with the help of offline construction management software and a powerful cloud database. To date, B2P has built more than 280 footbridges that serve more than 1 million people in 21 countries.
Two years ago, during a strategic planning process, the B2P team asked how they could scale their impact from hundreds to thousands of bridges. They wanted to improve operations in some of the most difficult areas of the world to work in — where tough terrain and spotty mobile phone connectivity prevent easy solutions.
Part of the answer was digitizing legacy paper processes. But as Abbie Noriega, B2P’s director of evaluation, explained in a recent TaroWorks webinar (https://youtu.be/gEPbCWwsuak), the Salesforce AppExchange (https://appexchange.salesforce.com) provided a crucial second part of the solution: TaroWorks (https://taroworks.org) for a mobile offline CRM; Mogli Technologies (http://mogli.com) for SMS functionality; and TaskRay (https://taskray.com) for project management.
Paper is fine, up to a point
For the first 15 years, B2P primarily used paper-based data collection processes with Excel for spreadsheet analysis and planning. The old system “actually worked pretty well for us for a really long period of time, but we’re looking to scale as an organization,” Noriega said during the webinar about B2P’s efforts.
However, Noriega said B2P realized that scaling footbridge construction would require B2P to improve its information sharing and communication. To do that, they needed to digitize the paper-based field data collection and footbridge construction process.
“Once we had a staff that was bigger than a few people at headquarters and a few people in a program country, we really started to feel the burn of paper. … When you start to grow and not everybody knows one another … it doesn’t work anymore to have really valuable and important data bouncing around in a binder in the back of somebody’s pickup truck,” Noriega said.
Build or buy?
Noriega said that B2P first considered building a new mobile and cloud-based construction management software stack from scratch.
“There are very few organizations that do what we do and so it was really important to us to be able to build a system that allowed us to collect and manage and aggregate and understand the data that was coming in from the field at scale,” Noriega said.
B2P had three functional requirements for its footbridge construction management software setup: It had to include an integrated database and project management system, allow for mobile data collection, and provide real-time reporting and analysis.
The construction project database also had to connect seamlessly with B2P’s existing Salesforce database, which they were already using to track fundraising contributions to fund footbridge construction. They also wanted the capability to survey local communities that would use the footbridge. Finally, the system had to be user-friendly, “out-of-the-box” but customizable when necessary, applicable across multiple geographies, affordable, and scalable.
When B2P looked into building its own system from the ground up, the organization got sticker shock.
“The bids that we got to essentially have the same functionality we have now, perhaps less, [were] between $150,000 and $400,000, which was just not in the cards for our organization, and I imagine not in the cards for most nonprofit organizations, especially if you’re first getting started,” Noriega said.
There’s an app for that
So, instead of launching a major custom software development project, B2P worked with Mogli Technologies, which helped design and implement the new construction management software system to leverage B2P’s existing Salesforce instance. They did this by adding three Salesforce apps:
TaroWorks (https://appexchange.salesforce.com/appxListingDetail?listingId=a0N30000000ptbAEAQ) — An offline mobile field service platform. B2P uses TaroWorks’ offline mobile app and CRM to collect field data needed for assessing a new footbridge project’s viability and to manage and direct field staff working to collect that data in areas with limited internet or mobile phone access.
Mogli SMS (https://appexchange.salesforce.com/appxListingDetail?listingId=a0N3A00000DqCytUAF) — An SMS management tool for communicating with the local residents who would use each new footbridge to gauge their opinions on the project and elicit feedback for how it might best serve their needs. The SMS capabilities are designed to work in areas of low connectivity.
TaskRay (https://appexchange.salesforce.com/appxListingDetail?listingId=a0N300000055lKwEAI) — A cloud-based operations and project management tool. B2P uses its functionality to track project progress against goals and coordinate interdependent stages of the work.
“What was really exciting about this [current software development plan] is it allowed us to take off-the-shelf, really affordable applications and stitch them together into a system that essentially maintains itself. …We have to make sure we are putting good data into our system, we have to make sure we’re providing training and good support to our staff, but I’ve never actually had to update systems to keep up with technology and that was really really important to us,” Noriega said.
Building B2P’s system
The central element of the new construction management software system is what B2P calls a “bridge project record.” This record displays all data inputs associated with each separate footbridge construction project in one place — such as information for the site assessment and selection process, project authorization status, the tally on funding donated to underwrite the cost of each footbridge constructed, project milestones, and community opinion survey data.
Mogli recommended using TaroWorks and TaskRay as apps to collect and manage data flowing into the bridge project records and associated footbridge construction tasks.
Mogli’s Senior Project Manager Serena Schultz explained that a variety of factors entered into the decision about which applications Mogli suggested B2P use to build a full construction management software infrastructure. Among them were that the applications be native to Salesforce, be built with nonprofits in mind, balance cost versus functionality, be flexible and customizable, offer full documentation and user support, and operate effectively in areas of low connectivity.
But for the development project to succeed, Schultz said there was another important, human consideration. The project needed an internal champion who understands data, can get feedback from the team, and can work effectively with the people actually building the system.
“No matter what solutions you choose, whether they are apps or code or unicorns or whatever it happens to be, it is really vital to get organizational leadership on board for any of these new processes,” Schultz said.
Looking back on the year-long development and rollout of the footbridge construction management software program, Noriega observed that the new system’s ability to aggregate and centralize data from so many different sources — especially from remote field locations — has enabled B2P to track trends, spot problems, and make business decisions faster.
For example, B2P now knows how many footbridges are under construction or completed at any given time and how that number compares with performance goals set for the work. With the minimum useful life of a footbridge at 30 to 40 years, Noriega said bridge inspection data can be analyzed across multiple locations to guide maintenance and repair routines.
The data collected and analyzed using TaroWorks and Salesforce also provide current status on the number of remote locations B2P field agents have assessed as possible future footbridge sites. B2P can also see which proposed projects are the strongest candidates to move forward and how productive the field survey team has been in collecting this data.
About 60 people at B2P use the data collected and managed with Salesforce, TaroWorks, Mogli, and TaskRay on a regular basis and with significant results, Noriega said. “This has really been a game changer for our organization in terms of how we make decisions. And what’s really exciting about this is that this isn’t just something that I have access to — this is something that every person in the organization has access to. … When you make data available in forms like this it really empowers staff all over the world and at all levels to make decisions and generate ideas about how we can work better and more efficiently.”
The original version of this article appeared on Taroworks.
Elaine Chang is director of market development and customer success for TaroWorks (www.taroworks.org), a social enterprise launched by Grameen Foundation to sell a mobile offline field service management app that helps Salesforce.com users conduct field data collection and analysis, manage construction projects, direct supply chains, and increase field agent productivity in developing countries.