Using Cell Phones to Create a Feedback Loop

Reposted from i.e., the Center for Energy and Environment's Innovation Exchange blog --

In previous posts, I’ve explained how to incorporate smart phones and apps into energy audits (here and here). But in reality, most auditors and inspectors don’t take advantage of even the most common functions of their cell phones. In this blog post we will suggest ways of using some of these functions to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the home energy retrofit process.

Consider the communication between the auditor who prescribes the work, the contractor who performs the work, and the inspector (if there is one) who signs off on the work. Typically this is a linear process with little feedback. If a cell phone is used at all, it is to arrange scheduling with the homeowner, or the contractor might call if there are questions about a work order. Cell phones could be incorporated into the work process to enhance communication, document the process, and establish feedback loops between the auditor, contractor, and inspector. 

Let’s examine one possible feedback loop in the process: the post-retrofit  inspection. This step can occur either while the contractor is on-site performing the improvements, or when the contractor is off-site after having completed all the work. A few years ago, we delivered a residential retrofit program for our local public housing authority. Part of our task was to inspect every job completed. We found a number of advantages to performing inspections while the crews were still at the site:

  1. It saved time because the inspector could use the blower door that the crew had already installed for their work.
  2. The inspector could observe the contractors at work and therefore instruct on proper method and technique.
  3. It created a dialogue between the crews and inspector, clarifying expectations and objectives.
  4. The homeowner only had to schedule one visit.
  5. The inspector could ensure that the work was being done correctly the first time, reducing callbacks.

The main difficulty with these inspections was scheduling the inspector to be available on call to drive out to the house. Another issue was that the inspector either had to wait at the jobsite for work to be done or simply could not be present for certain aspect of the work.

Incorporating the use of a cell phone could increase the productivity of the inspector and make the inspection process more complete. Cell phones are practically ubiquitous and nearly all can send text messages and take digital photos. The exchange of information necessary for an inspection could be performed synchronously from remote locations via text messaging and photos within the text messages. 

In addition to the advantages (listed above) of performing an inspection with the crews present, this remote approach could add the following benefits: 

  1. We could reduce scheduling issues and eliminate inspector travel time to the site.
  2. The text messages and photos could serve as documentation of the inspection process for each house as well as a work record.
  3. Being on call could expand the inspector’s role to a mentor for the contractor and crew, available as a resource when problems arise. The inspector and crew could become a team working together to ensure completion and quality.
  4. By working remotely, the inspector could perform more inspections and oversee more jobs.
  5. As the process and expectations are defined, an asynchronous documentation of work could also be developed to replace a synchronous inspection. After recording the work with a digital camera, the contractor could email the photos along with the work order to the inspector for assessment. Everyone involved could use Dropbox  to transfer and store information.

Increased communication and feedback via cell phones could foster a sense of collaboration between the inspector and the contractor while instilling a common purpose. A team approach to learning and continuous improvement could be a very nice by-product. Taking a systems approach and  incorporating feedback loops helps create a true learning organization.

Eventually, the widespread use of smart phones could allow us to incorporate more sophisticated apps into the process. Whatsapp allows free text messaging for Android and iPhone users. Voxer is like Whatsapp but also allows voice messaging, which produces a walkie talkie-like effect. Skype and FaceTime add video conferencing to the mix, and Ustream brings video broadcast over the Internet, but more importantly, allows archiving of the video. How are you using cell phones in your program delivery? We welcome any questions, comments, or suggestions.

Related posts:

From the Field: CEE Programs and Mobile Devices

Review: Apps to Expand Smart Phone Communications Beyond Calls and ...

Review: Commerically Available Apps Adapted for Energy Audits

Photo credit: Samsung

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Comment by Craig Savage on November 12, 2012 at 3:58pm

In regards to dirty workplace and delicate mobile devices, the industry might take a lesson from the dirt bike racers who have peel-off layers on their protective visors...

Comment by Lester Shen on November 12, 2012 at 3:43pm
We're currently working with some contractors to figure out a method. Hopefully we'll have a process that will work for most.
Comment by Craig Savage on November 12, 2012 at 8:03am

Foam and dust, etc. are definitely issues to be resolved.

Google Glass comes to mind -- perhaps a tad prematurely, but these "computers as glasses" have -- or will have -- the ability to record what we are seeing and index them to a checklist -- basically a "heads up display," the glasses can also overlay augmented images onto what the installer is actually seeing -- providing a "just in time" training or refresher if there are questions about installation techniques. 

For what exists today, the Taser company is selling a simple headset that records what a policeperson is seeing in real time.... and I recently  read about a company that is making a camera that simply pins to your shirt and takes a photo every few seconds and stores up to two days worth of images...

Comment by Jim Peck on November 12, 2012 at 7:29am

In regard to permissions, we do mostly State and Utility work so permissions are a MAJOR concern along with confidentiality

I'm trying to do this with Picassa, as it allows for access to be limited to invitees

Comment by Jim Peck on November 12, 2012 at 7:27am

I've been trying to promote this for some time. 

However, I need a VERY USER friendly scenario.  Weatherization workers in the field need to be able to Photo doc information and communicate it daily whilst being cover in spray foam, standing in clouds of Cellulite dust  and holding an assortment of tools

Not an easy scenario

Comment by Lester Shen on November 10, 2012 at 7:35am

Yes, an iOS version of Articulate would be great. I've been playing a little with Adobe Edge although it might be time to learn jQuery, ...  :-(

Comment by Craig Savage on November 10, 2012 at 7:32am

Our company does a lot of work with Articulate as a distance training software platform. We are waiting, not so patiently, for them to release an iOS friendly (e.g. not FLASH) version. Overnight that would let training content be freely available in the cloud (internet).

Comment by Lester Shen on November 10, 2012 at 7:21am

Craig, thanks for the feedback and the tip about apps like Canvas and Flowfinity. We've had to create our own workarounds. Lately I've been playing with Articulate to develop training and educational tools. Field guides and operating procedures available over the cloud might be very useful. Everyone may not have an iPhone or android but maybe they should. Donald Norman said that there is knowledge in the brain and knowledge in the world and we need to design knowledge in the world. The cloud can help us create more knowledge in the world so that our brains can more closely focus on the problems in front of us.

Comment by Craig Savage on November 9, 2012 at 3:14pm

Lester, you must be reading my dumpster trash, which is close to, but not to be confused with, my mind. 

Using cloud-based technologies to do what you are describing..essentially creating a self inspection system, is IMHOP the only way we are going to increase QA/QC on the job site....throwing more and more training resources at the problem simply isn't working.

By having the INSTALLER record his/her own work onsite you introduce pride/shame into the process. After publishing photos of crappy duct installs or window flashings, the installer will either learn and not do it again, or be fired....

And I'm sure this post and yours will bring out arguments like "not everyone has an iPhone," "contractors can't type," and liability/risk arguments are insurmountable...not to mention the fact that it if works we ultimately dis-intermediate building inspectors...but what you describe is already being piloted in other industries with apps like Canvas, and Flofinity....

Keep thinking out loud.

Comment by Lester Shen on November 8, 2012 at 11:24am

Agreed that if photos are posted on the Internet that permission with the homeowner needs to be granted. That said, sending photos via MMS from cell phone to cell phone (or computer) will not result in those photos being directly published on the Internet.

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