A Week of Writing, April 16 – 22

As the momentum of my writing picks up, I’m called to produce ever more content with ever more speed. While not altogether abandoning my reliance on adhering to good technical writing skills, it’s really the audience that matters most, so that’s my greatest focus.

This week:

Webtech Wireless 2012 Annual ReportAt Webtech Wireless, we (the Marketing department) worked tirelessly with Finance to produce the 2012 Annual Report. All were concerned with proper reviews, but also in ensuring this document is readable to our Board, stakeholders, and investors.

 

 

Also at Webtech Wireless, the blog post I researched in February went live in time for the many tradeshows now occupying the lives of government snow removal fleet operators. I’m pleased the name, “Are Your Winter Fleet Contractors Worth Their Salt?” was retained.

 

Long-Term Disabilities Top Social Issues in Forthcoming Alberta Election for the Disability Claim Denied site looks at social issues affecting Alberta, which ever way the election goes.

 

 

Are Your Winter Fleet Contractors Worth Their Salt?

City of  OttawaOne of the hidden costs of winter road maintenance is its affect on the environment. Much of the salt applied to keep roads ice free finds its way into soil and waterways. Toxins found in fish, either from surface water or metals dissolved in water by salt, are among the toxic effects of excessive salt usage. A municipality’s ability to supply quality drinking water is also compromised by surface or groundwater that’s contaminated with salt. Soil retains salt year after year, destroying its ability to sustain plants leading to increased erosion. Also, salt residues by the side of roads serve as an enticing salt lick, luring animals into dangerous on-road encounters with vehicles.

“We cannot keep trading short-term cost for long-term cost.”

Reducing salt usage is good for the environment and fits well with municipal, provincial, and state environmental efforts. To address environmental concerns, some municipalities have experimented with other solutions over rock salt, such as using calcium magnesium acetate (as it has far fewer toxic effects). While less toxic, calcium magnesium acetate has the drawback of taking longer to melt ice than rock salt and it’s 20 times more expensive.

One remedy is to drastically reduce the use of cheap rock salt and phase in one or more of the expensive alternatives. But to really reduce your salt usage, you need to increase your ability to track excessive salt usage with precision—especially when it comes to third-party contractors (some of whom charge for salt and thus may be incentivized to use it to excess).

In 2009, The City of Ottawa implemented the InterFleet winter operations solution for government fleets. By gaining the ability to identify excess salt usage by its contractors, the City reduced its salt costs by 20%.

 “Installing GPS technology in our salt spreader vehicles is a great way to help us reduce the amount of road salt we use, and reduce costs at the same time,” said Mayor Larry O’Brien, “By installing these systems, we will both prolong the life of City infrastructure and keep more money in the pockets of Ottawa taxpayers.”

In Ottawa, where they don’t use contractors, InterFleet’s Live Material Monitoring tool saves costs by highlighting in real time when an operator is using pure salt (icon appears red), as opposed to the environmentally friendly alternatives (such as pre-wet applications, allowing for less overall salt usage).

Other government scenarios, which use contractors, utilize InterFleet’s real-time visibility to verify contractor compliance with salt-usage standards. This is particularly advantageous if contractors are charging for salt used.

The most impressive advantage of InterFleet’s real-time visibility is that, unlike passive GPS tools that merely store data and upload it when the vehicle returns to the yard, live data allows a fleet manager to bring immediate attention to help an operator if salt levels are too high. Real-time alerts provide operational efficiency that can foster an environment of cooperation between government and its third-party contractors, and in the end, less salt on the roads means a better environment for everyone.

A Week of Writing, April 9 – 14

I should preface this post with “why I love my job” to describe the diversity of things I do. Apart from writing on a diversity of subjects (see below), I’m also busy designing graphics, designing web pages, interviewing interesting people, collaborating, doing some project management, and generally being a techy good time charlie. When I hear people complain about their jobs, I am torn between sympathy and the desire to say, “then quit”.

Long-Term Planning for Long-Term Disabilities describes changes to RDSPs (Registered Disability Savings Plans) in the 2012 Federal Budget. It’s mostly good news for those with long-term disabiliteis, but otherwise off the radar of the Media.

Investment in Lean Technology Powers CP’s Success picks up on the news of the day–CP Rail is posting record profits, despite harsh winter conditions (in the West) and a low stock evaluation. Its adoption of lean technologies such as Webtech Wireless’ Quadrant solution is credited with this success.

How Provincial Budgets Affect Those with Long-term Disabilities is a simple cross-country tour describing changes to provincial budgets that affect those with long-term disabilities. I slightly favoured western provinces (because that’s where the traffic is coming from), and I’m sorry I could find nothing for Quebec.

ICBC Conflict of InterestHow Could Your MVA Claim Be Compromised By ICBC’s Conflicts of Interest? describes some of the ways British Columbians are at the mercy of the Province’s auto insurer, ICBC. This is my kick-off blog post for this site.

Investment in Lean Technology Powers CP’s Success

Despite unusual harsh winter conditions in parts of western North America and a weak valuation of its stock, Canadian Pacific is reporting if first-quarter profits to be far ahead of predictions. Founded in 1881, Canadian Pacific (CP) is one of Canada’s oldest railway companies.

Yesterday’s article in the Vancouver Sun quotes BMO Capital Markets analyst, Fadi Chamoun, “We believe the results also demonstrate that the company has begun to reap the benefits of recent investments in its infrastructure and lean initiatives.” According to the Vancouver Sun, “Chamoun estimated that CP’s operating ratio in the first quarter has improved to the 80-81% range from 90.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2011”.

Part of their commitment to infrastructure and lean initiatives involves the implementation of our Quadrant solution to streamline its InterModal operations (moving freight between trains and CP’s customers). CP benefits from Quadrant in two ways:

  • Save Costs – Rather than CP drivers waiting up to an hour to be dispatched, Quadrant’s In-Cab solution saves time and costs cumulatively over its hundreds of drivers by eliminating the need for mobile phone communication to dispatch drivers.
  • Increase Revenue – By using Quadrant’s geofencing features, CP has identified distribution centres with long stop times. Because CP has a contractual agreement with customers on the maximum amount of wait time at the distribution centre, CP tracks work with customers who are not meeting their contractual obligations and bills them accordingly for excess time.

By investing in its infrastructure and committing to lean initiatives, CP Rail is thriving even in the face of harsh markets and harsh winters.

Integrating Fleet Technology Boosts Revenue

Recently, we talked with CEO, Steve Troyer, and found out how Troyer Ventures is generating revenue to stay way ahead of its competition.

Challenge

As a leading fluid transportation company in the oil and gas sector in north-eastern British Columbia, Troyer Ventures found that it couldn’t grow with the old system. And to realize their growth potential without replacing the old system, Troyer was facing adding an additional dispatch office or even splitting the fleet, which in itself presented another host of operations challenges.

To realize its revenue generating potential, Troyer made the strategic decision to embrace an integrated technology solution.

Solution

Troyer took the unprecedented initiative to adopt a challenging integration combining the best of three different software providers: TMW, Great Plains, and Webtech Wireless’ Quadrant solution.

“It allows us to re-allocate staff to more strategic activities than merely pushing paper and most importantly, it has allowed us to grow and handle more revenue with the same staff.”
—Steve Troyer, Troyer Ventures

Better ROI

So far, the implementation is showing many encouraging trends and Steve concludes that what’s emerging shows what a great fleet management tool Quadrant is, because it has allowed Troyer to “realize better returns on our assets and people”.

“With the level of minute-by-minute information we’re getting, Quadrant is the best thing going.”
—Steve Troyer, Troyer Ventures

How Much Better?

Steve expects benefits to increase over next 12 months with trends pointing toward a complete return on investment in the not-too-distant future. In addition, the new growth strategy leverages on improved staff efficiencies, particularly as staff re-allocations mean increased revenues for the company without increasing staff.

“In the end, it all pays off—we doubled our revenue.”
—Steve Troyer, Troyer Ventures

History of GPS Devices

Since working at Webtech Wireless, I’ve starting getting an idea of how transformative location-based GPS-powered technology can be to our future once everyone adopts it into their everyday lives.

Take for example, your public library. No longer would a librarian passively wait for borrowed books to be returned and then issue fines. Every librarian could take an active part in repossessing books, because each book would have its own GPS device installed. With just a little help from satellites and small fire arms, a librarian could then find and repossess books from forgetful borrowers?


Moral drawn from this short film clip: Return your library books and nobody gets hurt.

But enough of the mundane future. What about the past? The past is full of great missed GPS/AVL (automated vehicle location) opportunities. How would the Age of Exploration be transformed by GPS?

No more “Let’s try around the next shark infested cape for the route to Cathay, or the Fountain of Youth, or Name-Your-Spice Island” anymore. A Magellan or Columbus could toss his outdated sextants and ridiculous astrolabes overboard and, instead, boot up his GPS device.

Voíla! With affordable on-board communications, he could easily navigate around monsoons, plot a route to India, or get the upper hand on Malacca pirates. As a leader in bringing  state-of-the-art GPS tracking and cellular solutions to small vassal states, he could add to the riches of his king and/or patron. And through communication among enterprise-level fleets, he would be able to offer just-in-time delivery of gold, tobacco, slaves, and beaver pelts on time and under budget.

thar be monsters !

How Much Graphic’s Experience Do You Need?

As a freelance writer, how much graphic experience do you need?

Writers often find themselves involved in the visual components of their writing. This can range from making aesthetic choices for a document to sub contracting a graphic designer to taking a DYI approach and creating graphics themselves.

These days, things are a lot more visual as everything moves online where people tend to even read visually—scanning, foraging, and generally jumping around compared with more traditional linear reading styles.

I just edited a blog post for Webtech Wireless, one of my main clients, and apart from having to revise the text on an image, I designed to improve the overall look and feel of the image. So, not really a functional improve, just an aesthetic call to improve the overall look and feel of a very technical article.

Original

I didn’t have the source for this image—it was just pasted as an Excel® chart in Word®. I find that most graphics created in Microsoft programs look really clunky and, well let’s just face it, nerdy.

Odometer original

Original Excel graphic

Revised

To revise the original, I started from scratch and redrew the content in Adobe Illustrator. I didn’t intend to go quite this far, but one thing led to another and pretty soon I’d built up these dreamy layers of gradients, Gaussian blurs, reflections, and transparencies. I think I’d go for some Jell-O salad now.

Odometer revised

Revised graphic in Adobe Illustrator

In the end, a lot of technical material was rendered a little more, er, palatable with an eye-popping image. Read the article…

Why Increased Accuracy Matters

–By Chuck Lane, Solution Engineer, Webtech Wireless

With ever increasing fuel costs, a common question these days is, “how do I accurately measure my individual vehicle fuel consumption?”

GPS versus Vehicle Odometer Reporting: “It’s a mine field”

With the advent of on-board diagnostics (OBD) in the 1980s the problem was solved, right? In an automotive context, OBD is a generic term referring to a vehicle’s self-diagnostic and reporting capability. All vehicle manufacturers conform to SAE J1979, and the OBD-II standard has been mandatory for all cars and light trucks sold in the United States since 1996.

“It’s complicated”

Problem solved! We just connect to the vehicle OBD port (they all have one) and read the fuel consumption data, right? Wrong—it’s not that simple—it’s complicated and fraught with pitfalls.

Each vehicle manufacturer implements the OBD standard uniquely and will rarely, if ever, share that standard outside its service network. It’s possible to gain access to that standard and implement a solution to read the PID (parameter identification) number codes, but manufacturers are not required to implement all PIDs listed in J1979, and they are allowed to include proprietary PIDs that are not listed. It’s just a minefield to attempt to interpret individual manufacturer PIDs accurately.

Most importantly, non-approved connections to a vehicle OBD port (ECU/Engine Control Unit) could invalidate warranty and cause other legal or technical issues. Modern vehicles are controlled by highly sophisticated computer systems, can detect miniscule unexpected current draws, and may register a fault. What if you have a mixture of old and new cars, vans, buses, and other vehicles from different manufacturers? Older vehicles don’t have any OBD port at all.

Comparing OBD against GPS Statistics

Both OBD collected data and GPS calculated data have some inherent flaws—neither one is 100% accurate. Recent studies have shown a variation of plus or minus 5% for speed and odometer data from OBD. We recently conducted a series of studies with our major customers involving hundreds of vehicles measuring the accuracy of ODB versus our GPS locator information. With recent improvements in our  locator hardware and algorithms we have now confirmed our GPS information is accurate to plus or minus 3% versus OBD data from the same vehicles.

The federal specification for vehicle speed/odometer is plus or minus 10%. A recent study by a major Webtech Wireless customer has shown that their trucks were reporting a speed of 15% to 20% higher than actual when using cruise control (this data was taken from the ECU (engine control unit)). This prompted the customer to switch to GPS calculations for speed.

Odometer Drift Analysis for 827 Vehicles

Recently, Webtech Wireless completed a study of 827 vehicles from a large customer fleet. This study compared the odometer readings from the vehicle with the mileage calculations from the Webtech Wireless Locator using GPS calculations.

The results of the study are as follows:

Odometer Drift Analysis for 827 Vehicles

  • Average GPS odometer drift was plus or minus 3.07% when compared to vehicle odometer
  • 87% of the vehicles had less than 5% drift
  • 63% of the vehicles had less than 3% drift
  • 2% of vehicles had GPS antenna issues (19 vehicles)

In an additional study, one of our largest clients found ECU data on speed to be way off, so they asked us to switch to GPS calculated speed.  When the GPS antenna was properly mounted and had clearance to the sky (i.e., in highway conditions further from obstructions such as skyscrapers), GPS speed and odometer calculations were favorable.

Increasing Accuracy

The biggest factor in getting good GPS odometer (mileage) readings is to have the GPS antenna installed properly. Improper installation can cause a high number of no-fix records that, in turn, can cause invalid GPS odometer readings.

The following actions can increase GPS odometer accuracy:

  • Install a GPS antenna with a good view of the sky
  • Update the GPS odometer for all vehicles every 6 to 12 months
  • Update the GPS odometer during scheduled maintenance
  • Monitor vehicles with high no-fix rates of greater than 25%

Summary

In conclusion, both vehicle OBD and the GPS odometer readings can have some issues regarding accuracy. Webtech Wireless Locators and highly accurate GPS calculations provide proven GPS accuracy for speed and odometer readings. These studies resulted in our customers using Webtech Wireless GPS reporting for accounting purposes.

Making a Difference

“I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for your instruction and guidance in class.
Having teachers who have a passion for what they teach makes the difference.”

—Joe Coll, Technical Writer, Ballard Power

Five Super Fantastic Tips to Improve Your Writing

When I’m editing (either corporate technical and marketing materials or student papers at BCIT), I pay particular attention to sentence construction. Technical and business writing is prone to awkward sentence construction, because the material is so complex. And marketing writing only compounds the problem, because the writer feels compelled to decorate the writing with as many superlatives as possible.

Here are five tips I use to keep my writing clear:

1. Avoid nominalization. Most people are familiar with it even if they don’t know what it’s called. In nominalized writing, the writer turns verbs into nouns. It’s most common in bureaucratic writing, and I believe, originates from a writer’s attempt to gain ground on the target audience—it talks down to its readers.

Here’s an example:

Improve driver safety by notification of Emergency through panic button depression.

You can see that nominalization also results in a lot of passive voice. By returning the nominalized verbs into true verbs, your sentence instantly has more life:

To improve driver safety, notify Emergency by pressing the panic button.

2. Keep the subject and its corresponding verb as close to each other as possible.
Here’s an example:

Before:
“This concept demonstrates how simple data related to, for example, salt dispensed on the public highways during the winter months when combined and processed with external data like geo-spatial, traffic fatality, and weather data can be turned into useful information.”

After:
“This concept demonstrates how simple data can be turned into useful information (for example, data from salt dispensed on the public highways during the winter months becomes useful information when combined and processed with external data such as geo-spatial, traffic fatality, and weather data).”

3. Move parenthetic content away from the core of the sentence. In the example above, I’ve moved the parenthetic material away from the structural core of the sentence, but mirrored the point to reinforce the meaning. Parenthetic content is not always contained in parentheses (brackets). You can also use commas and even em dashes to indicate a parenthetic idea. I distinguish each as follows:

  • Parentheses – an idea entirely outside the structural core of the sentence; a lesser point.
  • Comma – a subordinate idea, but closely related to the core of the sentence (i.e., the sentence would be lessened without it).
  • Em dash – a non related point that has a slightly exclamatory quality to it. It’s unrelated to the core meaning, but it’s an important aside—I use them a lot in web writing!

4. Check your logic. The most common logic error in grammar has a name: It’s called the dangling modifier. It occurs in sentences in which the doer is unclear (either because the sentence carries two or more doers or it’s omitted). It’s often the source of humour, as in the famous quote of Groucho Marx, “Last night, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How the elephant got into my pajamas, I’ll never know”.

Here’s an example taken from technical writing:

“The currently open table appears in the top-left corner of the window.”

“Open” in this case is not a verb; it’s an adjective. The intransitive verb “appears” is doing whatever action it can. “Currently” is a misplaced modifier. It should read, “The open table currently appears in the top-left corner of the window.”

5. Limit your use of adjectives and other superlatives. I call this “super fantastic writing”, because it’s used when “fantastic writing” just isn’t good enough. I recently edited a document that made the claim “…saving you more than millions of dollars in lost revenues”. As in point four above (Check your logic), it just doesn’t make any sense. Without an exact number, you can’t add a superlative (“more than”). As an editor, it’s sometimes difficult to persuade writers to release their white-knuckled hold on such writing—but it must be done. Decorating your writing with lots of adjectives, superlatives, and other do-dads doesn’t make it better or more persuasive.