If residents of the Northeast who lost power during last month’s “Snowmageddon” super snowstorm got it back after just a few hours or even a day or two – instead of a week or more – they probably have an Israeli company to thank. ClickSoftware is the world’s largest service management company, with its software helping hundreds of utilities, police and fire departments, and emergency rescue organizations around the world (in Israel as well) ensuring that management, customer service, and repair personnel are ready to deal with emergencies when they happen, said ClickSoftware CEO Moshe BenBassat.
“A lot of companies have an idea of what they need to do when an emergency strikes, but they don’t know how to do it,” BenBassat told The Times of Israel. “We help these companies get their repair and maintenance work done during emergencies, and during ‘normal’ times as well.”
And in addition, the system helps service personnel out with some of the most difficult moral dilemmas they may face, said BenBassat – such as who should get help first in the event of an emergency.
The imminent arrival of a major storm – rain, snow, wind, or otherwise — isn’t just a nightmare for commuters; it’s an emergency event for electricity providers, gas companies, water companies, police, ambulance services, and any other organization residents of a community depend on to provide services. Utilities have to scramble to make sure the right people get to the site of downed power lines and blown generators, providing repair people with tools and vehicles they need to get the power back on.
The same holds true for “unscheduled” emergencies, like major fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. Gas leaks, forest fires, and water main breaks can quickly turn into mass disasters unless they are dealt with immediately. If a utility doesn’t have its scheduling act together, the personnel with the skills and tools to fix problems will be much harder to round up.
The way to do that, said BenBassat, is to plan in advance. “On a regular day you may get 200 phone calls, but in a storm you might get 2,000,” said BenBassat. “And then there are the events you can’t foresee, like a major fire.” Utilities need to be very nimble in order to switch work modes, moving from a normal footing to an emergency one.
A “crisis” is not a big, amorphous thing; it’s made up of a lot of small incidents that quickly get out of control. For a utility, “out of control” means getting behind on providing the basic repairs and service to ensure that as many people get back power, water, gas, or other services as quickly as possible, and that means ensuring that the right personnel – the ones with the repair skills, tools, and experience to get the repairs done as quickly as possible – are available and on call, and even more important, can quickly get to where they have to go when they are needed.
This is not a job for a human being, said BenBassat. “If you ask managers how they would deal with this kind of scenario in theory they would come up with a plausible scenario, but once the emergency hits, they cannot deal with the events and issues that are thrown at them,” said BenBassat. When inundated with information, the brain tends to filter out the overload – but in an emergency where lives, often in the thousands, are on the line, that’s not good enough.
Which is where ClickSoftware comes in. “We sit with managers and personnel in advance of emergencies and try to get a sense of what their priorities are,” said BenBassat – such as in the case of a power company, which would want to restore power to a hospital first, then to substations serving thousands of residents, to specific neighborhoods, and only later to individual homes where repairs are still needed. All that information is programmed into ClickSoftware’s system, which then uses artificial intelligence to evaluate incidents that flood a call center during an emergency, placing them in an action queue in the order of the utility’s policy priorities.
That’s only half the battle, though; once the jobs are evaluated, the utility needs to send out crews to deal with the most important jobs, in order. That might require calling in specific workers who have skills to deal with certain kinds of equipment or technology, and it’s likely that their cellphone will be ringing off the hook with requests for assistance. Here, too, ClickSoftware helps utilities prioritize, by evaluating the skills of workers, determining their location relative to service calls, and prioritizing their work assignments, so that they can put out the biggest “fires” as quickly as possible.
BenBassat stressed that the computer is not the one making the decisions. “It’s true that the system is doing the ‘triage,’ based on need, but it is based on the parameters decided upon by the decision-makers for the organization,” he said. “There is no ‘independent thinking’ in this artificial intelligence system, just an execution of the orders the system was given when emergency scenarios were laid out.” If any “moral judgments” are being made about what a priority is or isn’t, he added, it wasn’t ClickSoftware making them.
The alternative, said BenBassat, might be even more difficult to deal with. “Say we are dealing with a major flood situation, and the waters from a river are rising, threatening to inundate a whole community.” In his theoretical example, BenBassat portrays a situation where a helicopter is dispatched with a load of sandbags, to be dumped at the river’s edge as a buffer against flooding. “If the pilot sees someone on the roof of a home as the waters are rising, what should he do? If he stops to pick up the person, he might not get to the river in time to prevent the flooding, but if he doesn’t pick the person up, they may end up drowning themselves.” It’s not for him or ClickSoftware to make that decision, said BenBassat, but for the community – and it’s their decisions the software will reflect.
ClickSoftware isn’t used by just utilities, but by companies in a plethora of industries, as well as by airlines, railroads, governments, hospitals, retail businesses, and many others. The company provides tools for all aspects of personnel and scheduling management, including enabling companies to set appointments for service personnel with customers, and helping managers to get out in the field by providing a full suite of apps for tablets and smart phones.
But it’s during emergencies that ClickSoftware really pulls its weight (the company’s web site is chock full of testimonials about how the system helps clients get things done, under blue skies or gray). “What we do is possible thanks to advances in computing and artificial intelligence, and our ability to harness the power of those two areas to provide a solution that companies rely on,” said BenBassat. “I think our greatest contribution is ensuring the sanity of the managers and workers who use our system, allowing them to rationally deal with emergencies and get things done quickly, instead of becoming overwhelmed.”