The City of Tampere is a large organization that operates across a cross-section of the entire city’s infrastructure, maintaining healthcare, education, hobbies, and everything in between, all at the same time.
The entire machinery involves countless different systems and a colorful spectrum of data, information, and archival material. The amount of information is massive, and the systems are as diverse as the areas of operation.
Moving data within systems from location A to location B has largely been a manual operation within the organization. The information must flow even though there are simply no integrations or interfaces that allow integration between each of the systems.
In 2017, the City of Tampere became a pioneer in setting out to find a solution for handling such large amounts of data. The organization needed new perspectives on how to save labor hours and find a more efficient way to handle processes. They were keen on experimenting with software robotics and were widely interested in the possibilities of automation in information management.
Developing an ambitious project
When the City of Tampere decided to tender for Robotic Process Automation (RPA), the use of software robotics had not yet become as widespread as it is today.
“This project initially started with a couple of individual pilots,” reveals Pertti Vartola, the City of Tampere’s information management planner and deployment project manager.
“It started with the idea that things can be automated, and people can focus on more meaningful work,” adds planner Pasi Paananen, who worked as Vartola’s colleague in the project.
Contrary to what is often feared, software robots were not coming to Tampere to take people’s jobs. In fact, the City of Tampere aimed to innovate new ways to address the resource shortage and bring in more efficiency so that people’s time could be used more efficiently.
For instance, in the city’s child protection services, using automation to speed up non-urgent tasks could give employees more time to deal with urgent cases. “It is good to decide in the planning stage itself what the time saved by automation will be used for. No one needs to be laid off due to automation,” Paananen explains.
Qentinel was selected as a partner of the City of Tampere through a competitive bid. However, the start of the project had to be postponed by a year and a half when the bidding went through an appeals process — ultimately, it was concluded that Qentinel rightly won the tender. The partnership was launched in November 2018. Unfortunately, due to the delay, the original projects planned for RPA were no longer relevant, so planning work had to start all over again.
What exactly is RPA?
The word ‘robotics’ brings a wide range of images to mind. It was important right at the start to communicate to employees what exactly Robotic Process Automation or RPA means.
“Digitalisation, software robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence are the biggest trends today. People need to understand that automating processes that are done manually does not necessarily involve reasoning by the machine. If the column reads A, a different action takes place than if the column reads B. There was a need to simplify matters for the project,” Paananen says, talking about the initial lack of information regarding the subject.
To help demystify RPA, Qentinel’s project manager Merja Ilomäki conducted a well-received webinar for the staff, explaining what software robotics is and how it works. There was a great deal of interest among the employees and a lot of ideas were exchanged on areas where RPA could be applied. Some of the ideas were, however, a little too far-fetched. “There were few over-optimistic fantasies that the robot would come and save everything,” Vartola quips.
Although not everything could be automated, the brainstorming truly paid off — they came up with different solutions for many of the problem areas to make everyday life easier. For example, they identified new ways of handling finances through Excel and came up with different ways to solve problems more efficiently in the city. “At that point, it worked as a solution office,” Paananen describes.
From RPA planning to practice
In the next phase, workshops were held to map out ideas and identify areas that could use automation. “We truly started from scratch. There were no ready-made work documents to start out the process,” Vartola says, recalling the project’s rigid parameters. “The situation was challenging, but also very educational,” Vartola says.
Suggestions for possible use cases kept pouring in. They were screened based on their feasibility, efficiency, and keeping the strict timelines of the deployment project in mind.
“At the production level, we had no idea what kind of documentation should be produced for RPA and we had a lot to learn from Qentinel about the new systems,” Vartola says.
The initial period proved to be a great learning experience. “Qentinel Pace provides good data, and its dashboards allow us to track processes. It helps us look at the volumes and constantly monitor not only the status but also the projections.”
Before the project started, production teams did not have a complete understanding of software robotics, making it challenging to choose the processes for automation. “A model was created within the framework of the project to evaluate the processes in which software robotics can be introduced,” Paananen says. Challenges also arose from technical issues and third-party operators. “The more the players in the game, the more challenges there could be.”
Rapid progress and multiple projects
While a sprint-style project was not exactly new to the City of Tampere, the rapid progress surprised some parts of the organization. However, things moved forward according to the pace set by the timeliness of the deployment project.
The initial seven projects involved completely different fields of work. This meant the City of Tampere had to rope in separate teams of system experts to work on each robot. Joona Sinisalo, Tuomas Koukkari, Ilari Rosengren, and Merja Ilomäki were part of the team of Qentinel experts who were developing the robots.
Many others from the City of Tampere had to be involved as well to work on test specifications and test environment among other things. The experts pitched in not only to prepare process descriptions but also to clarify the details and ensure the overall functionality of the software.
“When multiple use cases were attempted at the same time, we agreed it wasn’t working best. In hindsight, it would have been wiser to work on a few projects and phase them out, instead of attempting to carry out everything at once,” Paananen reflects.
The process automation of seven completely new systems seemed a little too ambitious in the six-month schedule — there was not enough time to get acquainted with the different systems and to train people. Ultimately, only five robots were implemented in the deployment project.
“It was great that even though areas like healthcare systems were new to Qentinel’s experts, we could quickly determine what can and cannot be automated on the basis of the demo alone,” Vartola says praising Qentinel’s efficiency. In fact, the project began to speed up when other processes in the system began to be automated.
Overcoming challenges for best results
During the automation process, many unforeseen problems arose. For instance, in the test environment data transfer worked normally, but during production, it was observed that one of the software robots could not function without a smart card from a healthcare professional. The robot was designed to ease the workload of nurses by automating the transfer of manual data from the systems to physicians. The robot is currently on hold awaiting a decision from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL).
Eventually, the deployment project involved six robots:
1. Transfer of the Tampere Ice Stadium’s reservation information from one system to another.
2. Activating the processing of non-urgent notifications in child protection services — the system itself does not allow automatic forwarding of guidance.
3. Electronic archiving of support forms in the student system — around 40,000 files need to be named correctly and archived.
4. Daycare decisions in early childhood education — the robot itself does not make the decisions but compiles the necessary information needed.
5. Early childhood education customer fees — composing a decision when the customer agrees to the highest payment.
6. Designating prescriptions — the patient information system receives prescription renewal requests which the nurse directs to the physician. There are about 20,000 requests per year per health center. The robot is in the testing phase and is awaiting THL approval.
Qentinel and the City of Tampere’s collaboration has a promising future despite the challenges, or perhaps even thanks to them and all the resulting learnings. In fact, since the deployment project, a new entrant called the Unto-robot has been added to the family — it automates the ordering of bus tickets for customers in rehabilitative work. “The number of robots has already doubled since the initial deployment,” Vartola says.
Paananen describes the collaboration with Qentinel as flexible and reliable. Vartola is also satisfied with Qentinel’s expertise: “We can trust that things are being monitored thoroughly and we are not just left to our own devices. It has been a wonderful, natural cooperation.”