Assura Software is a Christchurch, New Zealand–based technology company that builds highly configurable asset- and case-management solutions. Its products are used by several large irrigation schemes—the Kiwi equivalent of U.S. irrigation districts—to manage their assets and record health and safety risks and hazards. Using Assura’s platform in the office on a computer or in the field on a mobile phone app, irrigation scheme employees or farmers can keep track of what tasks need to be done and the current status of their land and assets.
In this interview, Assura Managing Director Hamish Howard speaks with Irrigation Leader Editor-in-Chief Kris Polly about Assura’s platform and the many uses it can be put toward.
Kris Polly: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Hamish Howard: I am the managing director of Assura Software, which in U.S. terms would be similar to the chief executive officer. I am also a shareholder in the business, so I have some skin in the game. I grew up on a mixed-cropping (sheep and crop) farm in Mid Canterbury, so I’m familiar with the issues of agriculture and irrigation. I’m also very familiar with moving irrigators.
More recently, I grew and successfully sold an information technology business and then bought Assura Software, which is a configurable workflow software platform. If you played with Legos as a kid, you know that how you put those Lego blocks together determines the solution you get. Our software is the same in that we’ve built the blocks, and they can be put together for specific purposes. Just as the same Lego set can be used to build a car, a plane, or a boat, Assura’s software can be configured to manage assets, health and safety needs, a complaints process, or other issues. It’s very much a low-code/no-code approach. The pieces of our Lego set are digital workflows. The fields you put on these workflows and the business rules you wrap around them will determine the solution you end up with.
One relevant example is the use of our software by Mayfield Hinds Valetta (MHV) Water, a large scheme in the Canterbury Plains area of New Zealand’s South Island. It has been configured to provide MHV with two or three things, including health and safety management and inspections. It is a highly configurable solution that MHV’s staff continue to adapt and develop to meet their changing needs.
Kris Polly: So your service provides a record of when assets are managed and maintained?
Hamish Howard: Yes. The platform contains records of all your assets, and each one of those assets has a life cycle. The assets may require inspection on a weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual basis, or a weekly inspection and an annual audit, or some other combination of maintenance activities. Our software provides reminders to the appropriate employees to go and do those things. Employees will have a list of tasks assigned to them on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, or according to a schedule, and if they do not do them, the tasks will be escalated up the food chain on a time frame you have determined. At the end of the day, you’ve got a fully auditable list of what has been done (or not done) by whom and when.
All that information is recorded and can be searched. You can easily build your own reports, displaying the information in the way that you need. For example, Mel Brooks of MHV uses the health and safety information to prepare her board reports. Mel and her team also use the software to make decisions about MHV’s assets. Our product gives MHV a view of where its efforts are being directed and in turn, the money that needs to be spent.
Kris Polly: Can your software program be used on a mobile phone?
Hamish Howard: Yes, it is web based and available on a number of platforms. It can be used on a computer, but if you’re running an irrigation scheme, a lot of your work is done out in the field, so the information needs to be available on a cell phone. Our phone app provides the same functionality as a computer does: It can be used to update information on hazards, undertake inspections, assign workflows to do pond inspections and route marches and update workflows, so they can be progressed to the next part of the task.
Kris Polly: Are your services used by irrigation schemes in New Zealand?
Hamish Howard: Yes. In addition to MHV Water, we’ve just sold it to a neighboring scheme, Ashburton Lyndhurst Irrigation Limited. They will use it in similar fashion to MHV, essentially for asset management. They’ve got lots of pumps, ponds, pipes, vehicles, and other irrigation scheme assets. All those need to be monitored and maintained.
Kris Polly: Would you walk us through an example of a how an irrigation scheme might use your product to do a health and safety report?
Hamish Howard: Farmers and irrigation scheme staff deal with risks from the environment, machinery, and animals. For example, on a pond inspection, a staff member may be at risk of slips and trips and other water hazards. In the field, the app can provide them with information on known hazards in their location before they start. They can look at each hazard and see what mitigation is in place or when it was last inspected. They can also update that information themselves with notes, photos, or video.
Kris Polly: Does the app have a GPS-enabled map that shows where hazards are located?
Hamish Howard: That feature, which is GIS integration, is on our development roadmap. We have built some of the core components but haven’t finished it yet. It would be useful for inspections, so that once you cross the geofenced boundary, an alert would be raised on your device alerting you to the hazards in the area. We would also like to build a feature that would allow users to draw shapes on a map to record the hazards in specific locations, effectively creating their own geofenced areas. That hasn’t been built yet. Most of our development roadmap items are customer led. When customers want or demand them, they tend to move up the priority list.
Kris Polly: Is your product available in the United States, and do you have any customers here?
Hamish Howard: Our product works in the United States or anywhere else, but we don’t have any customers there yet. However, we are keen to build relationships. That is why I recently attended a Microsoft conference. You can do so much remotely over the Internet, but I’m a little bit old fashioned: I quite like meeting people, understanding them, and building proper, genuine relationships. I’m hoping to get into the U.S. market through some good people who are looking for solutions like the ones we provide.
Kris Polly: Where is the company’s headquarters, and how many people work there?
Hamish Howard: We’re based in Christchurch, which is the largest city in the South Island, with a population of about 380,000. By U.S. standards, it’s pretty tiny. We have 14 staff, so we’re not a massive company, but we’ve been going for a long time for a software company. We’ve got a lot of government clients, including the New Zealand Ministries of Education and Social Development, and some large corporate clients, which would be medium-size by U.S. standards. We provide a range of different solutions to them. Some of them have used our Legos to build health and safety systems; some of them use our software for case-management systems; some use it for asset management.
Kris Polly: How many years have you been doing this?
Hamish Howard: The company has been going since 1997. I and two others bought into it in 2015 and bought the company outright in 2017. I considered that a restart. The business was ticking along but not doing that well. It didn’t have a great marketing message. We got involved and brought the company some new money, but more importantly new energy, and got it turned around. Now it’s growing well, and we’ve got really good clients and really good staff.
Kris Polly: Are you presently looking for a U.S. irrigation district to try your technology? If so, what is the best way for them to contact you?
Hamish Howard: Absolutely! We would love the opportunity to discover whether what we have provided to New Zealand–based schemes fits well with U.S. districts’ needs and to address any gaps. Obviously, there are business reasons for wanting to expand into new markets, but it’s also personal for me, as I have an affinity for farming, irrigation, and land use. If anyone is interested in reaching out, they should e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.