It's frustrating enough for water company workers to try to find an underground pipe with only a century-old handwritten piece of paper for reference.
And sometimes, that slip of paper uses nonexistent landmarks — which house is it in front of? None of these houses is yellow anymore, and the writing is faded, or sloppy, or the drawing is crudely sketched.
"And then you dig there — no, it's not there. And then you dig here — it's not here," said Chris Kahn, senior geographic information systems project manager for New Jersey American Water.
When the records detailing more than 9,000 miles of water main across New Jersey are really a collection of paper records assembled over time, field crews can end up wasting valuable time just trying to figure out where things are.
This summer, the Voorhees-based water company is partnering with Rowan University and the nonprofit Hopeworks 'N Camden to start turning hundreds of thousands of those old files into a database that can be used to precisely locate pipes and valves, predict problems, and guide maintenance and development work.
At Rowan, 12 undergraduate students are led by three graduate students, spending 25 hours a week doing the tedious but relatively simple work: Pull up a scanned page and type the information into the database.
"I mean, it's not glamorous," said Matthew Bresan, 23, of Shamong, who just graduated from Rowan with his engineering degree.
But that not-so-glamorous task is also very important, said Kahn, who leads the water company's geographic information systems work. In the past, workers would carry massive paper books that mapped out where things were located, like an atlas of underground water systems.
Massive books filled with post-it notes and inaccuracies.
"There was some cartographic license that had to be taken," Kahn said.
As for the individual forms, workers would have to pull up those files and read them; there was no way to easily pull the necessary information.
Inaccurate or incomplete records, stored in an inconvenient format: A frustrating situation for a large water company, and a problem to be solved by, well, a group of engineers.
"This is not pure research, this is applied research, and that's what is important for engineers," said Rouzbeh Nazari, the Rowan engineering professor heading the project for the university. "We pride ourselves, as engineers, as problem-solvers, and we see this one as a problem."
New Jersey American Water has about 800,000 paper records to be digitized, Kahn said. As that information is stored in the database, the company can use it in new ways.
For maintenance and upgrade work, for example, Kahn is able to use the attributes on each pipe — its material, its age, its size — and determine which ones are most likely to need work done, prioritizing the field work.
"Not just individuals can look it up, but we can say everything that we have in this street, or this town, or this county," Kahn said. "Just have a really full picture, from an operational standpoint, of the entire system."
Kahn and Nazari both laugh as they talk about the recent frenzy over "Big Data" and the importance of having robust information going in.
"Big garbage," Kahn laughed.
"Big nonsense," Nazari said.
That's where the students come in, working in a computer lab in Rowan's main engineering building and clicking through record after record, turning properties from red to green as they successfully move through them.
"A lot of the work that we do as engineers, when you look at it when the job is done, is very interesting and sexy, but the things that go into it is not as much," Nazari said. "As we say, engineering work, most of the time, is actually ugly — you have dirt and all the unpleasant scene, but eventually you make something good out of it."
It's an important lesson for the students, Nazari said. New Jersey American Water gave Rowan a $95,000 grant for overhead costs and to pay the students for the internship, which runs through the summer. Paying students means they are given real-world experience with real-world responsibilities, Nazari said.
"We weren't told it was going to be anything magnificent," said Charles White, 19, of Woodstown, a sophomore engineering student. "He told us it was pretty much entry-level work and that it's completion-based: We just sit at a computer, come in almost whenever we want, and just make sure that we get done what they expect of us."
The students said they were happy to do the work; the real world is messier than the classroom, and the water program is preparation for it. The mapping software, for example, is one the students use in a first-year required course, but they have more familiarity now that they use it every day.
"We had a class on it. It wasn't really as useful as this," said Megan Mittenzwei, 20, of Lincroft, a senior engineering student. "They taught us the little ins and outs … and this is more how it works in the real world. You don't really get to understand that until you really work with it."
Now that they know the software and have the real-world internship experience, Nazari said, his students will be better prepared to go into the workforce and be more valuable. The students have been working at a faster pace than New Jersey American Water predicted — one student, Angelique Tucker, 20, an engineering junior from Winslow, said she had done more than double her quota last week — and the company could renew the internship throughout the school year.
And then all those hours of work will add up to something bigger than a collection of data, more than just a bunch of digitized records.
"Eventually, when this work is easy for people to use, and in case of emergency or updated system … then that becomes something interesting," Nazari said, "How cool is it that you could do all that?"