Innovative apps bring power to the people

The use of tablet and smartphone devices in local government has huge potential to make savings. While the majority of headlines in the media continue to slam council spend on such devices, the benefits are often overlooked.
Tablet devices can be proven as a cost effective way for council employees to receive email and collaborate with colleagues and residents. The innovative development of ‘apps’ to help deliver council services could also have massive cost saving implications, as well as their use in the field, or when council employees are working in remote areas, and even ‘hot-desking’.

Education Explosion
Tablet use in schools has surged. A British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) survey has found that the use of tablets in schools across the UK has increased. The trade organisation represents over 300 educational suppliers in Britain, including manufacturers, and distributors of digital equipment. In its annual survey, ‘Tablets and Connectivity’, analysed the usage rates of tablets and apps in educational settings. It looked at 636 schools across the country, of which 334 were primary level, and 302 were secondary. Participants predicted that by 2015 a total of 24 per cent of computers in educational settings would be tablets. Respondents believes by 2016 the rate of usage will be 37 per cent, and by 2020, 56 per cent of hardware in classrooms will be tablets. If usage grows at the projected rate, the pupil-to-tablet ratio would be 11:4 in primaries and 6:4 in secondaries. Last year’s results expected to see one tablet for every 14 students by 2015.
Director of BESA Caroline Wright said: “It is heartening that schools continue to invest in this mobile technology to put the power of learning back into students’ hands. However, schools must continue to collaborate and share best practice use of tablets and apps if the technology’s adoption is to continue to contribute positively to educational standards.”
The survey also found that 90 per cent of schools said funding and budget allocation were barriers to procuring tablets. Other barriers included security, training, and the availability of a wi-fi connection.

Planning Progress
Reigate and Banstead Borough Council has recently utilised tablets in order to move towards a paperless operation of the planning function when a relocation and refit of the RBBC town hall office space meant the number of available desk spaces were reduced by 20 per cent.
RBBC development quality manager Kelvin Hinton introduced paperless practices to casework and consultation processes. All incoming planning applications are now validated electronically on screen. Planning officers were equipped with large 27-inch monitors to view application drawings and other supporting documentation.
Officers use software measuring tools that are also available to external users of their online public register. Planning officers do have the option to print out their own copies of drawings if required but this is by exception and avoided whenever possible. Planning officers have remote access to back-office planning system, meaning they can access application information from home, saving travelling time and improving hot-desk availability in the office.

However, the real quantum leap followed the introduction of tablet devices for site inspections. RBBC projects and change officer Kenton Reader shadowed planning officer site inspections to assess appropriate technology and usage requirements.
The practical trials identified that screen brightness is an important consideration, as was robust shockproof protection. Given broadband black spots in some rural areas, it was decided that in most cases the whole case file should be downloaded onto the tablet for site inspections using Civica Briefcase software.
For those applications with multiple documents, only the most relevant plans and drawings are downloaded. The working case file can then be viewed and annotated, with photographs and report notes recorded on-site, then uploaded back in the office or from home.
RBBC selected the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 tablet to view drawings and documents on-site. The device’s 10.6-inch screen permits folder navigation and viewing of documents in a sizeable split-screen format.
The development management service bought an initial bank of eight devices held on full battery charge and ready for officers to take on-site. Adoption has been mixed, with some officers taking up the new technology faster than others. However, print requests have now fallen significantly to an ‘acceptable’ level.
This technology has also led to wider adoption by building control departments.

EdinburghApps competition
EdinburghApps, a competition run by City of Edinburgh Council inviting teams and individuals to create new mobile apps or websites using council and partner data, is set for its second year. Launched in 2013, the event offered winners business support and the opportunity to work with the council to develop their concepts further. The competition is returning in partnership with Transport for Edinburgh, and this year, will centre on two themes: health, and culture and sport. Ideas should either help citizens live healthy and independent lives or encourage interest and participation in culture and sport. This year’s event will launch on 5 September, with participants then given seven weeks to work on their ideas before presenting them at a judging and awards event.

BYOD Concerns
A new research paper, produced by UK think tank Parliament Street has examined the extent to which Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies operate in London Borough Councils. The report, written by Steven George-Hilley, calls on public sector decision-makers to invest more in BYOD research and implementation. It concluded that there should be “calls for a bolder, more proactive approach from IT decision-makers to push through personal device schemes in the workplace wherever possible.”
George-Hilley explained the barriers of adoption for local governments include security concerns, who will manage the process and implement it and whether employees are aware they can use their own devices for work.

Additionally, if local governments do decide to roll out a BYOD strategy, they must ensure the the necessary protocols, procedures and training is in place to make it an effective scheme, George-Hilley said.

Councils should “factor in planned reduction in personal IT devices such as tablets and laptops and shift the onus onto employees to provide preferred devices where possible,” he said.

Further information
Parliament Steet’s report into BYOD:

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