Keeping track of staff and costs

Martin Morey, Mobile Computer Users Group General Secretary, discusses why it is fashionable for the press to pick holes in government IT initiativesTravelling to Carlisle by train recently I picked up a copy of the free Metro newspaper to while away the miles, and found an article on Leicester’s introduction of sat nav to its fleet of grass cutters. Under headlines carefully worded to imply the council’s profligacy in rash purchase of luxury items for such basic services as lawn mowers was an article that actually explained the project, business case and – not insignificant – the benefits of getting the mowers to the right place at the right time.
    
It remains amazing to me that delivery of effective state-of-the-art mobile technology to drive efficiency in the public sector is still so easily misconstrued. The Mobile Computer User’s Group (MCUG) covers a wide range of user interests outside government, encompassing diverse sectors as law, service, road rescue, delivery, and utilities. Below I have picked just a few of mobile data related issues that have emerged in the past year, and which arguably affect mobile workers, regardless of sector.

Persistent connections
Depots and offices cost money, but they don’t deliver benefits when they are merely used as base, and the real work has to be delivered out in the community. Many service industries have now virtually abandoned depots in favour of home start, saving valuable drive time and real estate.
    
One emerging problem is that the cellular communications infrastructure is now the only lifeline between the call centre and the workforce. The nature of mobile phone contracts is that most users are tied to a single network, and although WiFi is available in numerous bars and cafés there is an understandable corporate reluctance to incur the security risk or costs of using these ad-hoc despite the fact that they present a second line of communications and resilience. As a bonus they often have a higher data rate than GSM/GPRS.
    
Another issue is that network contracts are often chosen on price rather than on data quality or coverage, and, being mass market driven, networks have an understandably cautious approach to adding services for smaller numbers of business clients. MCUG members as diverse as Logistics International and South East Water have recently become very proactive in managing this problem, both adopting mobile VPN middleware to provide a virtual persistent connection between the van and the office, which can hop automatically between WiFi, GPRS, 3G, and an employee’s home ADSL.
    
The encrypted data tunnel is secure between mobile terminal and company server, and which fools the corporate applications such that they remain up, even in bad signal coverage areas. From the user’s perspective this saves logging in to the corporate back-end systems multiple times as connections drop, and from the IT manager’s perspective, there is a fully manageable tunnel, regardless of the security of the bearer. The finance director also sees some benefits, as the system defaults can be automatically set to the best compression and cheapest connection, whilst all the user notices is a change in speed of response, and instant re-connections after leaving a black spot. Where users are also responders in an emergency, this approach could also go some way to serving resilience in scenarios covered in the civil contingencies act.

Peer to peer tracking
There remains much controversy over the rights and wrongs of tracking staff, but this debate usually verges on hysteria when the technology is likely to be applied to tracking the young or vulnerable, so it’s nice to find a user who has fearlessly tackled and resolved those issues in an interesting trial.
    
At the TAPEX conference in Newcastle, organised by associate member Trackaphone Ray Sherrington, who is Digital Challenge Project Manager of Sunderland City, he gave a presentation of a tracking system that rode roughshod right in the centre of this controversial area and he presented delegates clear evidence of keen user acceptance.
    
The system was designed to support a teenager with a learning difficulty having access to his community. Ray’s principle in the system design was straightforward, and included the novel aspect of both the carer and the ‘cared for’ being able to track each other. The mutual reassurance and trust this bi partisan approach achieved was dramatic.
    
The situation prior to adopting the technology was that the teenager, living at home, would, as teenagers are want to do, go out in to the neighbourhood and beyond. That’s pretty typical teenage behaviour, however, in this case, the lad, due to his difficulties, would often get lost, and sometimes both he and the carer would then have a period of panic.
    
Even with a mobile phone, he would seldom be able to tell his carer, in this case mum or dad, where he was accurately enough to be rescued. By the time the parents had done a circuit of the city to find him, he would wander off having panicked and lost confidence in any rescue. The rescue process would then start all over again… and again… and again….
    
Now, we all know that teenagers like cool technology, but don’t like to loose privacy, and fiercely value their independence. The compromise answer that developed was two Blackberry units, both of which were tracked, one with mum, and one with the lad. Both could see the position of the other; very reassuring, and both had on/off control of the service, the devices were pocket size, and rather cool. The lad could weigh the advantages, and quickly bought-in to the idea. Mum now had access, even when in Tesco, and when the lad was lost, he could see the rescuing parent approaching as a dot on-screen.
    
What’s more, the device gave him a map, so sometimes he could even find home without help. As a service where the intrusion of being tracked was shared between carer and cared for, it worked well, and removed the need for a big brother monitoring centre too. Simple and effective.
    
The same held true in a talk at the Police event in Leeds mentioned in my introduction above, where the acting Chief Constable from Staffordshire stated that introduction of data gathering and officer tracking was always much more successful if the supervisor grades were given trackers first; don’t do-as-I-say, but do-as-I-do, so make the application of the technology universal. It’s a bit like mutually assured destruction in the nuclear arms race. It is safer and more effective if everybody has one…. Umm…. Perhaps not the best analogy…

Saving time
Years ago when I was working in R&D in the service industry, and attending cost/benefit review meetings, the ‘gotcha’ of any proposed new mobile IT project went like this; ‘did the proposed time saving exceed one extra job per day, or the removal on a complete person from the payroll’, otherwise, it was argued by the luddites, there was no benefit to be accrued.
    
With this in mind, it was refreshing to hear several police forces refer to measured percentages of time saved having introduced PDA’s for such tasks as basic Police National Computer (PNC) queries and capture of common data previously committed to paper notebooks, and by reflecting it as extra minutes on the beat. Applications linking photographs and notes with a GPS position and time stamp being seen as a significant time saver.
    
Figures like 13 per cent more time on the street in contact with the public and Mr Creep the Crook, and the imminent demise of the policeman’s paper notebook are now being realised in a series of initiatives, force by force. With more flexible working patterns, a greater focus in all sectors on quality of service, and more open attitudes, measuring the benefits no longer seems to be hidebound by the accountant’s need to ‘save’ a complete unit, be it time for one task, or a person to justify a saving.

Support for smaller devices

How many times have you struggled with a new mobile phone and wished that some nice knowledgeable person at the help desk could see the mess you are in and maybe help? Remote assistance that allows the help desk to see and control your laptop and desktop PC is now common place, and must have saved a few million laptops being hurled from hotel bedroom windows by frustrated road warriors trying to complete important spreadsheets when in Timbuktu, or Birmingham for that matter.
    
VNC, the people who make open source remote access software, have recently completed a micro server that can reside on a large number of smart phone and PDA devices and ‘serve’ the tiny screen view to your company help desk. All research at MCUG confirms that users of new field systems need some ‘chalk and talk’ training to get them started, but then need considerable support once in the field.
    
Imagine, however, the cost saving for trouble shooting once devices have been scattered throughout the workforce, if full remote helpdesk assistance is available. This approach can be very reassuring for the user and allows your support team to actually see what users are doing wrong, which is a particularly powerful feedback process for the design team. Training and user support comes up again and again as a significant running cost of mobile data systems, used in conjunction with device management; this tiny, device agnostic server application could make a big impact.

The MCUG will be hosting an Advice Clinic at the Service Management Expo on 22 September at the NEC, Birmingham. For free registration, visit www.mcug.org.uk.

For more information

Go to www.mcug.org.uk or e-mail secretariat@mcug.org.uk.