Governing by Hand

They've been around for years, but until recently, personal information managers have been more like glorified day planners than computers.

No more. In the last 18 months handheld devices have stepped up from gadget status to real tools for collecting, using and accessing mission-critical data. This tiny platform now has the potential to be a cornerstone of the organizational network.

That's good news for civic organizations, especially those whose front-line employees are armed with nothing more than pens and paper. With these newfangled devices, traditionally mobile workers such as firemen, medics, meter maids, field inspectors, police officers and teachers can fill out forms, download information to databases, access databases and the Internet, send and receive e-mail, and keep track of their own schedules as well as those of co-workers.

So now, New York City's sheriffs, using handheld devices, can cross-check a mainframe in Texas to determine whether a suspiciously parked vehicle is stolen or towable. Thanks to the technology, 90 percent more vehicles are reported and identified by the system.

And brush inspectors in the Los Angeles Fire Department are inspecting more than 180,000 properties with palmtop computers — all equipped with electronic inventories of properties, previous violation information and a list of standard violations. They then transmit reports to the Fire Prevention Office via the World Wide Web.

"Handheld computers are really making information that much more pervasive and readily available," said Jill House, an analyst with International Data Corp., an information technology research firm in Framingham, Mass. "To be fair, though, this isn't really an ultra-high-powered computer like most people are used to. But the point is that the corporate information that you need to do your job can now be had on this device so that you have that information wherever you are."

For vendors, the stakes have been upped.

The initial industry goal of putting a computer on every desk has been extended to include a computer in every hand. And with demand expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 28.8 percent during the next five years, according to IDC, the supply of miniature hardware and software is increasing rapidly.

More than 40,000 developers are creating applications for Palm Inc. And last year, London-based Symbian, a brand-new player specializing in wireless handhelds, jumped into the field, joining Microsoft Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., NEC Corp., Casio Inc. and other companies trying to break the market domination of Palm, which accounts for close to 80 percent of both hardware and operating system sales.

For end users, expect better of the same. Handhelds are rapidly becoming true nodes on the client/server network, with expected improvements in memory, wireless connections, integration with Web-based applications and security.

"People are so used to having information nowadays that they want it wherever they are," House said. "And these devices really give them that

power right in the palm of their hand, where they can access anything they need right when they need it. That's really going to change the way people do their jobs in the future."

Education: High-Tech Truant Officers

Monitoring the halls may seem like an insignificant task within the larger goal of educating students, but for public schools recently rocked to the core by fatal gun shootings and security violations, keeping track of students and where they're supposed to be throughout the day is critical.

Although many schools have turned to surveillance cameras and metal detectors to improve security, Smithtown High School on Long Island, N.Y., decided to tackle the issue with Palm IIIs.

The school bar-coded student identification cards created by Symbol Technologies to put a halt to in-school truancy.

Stephanie Snyder, formerly Smithtown's assistant principal who's now senior business development manager for Symbol, said the one thing that's really important in schools is getting students to class so they can learn. "And students that cut class and hang out can cause real security problems," she said.

With 2,400 students under their care, teachers and administrators found it pretty much impossible to tell if a student they ran into in the hall had a good excuse to be there.

"Inevitably, they'd say they were on their lunch break," Snyder said. "Of course, I had no idea whether they were lying or not and so I'd have to drag them down to the office. And if another problem came up before I got there, I'd end up letting him go. It was just too time-consuming."

That's where the handheld devices come in. Now, when administrators run across an errant student, they simply swipe the bar-coded student ID card through a scanner attached to the diminutive computer. Administrators immediately can see the student's schedule and discipline record. If the student is supposed to be in English class, the administrator can give him or her a discipline referral slip, enter that information into the Palm and later upload that information directly into the student information databases.

"This is really an incredible way of connecting your administrative staff to the network immediately," said Snyder, who notes that the school has seen a tremendous improvement in attendance. "And it not only saves time, but it really is preventive because it solves problems right at the point of activity."

The system has also been extended to the classroom, where teachers can quickly and unobtrusively take attendance every period (rather than just once a day) by scanning the bar-coded ID cards into the Palm. Once uploaded to the school database, administrators will know immediately if a student has skipped class.

Snyder said teachers are also using the Palm as an electronic gradebook, inputting grades and performance evaluations as they go. "It cuts out a lot of tedious paperwork," she said. "And as an administrator, that's very exciting, because where do I want the teachers to be? I want them to be in the classroom with the kids."

Smithtown High is taking all of this point-of-activity generated information — including homework assignments and discipline data — and putting it on the Web, so parents can keep tabs on their children's daily activities. If a child lives in a computerless home, the system generates a telephone call to parents.

In the future, the school hopes to combine its system of palmtops and student ID cards with Global Positioning System satellites to keep track of kids who ride school buses.

"We've never had access to data like this or been able to communicate this effectively before as teachers and administrators," Snyder said. "The system is so effective. Not only does it help to create a safer environment, but it really brings computers to the point of instruction and creates a truly interactive classroom."

Lifesaver for Paramedics

Paperwork is a critical, but, unfortunately, an all-too-time-consuming way of life for paramedics in San Mateo County, Calif.

Though they specialize in life-saving measures, these front-line health care workers spend the bulk of their time filling out patient care reports, a task that can take upwards of 30 minutes per patient, depending on the seriousness of the condition and the treatment given.

"It's really important that we document everything that we do," said medic Lon Adams, "but the longer it takes, the less available we are for that next call."

Which is one reason why San Mateo County eagerly approved a new project overseen by American Medical Response Inc., the country's largest ambulance company, to outfit its own medics and those employed by the local fire department with Palm IIIx computers.

Although it's still in the process of being rolled out county- wide, during a test period the system cut documentation time by more than half. Adams said medics can now fill out electronic forms using a keyboard in as little as 10 minutes.

Just as important, the Palm solution can protect medics against liability.

"The system prompts you so you don't turn in the form without answering all the questions or checking all the boxes," Adams explained, adding that because the handwriting skills of most medics mirrors those of physicians, confusion or misreads from illegibility will no longer be an issue. "They're really going to help us maintain much more accurate patient care reports and allow us more time to attend to patients."

The clinical information, which is uploaded to county-run databases, allows local health care administrators to manipulate and correlate data more easily, according to Eric Gee, operations analyst specialist for AMR.

"There's a world of studies that can be done now that we weren't able to do before because all the data was locked away in some filing cabinet," he said. "Now, we can tie together things like geography and demographics to episodic care and occurrences or target what areas are most at risk for cardiac arrest, for instance. This type of information will help us staff and supply more effectively, pinpoint areas for training, and discover the flaws and successes of patient treatment."

Although security policies and measures have to be passed to make it happen, Gee hopes that eventually medics will be able to wirelessly hook into patient care records on a real-time basis to check health history and potential allergies to medications. "This would really ensure that we're not unknowingly jeopardizing patients' care and improve the odds of survival for many patients," he said.

AMR is working with other counties, including San Diego, Contra Costa and Santa Clara, to build similar systems.

"We're seeing a lot of interest, because this is a complete paradigm shift from the way data has been collected and used in the past," Gee said.

New Construction Tool

Construction projects require their fair share of handheld equipment, but at the Mid-Embarcadero renovation project site in San Francisco, computers — not just hammers and screwdrivers — have become a hip ornament of choice.

Here, field inspectors, engineers and architects from the City Engineer Office have turned in their clipboards and stacks of paper for Palm IIIs equipped with a building management software solution developed by BidCom Inc.

"It's a tool that allows us to communicate more effectively and efficiently with all of our team members," said Harlan Kelly Jr., chief city engineer for the city engineer's office in San Francisco, an organization of some 600 construction managers, field inspectors, architects and engineers.

In the past, field inspectors had to write out field notes on paper-based forms and head back to the office to get updated memos, inventory reports, delivery records and status reports. Now, they simply take their computers on top of roofs and into tight places and tap in their observations. They can upload the information to the organization's database and download e-mail messages and other corporate data. What's more, on-site managers have immediate access to up-to-date staffing lists and supplies and can easily keep track of workflow records.

"Suddenly, people have daily and weekly reports at their fingertips that tell them what happened in this area last week, how many people were on the job and who performed which task," Kelly said. "It just really improves communication between all the team members and helps managers make quicker decisions, all of which helps streamline the process, decrease stress levels and hopefully over the long run save time and money."

Kelly said he has no doubt that his office will continue to use handheld computers on future building projects.

"People are still our most important resource," he said, "but these handheld solutions are really revolutionizing the way we work here."

— Heather Hayes is a free-lance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va.

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