Bostonians armed with Tablet PCs

City of Boston

In a modest pilot program, Boston is providing its community liaisons with use of a Tablet PC from Microsoft Corp. to record citizen comments and complaints. This feedback may eventually be wirelessly transmitted to the mayor's office.

Instead of the pen and paper method, representatives from the Office of Neighborhood Services are filling out the constituent services form — created through Cardiff Software Inc.'s LiquidOffice eForm application on the handheld device — to take down information regarding potholes, noise, animals or code enforcement. The city is also testing a Verizon wireless network to submit such forms in real time.

"It's a tablet-enabled PDF that allows the neighborhood services coordinator to capture constituent issues using the same template that's used by the mayor's 24-hour constituent hotline," said Craig Burlingame, Boston's chief information officer, who also uses a tablet computer.

While it's still too early to evaluate the six-month experiment, Burlingame said the tablet is a little pricey and isn't durable enough for use by building or health inspectors in the field. Yet it does offer several advantages over smaller handheld devices, including user familiarity with the Microsoft XP operating system and ease of use.

"Trying to cram a conventional government form where you want to capture more than three or four pieces of data into a small display is just not terribly practical," he said. "I think the tablet affords a whole different opportunity in terms of user interface."

If the pilot goes well, the city will buy several more devices and expand the program into other agencies and uses. Although Boston, like many other municipalities, is weathering budget cutbacks, Burlingame (whose his 120-member department took a 9.5 percent reduction) said it's the perfect time to test out and evaluate new technologies to improve efficiency.

"So when the economic and financial circumstances for the city are different than they are today, we've already tested and have some firsthand knowledge of what's going to work and what isn't going to work on a larger scale," he said. "We don't want to wait until we have money to do a big project to start evaluating what works and what doesn't."

However, city agencies' use of the LiquidOffice application to automate their forms is expanding, he added. Not long ago, overtime requests, requisitions for routine office supplies and time off and IT consultant services were processed as pieces of paper that bounced from desk to desk, sometimes getting lost in the shuffle.

With LiquidOffice, which provides an electronic format and automatic routing capability for the forms, employees can fill out the forms from their desktop browsers, have them electronically signed and then check the status of the form to see who has or has not signed off on it.

Burlingame said LiquidOffice forms could be integrated into a variety of different platforms, whether one uses the tablet or Web browser. "In the end, the advantage of using this tool is that this data still ends up in the same place and is processed with the same set of business rules, regardless of which medium I decide to use," he said.

Cardiff company representatives say use of these electronic forms dramatically decreases the cost of processing such documents. They said it costs an average of $100 to $150 for a paper form to be completed, routed, approved and the data entered into a system, while an equivalent electronic form costs $7. They said an organization's efficiency and productivity are improved as well.

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