Inspectors' gadgets save time

Building inspectors in Jacksonville, Fla., are using cell phones to punch the city’s time clock instead of driving to their downtown office. The new application also allows supervisors to track inspectors’ movements.

Beginning in August, 62 of the city’s construction inspectors, who include mechanical, electrical and plumbing professionals, have been using Java-enabled Sprint Nextel cell phones to check in and out with the city through a service provided by California-based Xora. Using the service, inspectors save one hour per day and can therefore conduct more inspections.

With the time saved, city officials estimate that the Building Inspection Division can annually perform 22,500 more inspections. That’s significant because housing construction and remodeling has boomed in the past three years, resulting in a 36 percent increase in the number of construction permits people have requested for single-family dwellings in the city, which is about 840 square miles in size, according to C.L. Googe, the division’s administrative assistant principal.

Inspectors previously had to report to the downtown office and sign in. That caused other problems because they occupied metered parking, which people have complained about, and used office space that is otherwise empty most of the day, Googe said. After talking with a Sprint Nextel representative, he researched the Xora application, which Chicago’s Department of Buildings also uses, he said.

Now Jacksonville inspectors, who receive their daily assignments through laptop computers, drive directly to their assigned territory. Once there, they press a button on a Sprint Nextel phone, which is also equipped with a Global Positioning System chip, that enables the Xora GPS TimeTrack service. Pushing the button automatically sends the inspector’s location coordinates via Sprint Nextel’s network to Xora, which takes that information and plots it on a map.

“The supervisor, who has already reported to work in downtown offices, would go on to Xora’s Web site and see who has signed in and who hasn’t,” Googe said. Every 15 minutes the system pings inspectors’ location coordinates so a supervisor can track their whereabouts.

The phone is also set up to remind inspectors to turn on the Xora application five minutes before they start and end their shifts, usually at 6:55 a.m. and 3:25 p.m., respectively.

Googe said inspectors were concerned that tracking them smacked of “Big Brother looking over your shoulder.” But “we assured them our primary objective was simply to record time start and end work and verify locations,” he said.

Googe said the unionized workforce has not objected to the new procedures and technology. The tracking data, which the system saves for 30 days, helps inspectors prove they were at a particular site at a specific time, he said. In one instance, a contractor complained that he had been at a site all day and the inspector never showed. The supervisor pulled up the inspector’s whereabouts through the Xora Web site and found that the inspector canceled the inspection because the contractor was not there at that time, Googe said.

Googe added that the division did not install the Xora application in response to payroll cheating. “We have had that over the years, and normally the citizenry in Jacksonville would report those kinds of things, and we have gone out in surveillance and recording that, and [inspectors] have been fired,” he said. “I can’t say that it has happened recently, but we haven’t had any complaints.”

He said he is interested in several other features, including a function called “geofencing,” which would allow, for example, supervisors to monitor a particular area and would alert them if one of their employees has moved a certain distance from the area. He said this could allow supervisors to enforce a policy that forbids employees to go home during work hours unless they get approval, for example.

Googe said Xora’s service costs less than $34,000 annually, and city officials valued the saved work hours at $264,000. He added that a number of other city agencies are now looking at the service.

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