Better wireless options are spurring a building boom of mobile applications
Calling a worker who often ventures outside an office a road warrior can evoke images of a knight on a lonely quest. The effectiveness of such workers nowadays is a result of more connectivity to information systems rather than their independence.
Initially, mobile computer connectivity required a trip back to the office to plug in and synchronize portable machines with a desktop PC or office network. Later, people began using secure dial-up connections from the field to synchronize their laptop and tablet PCs and handheld personal digital assistants with office systems.
Now the next iteration of remote connectivity is taking shape, thanks to the rise of new wireless network options. New applications tap into always-on connectivity via wireless local-area networks, a cellular network’s data services or a satellite-based service.
Not all users need this real-time network access, but for many road warriors, the ability to send and retrieve data quickly and from anywhere can provide big benefits.
For now, agencies have two primary options when choosing an always-on wireless network solution: custom-developed applications that tie into an office’s existing IT infrastructure or commercial, mission-specific solutions created and delivered by third-party providers.
The custom-developed route typically involves using middleware and application development tools from companies such as Sybase subsidiary iAnywhere Solutions or Nokia’s recently acquired Intellisync to control the synchronization of mobile applications with back-end applications and databases. Open-source tools are also available, several of which are based on an open standard called Synchronization Markup Language (SyncML).
The commercial applications are often quicker and easier to implement but are less flexible and do not always integrate easily with an organization’s existing applications. Electronic messaging and highly specialized mission-related applications are common choices here.
Roll your own
Field worker productivity issues prompted North Carolina’s Department of Transportation bridge inspection office to pursue its own wireless mobile application.
The department’s 60 or so bridge inspectors work in small teams as they evaluate the state’s 19,000 bridges and culverts. The teams spread out to record specific data, observations and sometimes digital photos from as many as a dozen inspection points at each site. But sharing field data to better coordinate the team’s work was not easy when inspectors had to record data on paper.
With the help of EDO Professional Services, the department created the Mobile Inspector application. The system uses mobile file synchronization software from iAnywhere to coordinate data exchanges among the team members’ tablet PCs while in the field, and later with office-based systems and databases.
The teams’ mobile computers connect to one another on-site via a peer-to-peer wireless network using 802.11-standard equipment, which provides a line-of-sight range of about 300 feet. With the new system, team leaders can monitor data as inspectors enter it, and they can immediately identify missing information or discrepancies with past reports. That allows managers to request clarification from the inspectors before they move to a new section of the bridge.
The system also lets team leaders develop reports while the inspectors are working, eliminating the need to return to the office and spend hours coordinating all the data.
One of the challenges in developing North Carolina’s system was creating the right interface for the portable application, said Walt Tallman, senior mobility integrator at EDO Professional Services. He said inspectors wanted limited data entry fields on each screen.
“The work can be dangerous,” Tallman said. “Inspectors standing at the top of the bridge in the wind and rain don’t want to fumble with multiple screens or sort through fields that aren’t relevant to their immediate tasks.”
The tablets provide two data input options: an onscreen keyboard, used by 25 percent of the inspectors, and a handwriting recognition feature, used by the rest.
Maury Blackman, senior vice president of Accela, which makes remote applications for state inspectors, agreed that effective data input options are critical. “Anything less than a full-sized keyboard can create problems for some users,” he said.
Handwriting- and voice-recognition features, while always improving, are still prone to error, Blackman said. Because many users find onscreen keyboards tedious, Accela designers try to limit detailed data input requirements and increase accuracy through the use of menus and wizards and by limiting the type of input many fields accept.
For North Carolina’s system, Tallman also had to address issues associated with unreliable connections, which are especially troublesome because the bridge inspection system depends on line-of-sight wireless gear. In the case of failed uploads or downloads, the database returns to the point before the file transfer began. When the connection is restored, the synchronization begins anew.
Another consideration when developing a mobile application is the range of portable devices on which the software can run. Most commercial software development toolkits support a variety of platforms for their applications, from PDAs to cell phones. However, some believe that open-source development kits are a safer bet when it comes to platform versatility.
“When you depend on a proprietary product, you never know if the company will choose to support the newest mobile device,” said Fabrizio Capobianco, chief executive officer of Funambol, which sells an open-source mobile application server based on the SyncML standard. “With open source, you have so many people working on the product, your chances of getting the patches and upgrades quickly are much better.”
Going the buy route
The Washington State National Guard opted for a commercial wireless solution because it met a majority of the organization’s needs and spared it from undertaking a complex and lengthy custom development project.
Looking for a system to help it better respond to mass casualty events, the guard’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear or High-Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package, known as CERFP, bought Iomedex’s Mobile Incident Response Information System. In the field, the application runs on Hand Held Products’ Dolphin, a secure PDA.
Iomedex houses the server, so the guard didn’t have to change its infrastructure to accommodate the new system and data.
“This was relatively easy to implement since it worked pretty much out of the box,” said retired Maj. Bradford Jackson, former operations officer of the CERFP unit who was responsible for selecting the system.
In the event of a mass casualty event, the unit would be responsible for decontaminating the affected population, providing emergency medical care and operating a search-and-rescue effort. All three missions require complex tracking of affected citizens and workers — not all of whom are members of the guard — who would converge on the scene.
In past exercises, traditional methods of managing operations were inefficient and ineffective. Workers would use permanent markers to write identification numbers on victims’ wrists. As the affected people moved through the decontamination process — removing clothing, showering, receiving paper clothing and undergoing testing — workers would track them via a complicated process of calling from station to station with cell phones.
“If you ever tried to use a phone with a full-face respirator on, you’d know how ridiculous this was,” Jackson said.
Ensuing mix-ups resulted in the guard losing track of almost one-third of the people in the system. That delayed or complicated tasks such as reuniting people with their personal items or family members.
With the automated wireless system, each person’s personal information — including name, age, sex and medical history — is entered into the PDA using drop-down menus and a handwriting- recognition feature or a keyboard. Then a bar code is produced using a wireless printer. Emergency workers attach bar code labels to victims’ wristbands and personal items.
Guard workers scan the bar code each time the person moves to a new station. The scanner immediately sends the data via wireless transmission to a database that the service provider houses.
Using the handheld devices, guard members can locate people by typing in names, browsing lists of names of people who are at a particular location or scanning bar codes attached to personal items. As a result, the team has achieved 100 percent accuracy in tracking people and their personal items. The guard next wants to deploy a similar system to track emergency workers.
Stevens is a freelance journalist who has written about information technology since 1982.
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