Logan City Council has armed its food and 'nuisance tree' inspectors with iPad 2 devices in a project with wider implications for the council's desktop strategy.
Chief information officer Jim Barclay told iTnews that 15 officers use an electronic form app on the iPad that captures data in the field from the device's camera to generate a PDF report.
In the case of a food inspection, the report is emailed simultaneously to the restaurant owner and to the council's document management system.
A record of the inspection, the restaurant's score and notes on "further intervention" are manually entered into a separate system. There are long-term plans to automate this process.
The iPad system was jointly designed by the council's IT team and Apple-accredited consultancy Rype and uses electronic form and mobile platform technology by BlinkMobile Interactive.
An initial five-month pilot in April 2011 involved two "enthusiastic" food inspection officers and a single "nuisance tree" inspector.
"We started from scratch," Barclay says. "We looked at what their business needs were, what forms they were currently using, where the information was stored, how they communicated [it] back to the restaurants [and] what their preferences were."
After the pilot, the system was expanded to 15 officers across the food inspection and nuisance tree areas of council in the three months to December 2011.
Barclay eventually plans to use the system as a template to mobilise other data entry processes across council, although his recent focus has been on stability and change management.
"We've thrown 15 iPads out to people who have used pen and paper for a number of years," Barclay says.
"Add a few software bugs to people who aren't used to using computers all the time and you have a bit of a challenge.
"We took a breather over Christmas and said, 'Let's have a look at it, let's stabilise it and deliver what we promised'."
The teething issues were largely resolved and ultimately did not turn officers off using the system.
"When we suggested they [officers] could go back to their manual processes until we resolve some issues, they said 'No, we'll stick with it and work around those issues because we're getting the benefits from it'," Barclay says.
"They actually refused to return the devices or go back to manual processes."
Making iPads work
Bringing iPad hardware into the corporate environment posed some early challenges.
The council did not want to give iPads to each officer permanently but rather operate a pool of hardware that could be assigned on any given day.
"iPads tend to want to marry themselves to one user [whereas] we wanted to use them corporately so any user could grab an iPad and go [offsite]," Barclay says.
"The latest OS allows the iPad to act without childing to a computer all the time, whereas in the old days you had to have it childed to a computer. We had some challenges there."
Another challenge came in integrating the various parts of the system and "binding it all together for the PDF document" to be delivered in a neat package to the restaurant owner and council.
However, change management represented the biggest challenge to the project's success.
"The real challenge is making sure the people in the field are comfortable with what you're giving them," Barclay says.
Barclay says that council was careful not to introduce too many changes and new processes at once.
"There was a big focus on satisfying the needs of the field officers rather than making it too complex for them or adding complexity or failure points," he says.
Read on to page two to see how the council's mobility strategy could afford IT some breathing space on a future SOE revamp.
The iPad project is not the council's first foray into mobile systems but it is the first that resolves some of the challenges that stalled earlier initiatives.
"The technology really hasn't been there," Barclay says of past projects.
"It's always been a case of the best we could do is for [officers] to take all the information into the field, try and update it in the field and then bring it back to the office."
One early challenge was having a field officer connect into a system that expected the officer to stay connected throughout the session - a particular challenge for food inspectors.
"They're in and out of fridges so they needed to be available both on and offline, because when you go into a restaurant fridge it's fully enclosed and you can't get online," Barclay says.
"If the end application behind the scenes wants to stay connected all the time and you have a drop out, the user has got to log back in and it becomes cumbersome."
Other past challenges involved dealing with latency, which forced users to "keep re-keying" data into the corporate systems.
"It just gets frustrating for them," Barclay says.
According to Barclay, the arrival of tablets and smartphones - and the ability to work on and offline - helped breathed new life into enterprise mobility projects.
"We saw the advent of the [tablet] devices - iPads were first out - and the large storage space you could have on them," he says.
"We started looking at how we could satisfy the needs of the officers in the field and the customer needs and try and do it as simply as possible."
The newer tablets were intuitive - something lacking in previous mobile systems - and importantly, they were also cost-effective.
"When you're buying an iPad and paying $20-30 a month for the data service, it's not a huge investment, whereas years ago to get the same service you were probably paying $10,000 to $20,000 a user a year and that's a big cost to recover," Barclay says.
"Our return-on-investment for this project is well and truly under 12 months," he says, although he declines to reveal exactly how much was spent.
A potentially larger benefit to Logan City Council of encouraging iPad use is that it relieves pressure on the organisation's architecture strategy.
The council's desktop environment is Windows XP - and Barclay says that any future change to the standard operating environment (SOE) is going to be a "huge job".
He says that the increased use of iPads "helps us relieve the pressure behind-the-scenes".
"What I mean by that was the challenge of us - with the number of applications we run in council - changing our SOE desktop. [That is] a huge job for us," Barclay says.
"If we can start to move people out onto other platforms such as the Apple tablets and reduce our dependency on Office and things like that, in the future it's going to help us when we look at putting in new SOEs."
The iPad mobility project could eventually be applied to officers working in development assessments, animal and pest services, road infrastructure management and parks.
Executives are also being encouraged to adopt iPads as part of a bring-your-own (BYO) device program.
"They get reimbursed partially for [the iPad] and they can use it in the corporate environment but they own and they support [it] themselves," Barclay says.