Features: September 6th, 2002

Getting Information On The Move – A New Zealand Experience

Have you ever stopped to consider how many peoples’ jobs aren’t based in an office, or even in one location? Everyone from engineers to car recovery experts to midwives are expected to do their jobs on a mobile basis.

In today’s information-centric climate, this gives rise to one problem – what about all the tools they need to do their job? How can they access those? Not just the equipment, but the data they need to access that isn’t feasible for them to carry around. For example, the name, address and date of last call-out for engineers, to check that a broken down car owner is a member of the recovery service, or recent health history details for midwives’ patients.

Wireless solutions for everyday problems

It was this exact problem that faced Rodney District Council, a local authority north of Auckland City and North Shore City in the North Island of New Zealand. One of its departments has responsibility for following up any calls regarding stray dogs, tracking them down and capturing them to return them to their owners. “Our inspectors needed a way of accessing the database of pet owners’ details from the field,” recalls Bill Westphal, acting information services manager.

“Initially these details were printed out weekly on a huge report, the Dog Register, which contained information about every dog in the district, but this was time consuming and costly and didn’t provide the most up-to-date information. We then tried giving the rangers a portable computer with a mobile phone that could connect to the corporate database, but that proved to be too cumbersome.”

“We tried a number of methods, but had been struggling with the problem of delivering live information from our corporate database for a while. Most solutions we investigated were too expensive. Our CEO, Wayne Donnelly, encouraged communication initiatives and innovation to help improve the situation, so we started looking at alternatives,” added Westphal.

The breakthrough

Rodney District Council uses a specialist ERP system for local councils called GEMS and it was important that the chosen solution could integrate with it seamlessly. In January 2001 the council was introduced to Fenestrae, a provider of mobile application middleware, through its local distributor, MPA. The Council selected it for a trial scheme and implemented it in February 2001.

Fenestrae’s solution empowers the council’s inspectors to access critical information from any server or database, using any mobile device over any network. “When they find a lost dog, inspectors send an SMS message via their mobile phone to MDS with the dog’s tag number, and MDS queries GEMS and returns the owner address and contact details to the inspector,” said Westphal.

“Feedback from users was that portable computers took a while to get used to. However, they were all familiar with mobile phones and sending SMS text messages, which made our lives easier. The system didn’t take as long to implement as the portable computers had done and the users were far more productive instantly.”

After this initial success, Fenestrae’s Mobile Data Server was implemented for real in August 2001.

“At the moment, everyone has mobile phones. Only a few have WAP-enabled phones, but we aim to increase that number as we’ll be able to display more information through the MDS WAP interface. Currently they are used only by the dog rangers to access dog tag information, although I’ve set up a few other people so that they can access their email when on the move,” added Westphal.

Frequency of use varies and depends on the number of loose dogs and complaints. “On the whole, it is used mostly at weekends and after business hours. It’s also worth noting that on the few occasions when the system isn’t available, I always get complaints, which is a sure sign that the technology is being missed and that it was a good purchase. At the end of the day, our aim is to provide access to corporate information to staff members and managers in the field, 24 hours a day. If it does that, then I’m happy.”

Benefits to date

“Using Fenestrae’s Mobile Data Server, we’ve been able to make cost savings and experience real benefits across the whole organisation. Firstly, we save the time and materials it took to print out the Dog Register weekly, which was about an 800+ page report printed on fanfold paper.”

“Secondly, mobile phone calls to staff members back at the office were expensive and interrupted office employees from their work, resulting in poor productivity and duplication of resources. SMS messages to the MDS system only cost about 18 cents, versus a mobile phone call that costs 70 cents per minute.”

“Finally, set-up and maintenance of the portable computer was quite often time consuming, and it took time to train the rangers to use it. Portable computers are much more expensive than mobile phones, which every ranger already had, so this avoided the time and cost involved in training them.”

Future expansion

“Although primarily used for database access, the Fenestrae Mobile Data Server also enables those working remotely to access email, calendars and other useful information held on our main servers,” said Westphal. And it’s not just dog inspectors that are using it. “We also plan to use it for other departments that have people in the field. Currently, all water meter readers, building consents officers and engineers have to call staff members back at the office to retrieve information from the corporate database. Using MDS they can access their email and other Microsoft Exchange information, which is a big plus.”

The Fenestrae Mobile Data Server implementation also won the ALGIM (Association of Local Government Information Management) Innovation Award against stiff competition from the other finalists; Auckland City Council and North Shore City Council.

The highly-respected award recognises and celebrates innovative use of IT within New Zealand local government. The winner is selected on projects that were well defined, well controlled and met objectives when implemented, projects that applied technology in an innovative and effective way and projects that involved the community in a cost-effective manner. It also takes into consideration something that is a little out of the ordinary. Winning this award is a great achievement and positions the council as a forward-thinking organisation using technology in an innovative way to solve everyday problems.

“It’s likely that other local Councils, or in fact any organisation with a mobile workforce, may now be more receptive to MDS applications, when they realise that they could experience similar benefits,” added Westphal. “After working with the system for six months now, I certainly think that the case is compelling.”

For further information, visit: http://www.fenestrae.com http://www.rodney.govt.nz