Features: July 6th, 2012

Jamie Ellwood of Bubble Tracker looks at the pros and cons of using apps and tracking as a way of monitoring staff movement and safety.

Unfortunately, the safety and well being of local authority staff has become an increasing cause for concern as many of these personnel work in isolation within the community, making them vulnerable to attack or accident. Often known as lone workers, council staff exposed to frequent risk include those working in health and social care as well as the housing and maintenance sectors.

In fact, there are an estimated 3.5 million lone workers in the UK. Furthermore, according to the Lone Working Group, research shows that over 150 of these workers are attacked every day, making it an issue for all relevant employers irrespective of the sector that they operate in. The Health and Safety at Work Act states that employers have a duty of care to ensure the safety and welfare of their employees when at work. This means that local authorities have both a legal and moral obligation to look at ways of protecting their most vulnerable personnel.

A background of budget cuts

Unfortunately, in the current economic climate, the act of implementing protective measures has to be balanced against shrinking budgets and service cuts. However, advances in technology could help to resolve the situation. The development of GPS (global positioning systems) has enabled manufacturers to produce personal tracking devices that combine both sophisticated technology and simplicity of use. GPS uses satellites in orbit around the earth which transmit signals to receivers to identify exact locations. This means that it is possible to have personal tracking devices and mobile phone apps which can pinpoint an individual’s exact position, as well as devices which can map and track entire fleets of vehicles – useful for measuring usage to monitor and budget for transport costs.

Apps – an economical solution?

The popularity of apps is expanding at a phenomenal rate and there are now numerous effective tracking apps available for mobile phones. But whilst they are often cheap to buy and easy to operate, they do have some limitations, particularly in fulfilling the range of functions that business requires – from tracking lone workers to monitoring large fleets of company vehicles.

Firstly, an app often has to be initiated when the mobile device is turned on, meaning that the user has to remember to do so every time they want to set up the monitoring function. However, once set up, a dedicated tracking device requires no activation – it will simply do its job without human input.

Furthermore, as a multi-functional device, a mobile phone uses battery power for a number of different applications, draining power when it could be needed most. If the lone worker is out and about all day, it may be difficult for them to have the opportunity to re-charge their battery, whilst a dedicated tracking device has one function only and is designed for long life battery efficiency.

Trackers – a flexible solution

As technology has improved, the market for apps and trackers has inevitably exploded, making it difficult for the uninitiated to choose from such a wide range of products. Both apps and trackers are easy to use and simple to set up. However, there are certain features that you should look for in a device. Ideally, the system you choose should enable you to:
• View the current position of any individual or vehicle;
• View the positions of all personnel or vehicles on a map;
• View the history of where each person or vehicle has been;
• Set alerts when an individual goes in or out of a pre-set area (this creates a security fence which can send out an alert to a nominated computer, tablet or mobile phone if the wearer moves out of the pre-set zone).
• It’s also useful to have an SOS panic button which enables the wearer to send for help. Ideally alerts should be sent via SMS message or email, identifying the user’s precise location.

Using tracking devices

To monitor individuals or vehicles using a tracker, the user logs onto the company website and requests a position from the tracker. The website will then communicate with the tracker via the mobile phone network and send back its location which can be viewed live on a map. Many systems, such as the Bubble Tracker, will also store past locations in a database, providing historical data which can be useful for planning and comparison.

Safety in numbers

Possibly the greatest advantage that trackers have over apps is the fact that they can be used for large numbers of personnel or vehicles. If fitted in a vehicle for example, they track its exact location whilst an app merely tracks the location of the user’s phone – and therefore can only monitor one person at time.

Of course an app is simple to set up – it takes a matter of moments to download it to a mobile phone and gives the user nothing extra to carry. However, most trackers are both portable and simple to install. The Bubble Tracker for example weighs only 70 grammes and is the size of an average matchbox – smaller even than a mobile phone.

Staying in the zone

Many trackers also have the facility of setting up a number of zones which means that if a person or vehicle leaves or enters one of those zones, you will be alerted by SMS message and/or email. Many trackers will also enable you to set up zone monitoring times and can be programmed to send location for a set interval and number of tracks; for example, every hour for 24 hours. These positions can then be mapped to provide a clearer picture of any movement.

Whilst a price shouldn’t be put on people’s safety, inevitably cost constraints are an issue for most organisations and value for money is essential. However, whilst there’s no doubt that apps are a fantastic technological advancement offering an impressive range of functionality for such a low price, their suitability for tracking large numbers effectively is doubtful. In order to get a greater range of features, flexibility and ultimately greater value for money, it may be wise to invest a little more in a tracker to ensure that staff can be monitored safely and successfully.

About the author
Jamie Ellwood is MD of Bubble Tracker. A software and web developer.