Local authorities are a natural choice for championing mobile technology and staff in the field have numerous uses for it. Julia Vowler discovers how councils are exploiting mobile initiatives
Of all the industry sectors that are likely contenders for exploiting mobile technology, local authorities, with so many people in the field using mobile computing, are prime candidates. "You see a lot of empty desks in council offices," says Ian Laughton, national director of Project Nomad, a £3.7m government-sponsored programme for the promotion and take-up of mobile IT in councils.
Travelling is time wasted for large numbers of local authority staff who do the main parts of their jobs out of the office, says Laughton. "Taking IT to their jobs, so staff can input or collect data from back-end systems remotely makes much more sense."
Although Laughton says that local authorities are beginning to understand the possibilities of mobile IT for their staff, on a scale of one to 10 many councils are still only a quarter of the way to exploiting mobile technologies. Even the best local authorities are no more than halfway along the scale.
Carolyn Hodges, government sector manager at Vodafone, says, "Local authorities' thinking on mobile IT is quite mature, but the uptake is still developing."
This is especially true at the cheaper end of the investment spectrum. "Local authorities are buying Blackberries in droves. Because they are relatively low cost, there is not so much of a concern to wrap a business case around them," she says.
The key inhibitor to uptake is the complexity of mobile technology. "Typically users find purchasing mobile IT complex, because several strands of technology have to be pulled together," Hodges says.
By the end of the year, Project Nomad will have created a set of deliverables from business case design to toolkits that should enable any council wishing to establish a mobile IT operation to do so with ease and confidence.
Project Nomad is sponsoring proof-of-concept pilots in local authorities. "We have about eight or nine lined up already, and it could be double that number," says Laughton.
The programme will encourage councils to adopt a coherent mobile technology strategy. "There is no single right answer when it comes to technical architecture or a connectivity model," Hodges says. "We want a more generic approach, ideally with a single mobile integration interface to existing systems."
However, some applications should be common across several departments. Job scheduling, for example, requires a product which is generic and repeatable across departments, she says.
As with all new technology, a key factor is to judge when the technology is sufficiently available and mature. "The technology must be deliverable now," says Laughton. "Some of the proof-of-concept projects are experimenting with 3G, but it is not really available yet, and even GPRS connectivity can be pretty dodgy in some places."
This is, he says, knocking local authorities' confidence and understanding about mobile connectivity models. They are very sceptical about the phone operators' ability to connect.
There are also organisational and cultural issues. Laughton believes that mobilisation can change job roles, especially when it spans traditional silos. If field workers are now more mobile, do they need fixed office space at all? Hot-desking then becomes an issue, which feeds into return on investment calculations. The most obvious ROI on mobile IT is improving productivity, but to see significant ROI requires large-scale uptake.
"If you can save half an hour to an hour a day, then over 50 weeks and across 200 staff you get your ROI from that multiplier effect on productivity," says Hodges.
ROI can also be less direct, but worth even more. For example, benefits claimants cannot make false reports when the benefits officer visits them at home and enters a claim remotely. Not only is there less fraud, but you need fewer fraud officers, says Laughton.
As with any IT investment, making the business case is crucial. "Authorities may be keen on mobile technology, but it is not at the top of their priority list," says Hodges.
With savings to be made, the technology becoming more mature and affordable and Whitehall's e-government drive, take-up of mobile technology will inevitably increase.
Five authorities put mobile IT to the test
Rotherham picks Blackberries
Rotherham has supplied its senior management with Blackberry devices running over a Vodafone GPRS network. Jonathan Prew, business and corporate IT manager for the council, says, "Previously I had to boot up the PC and, in the time that took, I can probably deal with four or five issues when it is convenient for me - waiting for a train or for a meeting to start, or at home."
Halton takes bus to citizens
Halton has kitted out a Benefits Express bus with communications technology to create a mobile office. Geoff Venables, operational director of IT services, says, "Through the use of laptops connected to GPRS, our officers can access all the details they need about available benefits. If the customer is entitled to extra benefit, officers can capture evidence of identity with a digital camera, such as a passport, which is then downloaded for immediate processing."
Westminster keeps the noise down
Noise control officers, who deal with up to 400 calls over a summer weekend, have been using handheld devices since 2001. Andy Ralph, operations manager for the noise team, says, "We connect to the network and the system downloads the details from a database. We know straightaway whether an officer has visited the scene or whether an enforcement notice has been served. At the end of a shift we can record what has happened over the past 13 hours. Previously we would have to come back to the office for the information which may not have been updated."
Liverpool cares in the community
The council is issuing tablet PCs worth £80,000 to social workers so they can enter their notes directly via voice and handwriting recognition and keeping information about clients more securely, accessible only by authorised staff.
"These tablets enable staff to cut through red tape and bureaucracy so they can spend more time with clients," says Jeremy Chowings, executive member for health and social care.
North London Strategic Alliance reports on site
The alliance is a local authority-led initiative for improvements across North London. It is piloting the use of handheld devices running Esri's Arcpad geographical information system which uses Ordnance Survey mapping data. This will allow council officials to report graffiti, fly tipping, anti-social behaviour and vehicle abandonment in real time using GPS and GPRS.
"It is expected to improve the end-to-end cycle of reporting an incident to taking corrective action. The capture and storage of data with geo-codes will also enable the data to be analysed to identify trends within the boroughs and across the boundaries," says Mike Hainge, Enfield assistant director of environmental enforcement.