Using Oracle’s application development framework (ADF) Mobile platform, Richard Childe, applications database administrator (DBA) and ADF developer at Lloyd’s Register, developed the mobile app – called Class Direct - in two months.
The global engineering, technical and business services organisation is also a maritime classification society, which means surveyors from Lloyd’s Register have to “MOT” ships and vessels and state whether they are seaworthy or not.
Founded in 1760 as a marine classification society, Lloyd’s Register now operates across a number of industry sectors, with over 9,000 employees in 78 countries.
Speaking to Computer Weekly during Oracle’s OpenWorld 2014 user conference in San Francisco this week, Childe said the app allows employees and clients of Lloyd’s Register to easily access survey data. The app allows employees to simply request surveys, which need to be completed on vessels on a regular basis to comply with international maritime law.
“You need to know when the survey is due. If you suddenly try to sail, but don’t have the correct certification, you’ve had it,” said Childe. “You need to stay on top of this data.”
The app is based on an old 1990s website called Class Direct. While part of the reasoning to create the app was to make data more accessible to customers, it was also to give them what they wanted and stay competitive.
“But everybody’s got apps these days – Facebook, email, Spotify, whatever it is. People say ‘why can’t I have my work data as well?’ You have to accept that.”
The app provides a work sheet for Lloyd’s Register surveyors. It shows which surveys are coming up and, when working on a ship, all the components on the vessel. The survey provides clients with a condition of class proviso if a client needs to fix something within a particular period. “The client will see it has an outstanding thing on the app and know they have to fix it.”
Need for mobility
Another reason to develop the app was to improve mobility for surveyors in the field. Beforehand, clients would access survey data via a website, and surveyors would have to use their laptops.
“They would have to pull out their clunky laptop, fire up their antivirus-laden device and that’s if they were lucky enough to be near a network connection which, if you’re on a vessel, you are clearly not.”
The application requires Wi-Fi or a phone signal, and one of the challenges Childe faced was providing cached data to reduce the pressure on the app.
“I didn’t have the luxury of cache because everyone using the app is looking at a different piece of data on the database and they want to see it as it is, not when it’s stored. I had no option, when you click something in this app it goes to the database to get the information from Lloyd’s Register,” explained Childe.
The back-end database is held on a 40-year old IBM mainframe in Bristol, which Childe said immediately presented a challenge. “The Oracle technology we had which allowed us to do that, we hauled that data out of the mainframe and into an Oracle database, which the mobile phone talks to get the data,” he said. “The big challenge is getting legacy data onto the phone, but it’s been good for us – we have a shiny new face on a really, really legacy application.”
Lloyd’s Register is predominantly an Oracle operation, using its databases, middleware and other products and services. Its ADF platform was released in October 2012, and Childe provided the business with a proof of concept, which was approved.
“We needed the technology that worked. When developing a mobile app, you have to get the performance right,” he said. “If it appears to hang up and you click something and it doesn’t work, you get sick of it.”
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Childe called the app a hybrid mobile app, because it runs on Android and iOS. Another challenge during development was the lack of control over the devices clients use.
“When you develop a desktop application, a company has standards on the browser and operating system – but we didn’t have this, because we have no control over what devices our clients use,” said Childe. “They could have different screen sizes, and you don’t know if they have something on their phone, like a game, that might interfere with the app.”
Childe said he relied on the Oracle software to allow the app to work. Since its launch in February 2014, Lloyd’s Register has had just a single case where it hadn’t worked.
Future developments in mobility
The Class Direct app was the company’s first venture into mobile. Childe said his ideas for future developments are “pretty big.” He said he can imagine building functionality for surveyors to use the camera to photograph parts of the vessel and send it back to the database; or speaking into the phone, instead of typing up a report.
“There’s a lot of potential, and Oracle can provide it,” he said. “This is what you should be doing for the future because, to me, this is what you should be doing with mobile.
“Without sounding too clichéd, I genuinely think mobile should be a game-changer and make employees more productive. If you take advantage of all this stuff on mobile, camera, GPS, it will be easier for them to do their job. If you switch on the mobile phone, you’re ready to rock and roll, why wouldn’t you want to do that?”
Catching up with consumer mobility
Childe said large corporations had been slow to develop mobile apps, compared to the consumer industry. “People have Facebook and social media apps, but it’s caught corporations by surprise,” he said. “I think all companies – not just Lloyd’s Register and Oracle, to an extent, with their offering – have been caught a little bit by surprise by this.”
In the future, Childe said you could let your imagination run riot, with technologies such as Google Glass allowing surveyors to stream video back to the office.
“You’re only limited by your imagination,” he said, but it’s not always simple to explain the benefits to the business without a proof of concept.
“I have to code something, get it out there and show them the potential,” he said.
“You must demonstrate it’s a viable technology, because they won’t hand over a load of money and risk having nothing in 12 months’ time.”