Posted by:27 March, 2012
‘Going mobile’ is increasingly vaunted as a way for local authorities to deliver cost and efficiency savings while also improving frontline services. All well and good in theory, but how does an authority with no previous experience, go mobile? Here Oliver Waters, lead application developer at Bolton Council describes how his authority took the plunge.
We’d heard about the benefits mobile working had brought to other councils so we were keen to see how it could work for Bolton, but there’s always a gap between reading about something on paper and implementing it in practice.
We quickly realised that the way forward was to select a manageable project to test the technology and see if it delivered the benefits we needed. When we looked at the various departments we quickly identified Environment and Planning as the perfect place to start – it had the most fieldworkers of any department and a large number of disparate IT systems. Consequently, we felt confident mobile working could deliver significant benefits.
The next stage was to draw up a very clear picture of what we wanted our mobile solution to do, both for this particular department and for the Council as a whole. At this stage, we made sure we involved people from the Environmental Services Performance and Improvement team as well as our ICT unit.
It quickly became clear that we needed a system which could be tailored to the existing business practices of Environment and Planning, while also being capable of working as a generic corporate platform. At an operational level, it was also important it could cope with intermittent internet signals. Finally, demonstrable return on investment was essential to ensure the project got the green light.
With a clear picture of what we needed, it was time to scope out the market to see if the technology existed which would meet our needs. We came across a product called awiMX by specialist software house NDL, which we felt would tick all the boxes.
We then had to produce a business case and for this we decided to concentrate on a very specific service – road safety inspections. Essentially inspectors carry out two types of job – routine checkups and ad hoc repairs in response to reports from members of the public. Their job means they are always on the road, although they also need to access back office systems to receive, update and close jobs– in essence they were the perfect team for our first foray into mobile working.
Such a specific project meant we were able to produce a credible business case which demonstrated a rapid return on investment and the project was given the go ahead. The actual implementation phase was in fact easier than we anticipated - we’d already mapped out the team’s existing business processes so we knew exactly what we needed the mobile system to do, while our research meant we’d selected technology which was able to cope with these demands.
The result is we now have highway inspectors using HTC smartphones to receive route details directly from our central Oracle system. Any new issues reported by members of the public are also fed into the inspectors’ work lists as they arrive at the Council’s call centre. With jobs received, inspectors can then log details of defects, add photographs, specify the materials needed to carry out a repair and even create urgent repair orders , all via their smartphone. The information they enter is automatically sent to the appropriate back-office system, thereby eliminating paper work and the need to retype data.
The benefits this system brings are clear – we’ve delivered annual savings of £50,000, improved response times, eliminated the backlog of inspections, reduced follow up calls to our call centre and, by optimising inspection routes, reduced fuel costs and improved our employees’ work-life balance.
Although we are delighted with these results, the really exciting thing is the potential of mobile working – we’ve identified another 80 services which we think could benefit from the mobile approach. The key to success was in the planning – picking a manageable first project and coupling that with the right technology. Also essential was to have a clear picture of the business practices within the team which is ‘going mobile’ and ensuring the new mobile process supports, rather than disrupts, them.
Bolton Council used NDL’s corporate mobile platform awiMX which enables non-technical users to both build and distribute bespoke applications to smartphones or tablets using Android, BlackBerry or Windows operating systems quickly and easily. Applications can be built in-house to an organisation’s particular requirements and easily updated, should these requirements change.
Oliver Waters, lead application developer, Bolton Council
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