BlackBerrys and the art of city streets maintenance

What do New York City civic workers and police officers in Waterloo, Ont. have in common?

According to Nick Dawson, both these groups use the BlackBerry smart phone’s unified voice and data capabilities in unique ways to work better, smarter, faster.

Dawson, who is manager, public sector with BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM), spoke recently at the Disaster Management Conference 2009 in Toronto.

He said for thousands of knowledge workers, civic officials, law enforcement personnel, and disaster management experts across Canada and the world the BlackBerry smartphone today is much more than an office productivity and e-mail device.

SCOUTING for road problems

For instance, he said, the geo-tagging capabilities that BlackBerries today are equipped help civic workers and road crews do their job quicker and more efficiently.

“When you take a picture with the BlackBerry today, it’s geo-tech, so you can actually see where that picture was taken,” Dawson noted.

He said NYC civic inspectors who have BlackBerries use their geo-tagging capability to flag road issues to maintenance crews.

These officials are part of an outfit dubbed SCOUT (Street Condition Observation Unit) – comprised of 15 inspectors who report to the mayor’s office of operations.

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The inspectors are charged with driving every New York City street every month of the year.

During these surveys, inspectors report visually-identifiable street conditions– such as a huge pothole or a missing manhole cover – via their BlackBerry device.

The difference is this isn’t just a text report, said Dawson. Rather, the inspectors would snap a picture with their BlackBerry.”

The image – appropriately classified and geo-tagged – is wirelessly transmitted to the mayor’s office.

From there the data is sent to NYC’s 311 Customer Service Centre, where reports are treated just as calls from the public would be and dispatched to appropriate city agencies for response.

In some case, Dawson said, maintenance crews would have “a pre-populated work order to go out and fix this pothole for instance.”

“And not only does the geo-tagged image indicate where the problem is, but also how serious it is – the maintenance folk can also figure out how many workers to bring in.”

Dawson said the initiative for creating such a practical application of geo-tagging via the BlackBerry came from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg himself.

And it is it isn’t a multi-million dollar project, he said.

“It was accomplished at very little cost thanks to an application built by the City’s IT department itself with some help from RIM.”

Since the SCOUT program’s launch in October 2007 launch, more than 50,000 incidents have been logged on the SCOUT site.

Smart policing in Waterloo

Many applications developed for the BlackBerry are in the law enforcement / disaster management field, Dawson noted.

These apps, he said, provide public sector emergency personnel – such police and ambulance services in North America and the U.K. – mobile access to critical records and databases.

Personnel can check, update and capture data in the field and upload it to central databases in real time.

Not surprisingly, one of the first law enforcement groups to adopt this technology was the Waterloo Regional Police Service, in RIM’s own home town.

Dawson recalled how years ago he had a discussion with Waterloo’s police chief Matthew Torigian (“he was deputy chief then”) about how to enable the force’s officers in the field to access critical information.

At the time, while the in-car computer provided access to the records management system (RMS) and the dispatch system, officers had no way to get at this critical information when they left the car.

“So we worked to provide access to all that stuff from the BlackBerry. In fact the Waterloo Regional Police was one of our test cases.”

But Dawson said some police forces didn’t want to have two gadgets to access the same information – a computer in the car and the BlackBerry device.

At the same time using trying to use a small form factor device, such as the BlackBerry smart phone, inside the car just wasn’t safe.

He said RIM resolved this conundrum by getting one of its Ottawa-based partners to create a touchscreen interface for the Blackberry that could be used in the car.

“So when the officer walks into the car, all information on the BlackBerry shows up on the touch screen in a bigger format and the officer can interact with it.”

And the same interface is used in non-enforcement environments as well, such as hospitals. “A doctor, for instance, can just walk up to a workstation, and it pulls up the BlackBerry interface on the screen. I can see a bigger picture of what I’m working on.”

Double-edged sword

In his presentation Dawson emphasized how strong BlackBerry encryption technologies offered a sense of security data in a law enforcement context.

It’s a point other RIM executives have also emphasized.

“The BlackBerry Enterprise Solution uses Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption methods to encrypt data for wireless transmission and AES encryption to protect data stored on the device,”  a RIM document submitted to a review committee of the Greater London (U.K.) Authority.

AES encryption is “considered computationally infeasible to break,” the document notes.

It goes on to say that the “BlackBerry Solution has been approved for storing and transmitting sensitive data” by NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), as well as government organizations in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Austria, Australia and New Zealand.

Ironically enough, the same strong encryption technologies that could make the BlackBerry a preferred device among law enforcement groups – also make it attractive to criminal elements.

For instance, in media interviews senior Canadian police officers have noted that strong security levels on BlackBerry makes it tough for them to listen in on suspected criminals.

It’s one reason why earlier this year, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) reportedly sought a backdoor wiretap access to Blackberry devices.

Liberal MP Marlene Jennings supported this demand, calling such wiretap access  an essential tool in the battle against crime.

Last winter, Jennings re-tabled a 2005 Liberal bill which is signed into law would force wireless service providers to make devices tappable.

Dubbed the Modernization of Investigative Techniques Act (MITA), the bill fizzled out when the 2006 election was called, but Jennings had re-introduced it as a private member’s bill once before, in 2007.

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