“Mobile office” frees Alberta field inspectors from desk

Not to long ago field inspectors at Alberta’s Sustainable Resources Development (SRD) department didn’t see as much of the “field” as they needed to.

And you couldn’t blame them.

The huge amount of data they work with each day required them to make frequent trips back to the office. This often meant spending more time at their desks reconciling records rather than carrying out remote assignments.

Those days are but an unpleasant memory.

Thanks to an ongoing mobile office initiative (MOI), which provides workers remote, real-time access to head office applications and data, field inspectors are seeing less of their cubicles and more of Alberta’s wide open expanses.

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Equipped with GPS-enabled ruggedized laptops from General Dynamics Itronix, remote employees at the SRD’s Lands Division have drastically cut down office paperwork and increased productivity by as much as 30 per cent, according to George Robertson, land and range manager for SRD’s Woodlands Area.

“With the notebooks, we are able to complete more inspections per day and have staff in the field on a more consistent basis,” he said.

Alberta’s SRD Department three divisions – Lands, Fish and Wildlife and Forestry – control the use of Alberta’s natural resources. The Lands division does a lot of work relating to the oil and mining industry. For example, field staff decide daily where roads can be built, oil wells dug, or a forest harvested.

However, these inspections often require access to comprehensive data.

For each inspection, a worker would need to bring along manuals, regulation books, industrial disposition files, various maps and other gear. “Field staff deal with an average of 18 to 25 dispositions each day. That means they have to take 18 to 25 files with them to the field,” explained Robertson.

Lugging all this paper-based data can be a challenge when going into interior or remote areas, where very often roads do not exist. A lack of communication channels also meant staff members needed to go back to the office to file reports or retrieve other information.

Initially, the department tried converting data to an online format and making it available to field staff on PDAs. Workers, however, found the handheld devices had limited processing power.

Then about a year-and-a-half ago, SRD contracted Convergent Information Systems, a Calgary-based field data capture and wireless systems provider, to help the department develop a mobile office system.

Working with the department’s MOI team, CIS developed a system for migrating SRD’s paper-based data and processes to enable field workers access applications and information with a notebook computer.

“The choice of a rugged notebook was critical because the device had to be able to withstand extreme temperatures, rugged outdoor environments, and repeated jolts and impact, said John Adams, president, CIS.

The General Dynamics Itronix XR1 unit, which CIS deployed, functions in temperatures ranging from -23C to 60C, can weather vibration, and falls from three feet, and is fully sealed from dust and water.

And very important to the SRD inspectors, the notebook has three concurrent radio modems that allow it to communicate via WAN, WLAN and BlueTooth and an integrated GPS functionality that enables the device to navigate and determine location more precisely.

“This means our workers can receive and transmit data wherever they may be,” said Robertson. “The GPS can help them record the exact coordinates to an area in question and record that data from the field.”

Improved access to land permits and geospatial data is valuable in determining if a certain project is being conducted in the proper location. Wireless connectivity cuts down on the cost of traveling back and forth to the office, and reduces the time it takes to complete an inspection.

Mobile devices are becoming indispensable to government remote workers, according to John Davies, executive director of the city of Toronto’s technology and infrastructure services department.

“Developments in remote devices have increased the productivity of many remote workers because these devices help employees conduct their assignments without going back to the office,” he said. “Some devices essentially have the capability and access to data and applications a normal desktop has.”

For many organizations setting up mobile office programs, Web browsing capability is a must, said Mark Tauschek, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.

“From e-mail to information search, applications and software, nearly about everything these days is accessible on the Web,” he said.

Organizations considering a mobile office program also need to make sure the system has a secure, fast and reliable connection. “If users can’t have a guaranteed connection, the project’s benefits are greatly diminished,” Tauschek said.

Security and how the technology will affect daily operations are also critical factors, says Tony Olvet, vice-president of communications and segments research at IDC Canada.

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