Mississauga takes wireless to the MAX

The City of Mississauga, Ont., which is already knee-deep in a host of major IT projects, has added another to its list: freeing 120 field inspectors from their desktops.

The project, part of the city’s field automation

undertaking, will allow building inspectors, bylaw enforcement, fire prevention and fire suppression crews (not firefighters in this phase) to wirelessly access the city’s MAX (Mississauga approvals express) application, as well as their e-mail, the Internet and the intranet.

“”In case of the road warriors that spend the bulk of their day out in the field, it’s not the most efficient and effective use of their time to have to come back to city hall to look up information to do some research,”” said project lead Mary Mayo. “”If they had this information at their fingertips out in the field, perhaps they could do more inspections. They certainly could provide more information to the client who has requested the inspection or lodged a complaint, so we want to give them the tools and the technology to allow them to operate efficiently and effectively in the field.””

Still in its early stages — rollout is planned for next summer -– the city has not yet decided on either the devices it will use or the service provider.

“”The first thing we wanted to do is find the software,”” Mayo said. “”Some (people) advised us to go for the hardware first and then get the software, but we took the approach that we were going to get the software first and find out what operating system the solution will run on, knowing that we have to access other applications as well.””

The software decision is wrapped up, though: the city is working with Fujitsu Consulting and has chosen Toronto-based Octanewave Software, a wireless software developer, to provide the software.

“”They (Octanewave) provided the best solution that would fit in with what we’re trying to achieve, not just now but our future needs as well,”” Mayo said. Octanewave technology is scalable and configurable, she added.

And there’s another aspect: “”The way it works in municipal government is you go with lowest qualified bid,”” she explained. “”Things have just started, but we’re very satisfied with the progress we’re making and that we’ll be able to achieve our deliverables.””

According to Brian McGregor, vice-president of sales at Octanewave, the company’s technology is unique because it uses IP-based messaging.

“”It’s completely transaction oriented,”” he said. “”That means it’s not a big database on a portable computer trying to synch with a database back in the office, say, every half an hour. Every activity, and every portion of an activity, is completed as a transaction, and that information is sent as a unique message, so that’s fairly unique in this space.””

The biggest benefit to the city, McGregor said, is that it will be able to leverage its existing investment in its Oracle database. “”We have this infrastructure layer, which really is the extension to any backoffice infrastructure investment,”” he said. “”There’s no big, huge capital acquisitions in the way of backoffice upgrades required, we use open standards, and more often than not, the processes are already in place to support what’s happening.””

But although Octanewave doesn’t care which hardware the city settles on – its software is device-, operating system- and service provider-agnostic -– the city does.

The hardware decision is an important one, Mayo said, because inspectors will also have to lug around printers so they can issue reports on the go, as well as wireless cards and docking stations. A focus group is working on a device selection strategy, and the city expects to issue a tender by the end of the year.

“”And that’s the last RFP I’m writing for a long time.””

Once the four departments are up and running — and if all works well — the city is looking at expanding the project to animal services, parking control, vehicle licensing, transportation and works, as well as to firefighting and emergency response services.

“”But we have to go slow and steady and make sure this is successful,”” she said. “”This is the foundation of all future mobile initiatives –- they’re tied to what we’re doing, so it has to be right.

“”We’re progressive but we’re also cautious and we’ll be evaluating as we go.””

And although the project holds the promise of making inspectors’ job easier and more efficient, employee buy-in has been mixed so far, according to Mayo.

“”Some are skeptical,”” she said. “”I can understand there’s a little nervousness there.””

That’s because some fear the minute they are equipped with a mobile device they will also be stripped of their desk and office space and banished to the field forever.

“”I’m not saying they can never come back to city hall; of course they can,”” Mayo said. “”There will be staff meetings and research that will still have to be done here but if we can free up some of the office space there will be savings to the corporation. Each department is going to realize some financial savings yet to be determined (such as reduced mileage costs) … but this is a sensitive issue.

“”It’s up to each director in each division to implement it. Some of the users are scared I’m kicking them out and I’m meeting with facilities to rearrange their office space. I don’t have the mandate to do that. This project sets the stage for that to happen, but they (directors) may say, ‘I want my staff to be comfortable with this approach before we go to the next stage.’””

Earlier this year Mississauga said it was implementing a $3.3 million voice-over-IP system, the largest project of its kind at a Canadian municipality.

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