PDAs find niche among municipal users

From the board room to the sewer system, personal digital assistants (PDAs) may soon offer municipal workers a range of ways to get the job done.

In municipalities across the country, traditional uses such as scheduling tasks or accessing contact information are being combined with new applications,

including meter-reading and mapping.

So far, though, the results are mixed. For some, larger, more durable devices work better outdoors, while others see more potential for the popular handheld technology.

In Winnipeg, senior staff have taken a liking to the portable devices, according to Peter Bennett, the city’s manager of information systems.

“”They would use their PDAs to take notes and keep track of when meetings are held.””

In-the-field uses

The city is also involved in a number of pilot projects using the technology, Bennett says. One undertaking involves converting geographic information system (GIS) data into PDA-friendly formats, to help staff track underground structures such as pipes, sewers and electrical conduits.

Other applications include supporting property assessment, building, fire and health inspection, and water and waste management, Bennett says.

But as more applications and data get loaded onto small devices, users may run up against some of the limits of the technology.

“”One of the issues is getting full use of a keyboard.””

In the field, staff need to be able to enter information quickly and easily. Current keypads or pen-like attachments can be awkward, according to Bennett.

As well, the need for printing capabilities is another concern. Currently, PDAs allow for recording and accessing data in the field, cutting down on the number of trips to the office.

Being able to print out documents would save even more time, Bennett says.

“”We may have to go up to a much larger level of handheld.””

Other cities have experimented with PDAs, with varying degrees of success.

“”When these things original hit the streets, there was a fairly high demand from users,”” recalls Maurice Gallant, Fredericton’s manager of information and communications technology.

For many, however, the appeal soon faded.

Currently, Gallant estimates there are about 25 or 30 PDAs in use among municipal workers. He says about half the users return their devices within three months.

“”They quickly realize that having a Palm is a lot of work.””

Synchronizing and updating information often requires a lot of time, he says.

Despite initial interest, demand for PDAs remains relatively low among city staff, according to Gallant. Since New Brunswick doesn’t yet have access to wireless capabilities for the devices, users tend to use their equipment as agendas or contact lists and not e-mail.

The city is using a number of portable computing devices in other areas, although Gallant stresses that strictly speaking, he doesn’t consider them to be PDAs. For example, parking enforcement staff are able to record infractions and print out tickets, while other workers take meter readings.

“”I think there will be more demand for something portable,”” Gallant says.

“”I’m not sure that will be this generation’s PDA.””

In Sudbury, Ont., similar projects have seen some spillover from task-specific devices to PDAs.

“”We have developed an application called InspectorPlus with a local firm here in town,”” says George Moreau, manager of business applications for the city.

While the municipality itself tends to use tablet and non-PDA portable devices for such tasks as building inspections, its work with Pen Systems Inc. has seen original software adapted for PDA use.

Currently, about seven or eight Sudbury staff use stylus-enabled devices for carrying out building inspections. Meter readers also carry equipment that “”looks like a very large calculator”” for “”zapping”” information, Moreau says.

Gallant and Moreau say that more traditional task-specific devices make sense for outdoor work.

Citing his city’s harsh winters, Gallant says electronic equipment needs to be both weatherproof and waterproof — two characteristics lacking among the current crop of PDAs. He also cites printing capabilities, in particular for parking inspectors, as another requirement for portable devices.

Office users may make out fine with today’s small, relatively fragile devices, but PDAs won’t soon find themselves in use outdoors, he says.

PDAs hard on IT staff

“”Their need is very different from say, someone driving around, taking readings from a vehicle.””

Moreau concurs, noting that many PDAs simply aren’t big enough for specific tasks.

“”It’s a smaller screen and there’s not enough (visible) information,”” he says.

“”We want to use tablet PCs to incorporate a GIS component.””

In Owen Sound, Ont., users tend to stick with the basics, according to Cathy Baley, the city’s IT manager.

Only about six or eight of about 200 municipal staff with computer access use the devices, she says. “”Mostly for just straightforward calendar and contacts.””

While PDAs may prove helpful for employees who work on the road, they can make work hard for IT staff, Baley says.

“”We find they’re a real pain for installing in Windows NT and 2000.””

For Bennett, security may also pose some concerns. Wireless technologies, for instance, may leave data unprotected from snoops. However, since Winnipeg’s PDA users aren’t connected to a network, the risks are smaller, Bennett says.

“”Because we’re not going to move stuff through the airways, it’s more of a concern if the device gets stolen.””

As well, viruses written specifically for the portable devices can prove to be troublesome.

That means implementing an “”extensive”” anti-virus strategy to make sure bad code doesn’t migrate from handhelds to the network, he says. “”We’ve done a good job locking down the office environment. We just don’t want to open any back doors.””

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