Project Profile: Taking Technology to the Streets

Oct. 1, 2009

Today’s technology can revolutionize the way cities work-with a little vision, good advice and the right equipment. Take the city of Enid, OK. In this town of 50,000, Deputy Director of Public Works Robinson Camp and his boss, Public Works Director Jim McClain, were looking for a way to automate some work processes-garbage collection, for starters. Their goal was similar to what any forward-thinking municipality would want: streamline services in a cost-effective manner.

It started with the most common of prompts: customer feedback. When a citizen of Enid would report a problem-stray trash, a missing garbage can, or a patch of unruly grass in a public space-the city employee on the phone would have to tell them it would take two to three weeks before the problem could be addressed. It wasn’t that the city was putting tasks off; it just took too long to take care of every individual task.

Camp explains: “Every ‘project’ work order had to be handwritten. Then the employee responding would have to drive 15 minutes to the service center, chat a bit, pick up the work order, drive across town and do the work. It was taking an hour to get each job done.”

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The Search for a Solution
It was no surprise that Camp and McClain wanted to streamline. And in this era of shrinking budgets, their rising staffing costs were as troubling as the slow response times. But what was the best way to solve this? At a public works conference, McClain came across a solution that used handheld computers and a relevant software application, but the product was so expensive that the city could afford only four or five units, and the system had limitations that wouldn’t let it do all that Enid needed. Close, but not it.

Photo: Handheld
Enid chose to begin the project with its solid waste collection division, where ruggedness is a baseline requirement for all equipment.
Photo: Handheld
An operator pushes a pre-populated button on the touch screen. The message-with time, date, and GPS coordinates-goes to a central dispatcher.

Unfulfilled but undaunted, Camp and McClain headed to the national APWA convention. While there, they took a map of the exhibitor area and circled every vendor they thought might offer something they could use. And then they talked to every one of those vendors. That’s how they met Amy Urban of Handheld USA Inc.(www.handheldgroup.com).

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Handheld, a supplier specializing in rugged computers, brings 20 years of experience in the rugged handheld market, and Urban plugged into Enid’s vision right away-and saw a solution. She recognized that the ideal way to meet the city’s goals would involve a precise combination of technologies and capabilities. It would require GPS for location, cellular capability for real-time communication, process-specific software, and even Bluetooth for mobile printing. And she knew how to make it happen.

“Amy showed us the solution she had in mind,” says Camp. “What struck us first was that she said we could get 14 work-ready handheld computers within our budget. That got our attention.” Then Urban explained that the Nomad rugged handheld she was recommending had cellular communication capability-something that had been tested and used extensively in European models, but that was relatively new to the United States. GPS was also standard on the Nomad. All that remained was to find the right software to pair with the equipment.

“We found an application called Dispatched (www.dispatched.com) that we liked, but it was designed for cell phones, not handhelds” says Camp. “We told the Dispatched people about our ideas, and that we wanted to do X, Y and Z. They asked two questions: Does the handheld have GPS, and does it run Windows Mobile? I told them it did. He assured me it would work, and it has.” The Dispatched folks created Enid’s own personalized version of the Dispatched software, and Urban sent them a Nomad so they could work hands-on with it to customize, load and test their software on it.

Real-Time Improvement
Once Handheld delivered the Nomads loaded with the Dispatched software, it was time for the on-the-ground application. Enid chose to start with its solid waste collection, where ruggedness is a baseline requirement for all equipment.

The new system effectively automates anything that happens beyond loading the truck with garbage. When an operator needs to note something-a construction project that blocks pickup, a missing cart, a customer-caused obstruction, or even a problem requiring attention from another city crew-he pushes a pre-populated button on the Nomad’s touch screen. That message, tagged with the exact time, date, and GPS coordinates, goes instantly to a central dispatcher. If it’s a note as to why collection wasn’t completed, the information goes into the customer’s file for reference in case there is a complaint. If the message identifies a task, the dispatcher uses the new software to drag-and-drop the information to create a work order, then sends that work order to another field worker equipped with a Nomad. That worker goes to the location, takes care of the task, and can even bill the customer’s account for fee transactions using the Nomad.

When a city worker performs work that also requires a customer receipt, the Dispatched software is set up to produce receipts complete with the worker’s electronic signature. The Nomad’s Bluetooth capability lets the worker carry a portable printer and be able to print the work order a purchase order and the receipt.

A Happier-and Smaller-Workforce
Perhaps not surprisingly, there was some initial resistance to the new system. “The main guy was very vocal against using a computer,” recalls Camp. “He said, “˜No computer is going to tell me what to do.’ Our response was basically, “˜Just make it work.’ And after working with this system, he’s a convert. Now he sees things on his route and takes it a step further-instead of just doing what the computer tells him to, he’ll enter new task info on the Nomad himself. We’re getting way more work out of the guy than before.”

And that two- to three-week response time? Thanks to the new combination of Nomad and Dispatched, that’s been reduced…to 24 hours.

“When I started here, they had me do every single job in solid waste, to see the reality of our processes,” says Camp. “I saw how long it took to do things, so I know firsthand how much time and money our new system saves us.”

That savings includes a smaller workforce-from the current staff of 14 solid waste collectors, the automated system will actually reduce the need to just two positions, a change that will save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And in this case there’s not even much downside of eliminating positions. “Not many people want to be solid waste collectors,” says Camp. “We have trouble getting workers, and have had to use staffing services to find people, which costs us even more. With this new system we’ll eliminate hard-to-fill positions, and actually reassign four of our collectors to maintenance positions that we don’t have now.”

Spreading the Technology Around
Now that they have a system they like, the Enid officials are already planning how to expand its uses. Next up is to create a work-order system for replacing broken waste carts and Dumpsters. Beyond that Camp sees the system extending to the city’s parks, water distribution and wastewater management processes. They’ve even been talking with Handheld about using an RFID system for inventorying their waste carts.

“We asked Amy, “˜How can we keep consistent with an inventory of our carts?” says Camp. “And she told us the Nomad could do that. No other vendor could do that for us. The Nomad is taking us where we want to go.”

Even more exciting to Camp is the prospect of connecting the Nomad to the city’s new GIS mapping capability. The city of Enid plans to map its entire water distribution, sewer, and stormwater systems using GIS technology-which will give workers both precise GPS location and GIS mapping data to find and correct problems they can’t see before digging. There are plans to create and use as-built diagrams for all future improvements and new construction, to add to the layers of information workers will have for repair or maintenance tasks. The city is talking with Handheld about acquiring tablet computers to take on this level of technological sophistication.

Getting Ahead of the Curve
Enid’s story is a great example of achieving success by finding the right partners to fulfill a vision.

“It’s actually been a wonderful, smooth ride,” says Camp. “So smooth that we’re going to buy more Nomads from Handheld in 2009.”

For Handheld, working with Enid is a great example of their favorite way to work with customers.

“Sure, we’re happy to simply sell great devices,” Urban says. “But we really appreciate working on this project as a partner. When someone comes to us with a specific challenge, we’re big enough to have the right devices and features to build a system for them. But we’re also small enough to get personally involved. And we try to make that system deliver even more than they’d imagined.”

For Enid, it does. And there’s also the satisfaction of being on the leading edge of technology application.

“It seems like we’re a step ahead of everyone else,” Camp says. “The trend with cities is to just try to keep track of where trucks are, or to send work orders by text message. We’ve rolled all that and more into one system. We went to a certification course recently, and other people there were saying, “˜You’re getting all this done with one device?’ They hadn’t thought of putting it all together. We knew exactly what we wanted and where we wanted to go, and Handheld showed us how to get there.”

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