Bringing the Office

Utah Department of Transportation inspectors use PDAs to access office tools and streamline workflow.

by / April 11, 2007
With its stunning natural surroundings, Utah is well known as a destination for those who love to marvel at the power of nature. Over the past few years, Utah has also built a reputation for consistently leading the way in innovative applications of technology. Helping cement its high-tech credentials, Utah recently placed fourth in the Center for Digital Government's biennial Digital States Survey.

Programs like the Utah Department of Transportation's (UDOT) field book application are at the heart of the state's drive toward exceptional technology services. UDOT has used mobile applications to support field staff for nearly a decade, eliminating duplicative processes, cutting costs, and improving employee and contractor experiences.

Ahead of the Curve
In 1997, when many organizations were just becoming aware of the World Wide Web, Utah already was considering ways to take advantage of it. That year, the state began building a comprehensive integrated technology system. One subsystem was UDOT's electronic field book application.

"The electronic field book was set up to replace the manual, paper-based information that DOT inspectors were having to collect out in the field to document the work of the contractor," said Blaine Bailey, former UDOT business lead on the field book project. "This enabled us to get rid of hardbound books that they were using to document daily work activities. It also rid the inspectors of having to take that information in those books and manually enter it into a database to get the contractor paid."

Officially launched in 2000, the electronic field book application used HP iPAQ handheld PDAs connected to UDOT's enterprise database using SQL Anywhere's UltraLite database and MobiLink synchronization technology from Sybase iAnywhere. MobiLink allows for easy bidirectional data exchange between UDOT's central and remote databases.

UDOT's goal was to give field inspectors a tool that not only eliminated virtually all manual data entry, but also eliminated duplication. By giving inspectors the power to bring their entire office into the field and allowing single data entry capability, the department hoped to decrease costs and increase job satisfaction, as well as improve business relationships with contractors.

Considering Utah's rugged terrain, it's no surprise that sometimes wireless connectivity is impossible. Six years ago, wireless connectivity was a luxury. To work around that, Utah worked with Sybase iAnywhere to deploy a solution that ensured a break in connection would not spell the end of a field inspector's productivity.

"You can load data onto the handheld from the desktop system and do all your work offline no matter where you are located. Then all you have to do is find a connection back to our desktop system, our Project Development Business System (PDBS)," explained Bob Krum, a programmer analyst for the state Department of Technology Services. The PDBS, built with Sybase PowerBuilder, serves as UDOT's enterprise database. "We were among the first to develop a handheld application talking to an Informix database, and it took a SQL Anywhere database to translate."

Office Space
Using PDAs instead of laptops saved money while supporting a tremendous number of features. Using the PDA's dropdown menus, a UDOT field inspector has instant access to the contractor's bid items, item stationing on a job site, pay items, quantities of work, labor, what equipment is used, weather and temperature, even what guests have been to the site and when. Field inspection requires extensive documentation, and UDOT eliminated almost all of the manual documentation and data entry processes. In addition, the PDAs include a help menu for every item, adding to the virtual field office and virtual IT staff.

"The hours inspectors previously spent doing manual entry can now be done in minutes," said Bailey. "We've set up a number of locations where they can synchronize with the PDBS. It automatically updates everything directly into the database. It also processes a contractor pay estimate based on quantities documented. Before, we had to have additional people in each one of our field offices that would take that information and manually enter it into the system. That's what we identified earlier on in the feasibility study as one of the greatest benefits of the system--the elimination of manual data entry into the database."

The field book application project pleases department heads who've realized annual cost savings of $704,000, employees who gave the system a 94 percent approval rating and contractors who now get paid in days instead of weeks. The success is due to forward-thinking leaders, employees who voiced their opinion and, in part, to Sybase iAnywhere.

"In order to sync the stand-alone database on the handheld back to the enterprise database, you need to go through some complicated syncing logic," said Don Kartchner, original developer of the field book application for UDOT. "You need to have a product that can handle the complexities, and MobiLink does that. The MobiLink technology is, in my opinion, still the best."