In King County, Wash., officials at the Department of Assessments turned their technology situation around. After discovering that the bulky tablet PCs their property assessors were using were at the end of their life cycle, the county began looking for a new solution -- and they found one, said Chief Deputy Assessor John Arthur Wilson.

The county ended up with a fleet of iPads and a custom mobile app -- designed by Mobise -- that will save the county an estimated $6.1 million over the next five years, according to an independent IP assessor hired by the county.

“We have to place value on about 680,000 parcels or properties,” Wilson explained. “By state law, we’re required to physically inspect every property at least once every six years, so that’s about 120,000 site visits we’re doing.”

On top of that, the county’s 140 assessors must also perform property sales verifications and inspect new construction and maintenance jobs.

Most assessors didn’t find the old tablet PCs useful, which Wilson said cost the department in efficiency. “The batteries had been recharged so often that if you got it to hold more than an hour and a half of charge you were delirious with glee," he said. "And the things weighed about seven pounds."

The agency’s new mobile solution, however -- called iRealProperty -- solved many of the problems, and now saves the county time, money and trouble. With about 10 hours of battery life, workers can use their devices their entire work day, even if they lose Internet connectivity. GIS and GPS integration, along with a host of other features requested by workers in the field, ensured that program would deliver what was needed, Wilson said.

In fact, the agency was on the lookout for a replacement solution before the first Apple iPad was released -- but that wasn’t attractive because it lacked both a camera and the software they needed, Wilson said.

When the iPad 2 came out, however, the agency contacted Apple and began talking to software vendors. After a false start -- when one vendor claimed to have great experience with the “iPaq,” a discontinued device originally developed by Compaq -- the county connected with Mobise, which Wilson said understood what the agency was looking for.

The mobile appraisal app the county ended up with is a success largely due to the approach the department took in development, Wilson said, noting that the county has a very talented internal IT department -- they were the ones, he said, who developed the prior tablet software solution.

But the software was simply developed, and then handed off to the appraisers with little input on how to use it in their jobs. With the new solution, however, they did things differently. “We literally sent our developer out in the field with the field team,” Wilson said.

King County, which includes the city of Seattle, has a diverse landscape that includes forest, islands, suburbs and a large urban center. To ensure the app offered the functionality required by the assessors working this varied landscape, development began with the assessors, Wilson said. “We put together a team of about a dozen of our residential folks and we gave them all iPads early,” he said. Before the app development began, they handed out iPads so the workers could learn the device and what was useful about it.

Then the department began having regular design meetings with the developer, and the workers began requesting more features as development continued. “We’ve now had it in the field with 80 residential appraisers since Fall and they love it,” Wilson said. “I haven’t had one of them thrown at me.”

Among the app's features is the ability to take photos with the device and then automatically associate the photos with a certain case. Previously, Wilson said, workers were required to use a digital camera to take photos and then spend hours later at the office figuring out which photos went with which cases.

The app also allows users to take notes, draw sketches, fetch updates from the office databases, compare properties with similar properties, view aerial maps, track changes and view GIS layers. In other words, workers have access to rich content in one location while on the job site.

It’s those sort of automated processes, Wilson said, that have allowed the county to save enough time equivalent to hiring eight or nine additional full-time workers.

“I think what was crucial here was getting the early buy-in and the early input so they had a chance to share what worked and what didn’t work with the old solution,” he said. “I think all of that front-end work we did really paid off in multiples once we deployed it.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com