In the Florida Office of the State Attorney's 15th Judicial Circuit in Palm Beach County, an attorney needs to find a file that's pertinent to a case she'll be prosecuting in court later that day. It can't be found in any of the likely places, and the attorney needs it immediately. A year ago, that need would have precipitated bedlam in the office.
"What was happening is that when a file was not easily found, panic would ensue," said Dan Zinn, CIO of the 15th Judicial Circuit. "E-mails would go out; it would be broadcast to the entire building; and everyone would drop what they were doing to help people find a single file." The file might be handled by a different division, in transit through the mailroom or be sitting in any office in the three-floor building.
Today, after the addition of a new radio frequency identification (RFID) capability to the office's proprietary case-tracking system, an attorney can open a computer application, enter the case number, press Ctrl-I and see the location of the file on a building floor plan. The process saves time, money and prosecutions.
The Need for Tracking
The 15th Judicial Circuit employs approximately 100 attorneys and 200 support staff members who process tens of thousands of case files annually.
"We review roughly 16,000 to 20,000 cases at the intake level," said Barry E. Krischer, state attorney. "We file 70 percent of what walks in the door. That's around 14,000 felonies and 70,000 misdemeanors this fiscal year alone."
Although the office had set up workflows to handle the vast number of files, some were still falling through the cracks. "Misplacing a file would happen many times during any given week," said Zinn. "And it was costing us a lot in lost time, as well as potentially putting cases in jeopardy because we were unable to get those case files to court in a timely manner."
With this business need in mind, Krischer and Zinn, as early as 2003, started discussing potential solutions to help track files.
Many industries have handled asset tracking with bar-code solutions. However, both Krischer and Zinn knew that it was unfeasible. The added step of scanning bar codes each time a file was opened or closed would put too much burden on office staff.
"I've been working in this office, with the mindset of this office, for 26 years," Krischer said. "I know what they are willing to do and what they are not. And with the sheer volume of cases, you can't ask for that extra step. It's just not going to happen."
Zinn agreed: "Trying to use bar coding is labor intensive. You have to scan the files continually, and given our workload, it was likely that any files we were looking for would be missing because they weren't scanned when they were supposed to be. So we'd still have that panicked file search problem."
Zinn paid careful attention when RFID started making headlines in early 2004. "We had started reading about some of the things that Wal-Mart was doing with RFID and started to explore the concept," he said. Zinn contacted RFID system provider PanGo about implementing RFID at the office.
"They had a technology that would work," he said. "But it wasn't really cost effective at that time."
With Wal-Mart's continued push for RFID, the technology evolved quickly - as did lower prices. In 2007, InnerWireless, the company that acquired PanGo, gave Zinn a call that set in motion the development of the office's new tracking capability.
Mox Weber, director of product management of location services at InnerWireless, said the three-year wait made the technology a better fit for the office's needs, and it also made it more affordable. "Today there are
readers that are optimized for capturing not only nearly 100 percent of reads, but are also optimized for office setups and conflicts," he said. The passive RFID tags used in these systems can now be purchased for less than 25 cents apiece.
"We had to wait until the technology caught up to what we had in mind," Krischer said. "Last year, it reached a point where it was doable, so we embarked on what you now know is the electronic case-file tracking system."
Making the Use Case
Before jumping into implementation, the project team elicited feedback from office users on what the system really needed to do.
Carrie Donohue, head of the State Attorney's Office's Intake Division, said she was initially skeptical the system would work as well as promised. But she and many of her colleagues participated in meetings to help nail down user and system requirements.
"We got together and talked about the project. We did a flow chart and discussed whom the project would impact," she said. "We got together and had meetings that discussed how it was going to work. What we needed it to do was always taken into consideration."
Weber said the upfront work is what made the system such a success. "We spent a lot of time with the attorneys and staff to understand the kind of use cases they wanted to satisfy," he said. "They walked us through how they wanted to track files, how people carry those files, what doorways they walk through and how fine they needed the accuracy of results to be."
The use-case discussion, which is used to determine system requirements, allowed the development team - made up of office members, InnerWireless and Computer Information & Planning Inc. - to understand the tracking requirements before programming a single line. "We didn't want to disturb patterns that users were accustomed to following," Weber said. "The point is not to change behavior, but to complement it. So we made sure that we understood the behaviors and tailored the system to that."
The resulting solution provided office workers with the RFID solution and also seamlessly integrated it into the existing proprietary case database system used in state attorney offices across Florida. The solution was completed in less than a month.
Zinn and Weber credit the upfront use-case design for the system's success. But Zinn said the project would not have gone forward without executive buy-in.
"We had a very defined business problem," Zinn said. "But that executive buy-in was crucial. Without the support of the state attorney making sure the project was funded, and that divisions were committed to the idea and helping everyone understand the benefits, it wouldn't matter how good the technology was - we wouldn't be here."
In fact, funding was the only hiccup in an otherwise quick and clean implementation.
"Initially the source of our funding stream was not clear," Krischer said. Internal state politics made it unclear whether the state or the county was responsible for footing the bill. Eventually Krischer was able to cover the approximately $100,000 system cost from the proceeds of a $2 assessment fee on clerk office filings. However, the delay in determining the funding stream ended up being beneficial.
"The longer we strung it out, the cheaper the [RFID] labels became," Krischer said. "Ultimately stringing it out became a benefit, not a hindrance."
Office employees are satisfied with the new tracking capabilities. "We love it," Donohue said. "Even those of us who were skeptical can't believe we ever did without it." The office plans more enhancements, including RFID cards for personnel and timestamp logs for when employees and files leave the building.
Krischer said naysayers must see the system in use to understand how powerful it is. "Anyone who comes here and sees a secretary just type in a case file number and then see exactly where the file is located on the office schematic is always impressed," Krischer said. "The system sells itself. You just have to come here and see it."