The New York City Department of Probation (DOP) supervises more than 45,000 probationers each year. Keeping up with that caseload is difficult when times are good. When times get tough, the task becomes nearly impossible.

Fortunately the DOP found a unique way to make the task manageable while controlling costs. It started when times were good. In 1996, the DOP deployed kiosks to help handle the immense number of probationers in the city.

Instead of checking in with a probation officer, low-risk probationers could visit a kiosk, answer a standard series of questions and be on their way. The kiosks freed probation officers to spend more time working with high-risk offenders. At that time, the economy was strong, and the DOP spent nearly $1 million putting the kiosk program in place.

As the economy slowed, things changed. Last year, the DOP was forced to cut nearly 50 probation officers from its staff, so the DOP quickly expanded the number of probationers reporting to the kiosks, which would now be needed more than ever. Instead of 11,000 probationers reporting to kiosks every month, there were now nearly 30,000.

"The kiosks play a very important role for us in times of limited resources," said Kael Goodman, deputy commissioner and CIO for the New York City departments of Correction and Probation.

Though allowing additional probationers to report to kiosks helped the DOP save more than $2 million in 2003, it didn't solve all the agency's problems. There weren't enough kiosks to handle the increased load, and existing kiosks were showing signs of age. More importantly, the kiosks didn't have the flexibility to handle the more diverse population of probationers now reporting to them.

"There were a bunch of operational things we wanted to achieve -- different ways for the probationers to report to the kiosks and different schedules, customized questions based on the category the probationer was in," said Goodman. "We needed to figure out how to make the kiosks more flexible. In other words, put them where we want them and have the content be what we wanted in them."

Since the DOP didn't have the budget to order more kiosks, and because the department wanted to get away from a proprietary system, Goodman asked Barry Abrams, director of Technical Services at the DOP, to design a new kiosk made of off-the-shelf parts.

"With a custom kiosk made up of easily acquired parts, we could break them down, we could swap parts in and out, and should any part fail, it would be readily available on the open market inexpensively," said Goodman.

The Hunt

Abrams' first goal in designing the new kiosks was to make them plug-compatible with the old kiosks.

"We didn't want to change the software," Abrams said. "We wanted to pull out the old ones, put in the new ones and have it just work. We couldn't afford to have much downtime."

The old kiosks were built around a proprietary touchscreen monitor and receipt printer manufactured by a company that has since gone out of business. Abrams' job was to find compatible devices and an inexpensive shell in which to put them. The hunt took almost six weeks.

"I spent hours doing research on the Web," said Abrams. "I finally tracked down companies that made standard, off-the-shelf products we could use. The receipt printer I'm using now is meant to be used in commercial kitchens. It's waterproof, greaseproof and dustproof. But it's a standard, off-the-shelf product."

Abrams also found an external touch-screen monitor that suited the department's purposes. Though not designed to be inside a kiosk, Abrams adapted it by making minor wiring changes. Instead of the expensive shell, Abrams is now using a shell similar to a school audio/visual display cart.

Justine Brown  |  Contributing Writer