Enterprising Wireless

Governments seek mobile solutions that serve multiple masters.

by / April 15, 2002
By the time you read this, Chicago will have equipped hundreds of field workers with wireless technology. Last fall, the city began handing out mobile devices to building, fire and health inspectors who were first in line to use a newly installed inspection, permitting and code-enforcement application. The system ultimately will serve 15 city business units and as many as 600 mobile-device users.

Meanwhile, police, fire and emergency medical services departments in Lucas County, Ohio, were set to begin sharing a mobile data architecture that spans 33 public safety agencies spread across 20 cities and towns. The county began beta-testing the system in October and intended to have all participants online by the end of 2001.

These are just two examples of how government agencies are beginning to take an enterprise view of mobile technology. Across the nation, a growing number of jurisdictions are asking wireless systems to support multiple business units, and they're setting standards designed to promote interoperability among users and bring economies of scale to purchasing.

"They're looking at standardizing on mobile-device platforms like PDAs for easier support, lower cost, better management capabilities and more robust application development," said Phillip Redman, a research director for Gartner Group.

But enterprise projects also may trigger a new level of complexity as government agencies attempt to coax wireless applications across jurisdictional boundaries and try to satisfy multiple user groups with a unified mobile solution. Still, jurisdictions undertaking strategic wireless initiatives say the benefits easily outweigh the risks.

Imposing Order
For Chicago, bringing commonality to mobile systems meant identifying the business tasks performed by members of the city's mobile workforce, then creating standard suites of devices, operating systems and communications techniques to fit them. City officials, working with an IT consulting firm, spent about eight weeks on the chore. The result was a handful of mobile specifications designed to guide Chicago's 42 agencies toward a more unified technology vision.

"People were going to be buying all kinds of different devices using all kinds of different operating systems that can't talk to each other, and they were going to be very difficult for us to maintain," said Chicago CIO Christopher O'Brien. "We were just seeing a lot of bad decisions being made. So we really wanted to put a stake in the ground to do some planning."

Without guidelines, mobile technology quickly spawns incompatibilities and inefficiencies, O'Brien said. Part of the problem stems from the consumer-friendly nature of mobile devices. Many of the people staffing city agencies already own a Palm or Pocket PC for personal use, and they hold definite opinions about which devices and operating systems to choose.

"The same devices that field inspectors or police officers are using are available to consumers in their homes. So they see the value in these kinds of things, but they also may be led in a direction that is not completely appropriate for business use," he said. "It's been kind of hard for us to corral the armchair expert and make the case that this needs to be done in a coordinated way."

O'Brien said the city was careful to give agencies a menu of options for implementing mobile applications, fearing that rigid standards would stifle creativity. He added that Mayor Richard Daley's support was vital to heading off what could have become mobile chaos.

Executive backing was particularly important where users were asked to accept compromises in the name of the organization's overall good. "When you have an enterprise suite of tools, you select them based on the value to the enterprise, which means it will hit some business needs right out of the park and others it won't hit quite so well," O'Brien said. "We've really tried to use the power of the mayor and his vision in terms of the city working together as one organization."

Clearing Hurdles

Reaching consensus among multiple users also posed a challenge for Lucas County, according to Emergency Services Director Dennis Cole. The county spent about four months conducting design meetings among the 33 police, fire and emergency response agencies that will use its mobile data system.

"Before we did anything, we made them all sit down and agree on screens -- how they were going to look -- so we didn't put the vendors through a lot of hassle," said Cole. "Once we achieved that, it was fairly easy. Getting agreement up-front was hard."

The county installed Aether Systems' PacketCluster software for law enforcement, fire and EMS. The applications are delivered through a unified mobile data architecture. In addition, the mobile data applications integrate with an existing countywide computer-aided dispatch system.

"In our case, we're interfacing a Motorola RF system with Aether software and a PRC computer-aided dispatch," Cole said. "So we're trying to interface three different vendors, and that becomes complex."

That task was further complicated by the fact that information delivered through the system must be tailored to fit the needs of multiple jurisdictions. The county operates seven public safety access point (PSAP) facilities, which answer 911 calls from citizens. The new system has to filter dispatching information from the PSAPs so that first responders receive only data that applies to them.

"They don't want everybody's information; that would cause information overload. So one of the biggest hurdles we're facing is how do you control what information goes to whom," said Cole, adding the issue was resolved through plenty of hard work by the county and the vendors involved in the project.

Paying for the project also posed problems. Federal funds for improving emergency communications often can't be used for projects that span multiple jurisdictions, Cole said. Therefore, Lucas County was forced to finance the undertaking with property tax revenue.

The county intends to skirt that issue in a related project. Federal grant money will be used to install short-range wireless networks in Toledo to allow emergency vehicles to automatically exchange data with wired LANs, Cole said. Once in place there, the technology will be expanded to other jurisdictions.

He branded the current federal funding model counterproductive, particularly in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"The issue keeps coming up about interoperability and multi-jurisdictional aid. But almost all of the federal grants out there have to be oriented toward a single jurisdiction," he said. "We're trying to do a multi-jurisdictional project, and you're not allowed to use the grants for multi-jurisdictional projects."

Reaping Rewards

Despite their challenges, enterprise projects can pay big dividends, according to O'Brien. For example, unified wireless device and communications standards have boosted the city's buying power.

"We've been able to take the power of 42 different agencies and negotiate good contracts on devices and on the communication layer," he said. "We've been able to put the full force of the city of Chicago behind negotiations with providers, which has really driven our prices down."

Furthermore, projects like the city's enterprise inspection, permitting and code-enforcement system deliver a new level of information to mobile employees. These workers now have access to a broad range of city databases, not just material from their own departments, O'Brien said. Therefore, a city building inspector can check fire-inspection records or environmental permits for a structure while performing a permit inspection.

Citizens will see results, too, as city departments begin to act more like a single entity. "They expect this kind of coordination, and mobile technology allows you to do it in a way that is much more powerful," O'Brien said.

Chicago is working with Hansen Information Technologies to implement the system, which will deliver information to mobile employees via Windows CE-equipped PDAs or wireless laptop computers. Both types of devices will link to a central database and will be managed by a Microsoft Windows 2000 device management server.

For Lucas County, installing a mobile data system across multiple jurisdictions vastly improves communication among emergency response crews. The technology allows firefighters, police and EMS to talk to each other. It also links together emergency crews from different cities.

That sort of interoperability hadn't previously been the case in Lucas County. As in many areas throughout the nation, communication between emergency-response agencies was hobbled by incompatible radio technologies. "Our RF system is scattered across the spectrum. If you want to communicate between jurisdictions, you would need a different radio for each one," said Cole.

Mobile data technology allows agencies throughout the country to send text messages instantly to one another.

"I can talk from a car in one jurisdiction to a car in another jurisdiction as long as I know their user name," he said. "We now have a common base to communicate."
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