Do-It-Yourself Kiosks

New York City's Department of Probation replaced their expensive kiosks with cheaper, more effective ones.

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.

The result?

"We went from very expensive -- in one case, no longer being made -- components and a very expensive, custom-made kiosk shell to standard, off-the-shelf parts. It came out to be about a quarter of the price," said Abrams, noting that new design allowed the agency to reduce the cost per kiosk from $25,000 to approximately $7,000.

The DOP can source and deploy new kiosks more quickly and cost effectively than in the past. As a result, the department has expanded the number of kiosks from 14 to 20 and will soon add six more. They can also move the kiosks more easily.

Goodman said the kiosks were fairly easy to implement.

"We didn't require any funding because we did it all in-house, and it didn't cost very much," he said. "It made it an easy decision to make, and the agency had a real need. Because we had a previous kiosk program, the process was already there, so in terms of business re-engineering, all we had to do was determine which were high-risk and which were low-risk probationers, and then feed them into the existing process."

Share and Share Alike
Now that the kiosk hardware is redesigned, the DOP is working to rewrite the software, and the agency plans to use open source tools to curb costs.

"It's being written in Java running on Linux," said Goodman. "It will give us all the benefits of a Web-based application."

The new software will allow the DOP to centrally manage the kiosk system, and because they will own the software, they can also make changes along the way.

The kiosks are currently located in DOP offices, but once the software becomes Web based, the DOP will consider additional locations convenient to probationers and in police precincts. Probationers won't, however, be able to check in from home.

"We require a biometric, and right now that's difficult to do over the Internet," said Goodman.

The DOP uses hand geometry, but is contemplating moving to a fingerprint biometric.

Once the new software is complete, the DOP plans to make it available at no cost to other jurisdictions. Though that arrangement is still in the planning phases, Goodman said it essentially means if another jurisdiction wants the software, they can have it, providing they agree to share any improvements they make.

"We see the value the kiosk program has brought us, and we think that value can be very strong for other jurisdictions as well," said Goodman. "It's a fairly simple application for us to develop because we've been doing it for so long. We felt that if we shared it, other jurisdictions could get the benefit of our previous experience."

The DOP doesn't expect to see much additional cost savings following the $2 million they already achieved, but the department does expect to improve supervision of probationers thanks to the additional flexibility they now have.

"The kiosk has cost effectively increased public safety, and has become an even more important component of Probation's mission of supervising offenders in the community," said Goodman.
Justine Brown is an award-winning veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at