No city limits: Community services without wires

The City of Bellevue's new wireless projects aim to push vital data out to the field workers who need it.

Running a small city is big business.

Across the country, cities and towns are grappling with the same problem as regular companies: How to provide better services on a shoestring budget. Increasingly, cash-strapped municipalities are turning to the same solution as their corporate counterparts -- mobile and wireless technology.

For example, take the city of Bellevue, Wash. With 117,000 residents and a daily workforce of about 121,000, Bellevue is Washington's fifth-largest city, and it has grown exponentially over the past two decades. That growth has triggered one of its most knotty service problems—efficiently issuing and managing the complicated series of permits involved in construction projects.

"We have a significant amount of construction going on, and we're constantly battling two issues," says Toni Cramer, the CIO of the city of Bellevue.

The first is the time lag caused by fieldwork. Bellevue maintains an efficient Web-based system for requesting, issuing and tracking building permits, but once the city's inspectors leave their offices for the inspections in the field, they also leave technology behind.

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"The traditional process is that an inspector goes out, does an inspection, writes it down and gives it to some poor person back at the office who does data input," says Cramer. "It could be days before the results of the inspection are entered in and there for people to see."

The other issue is choreographing the complicated tango of paperwork that must take place for an occupation permit to get issued. Has the building inspector made his final review? Has the plumber hooked up the water line? Has the fire inspector given the structure his thumbs up? All these people must inspect the project, and get their permits and notes into the system before an occupation permit can be issued. For homeowners who have the moving company ready and waiting, the bureaucratic lag can be agonizing. And the stakes can be even higher for businesses.

The umbrella issue is how to connect people in the field with the data and information they leave back at the office. After evaluating a number of technologies, Cramer and her team decided that the best way to bring the mountain to Mohammed, so to speak, was through the implementation of wireless technology.

Bellevue worked with Hewlett-Packard to build a wireless implementation that could eventually encompass any city worker that needs to access information while doing fieldwork.

The first phase of the project started with the building inspection team, some of which have been equipped with laptops with wireless cards that they can use to check select databases to access up to date information during the inspection process.

"We used to have people in the field sitting on the phone or radio waiting interminably for information," says Cramer. "So we built a front end that allowed inspectors to query the back end database for permitting and inspection information." As a side benefit, inspectors can also check their online calendars and get e-mail.

The next step involves eliminating the need for inspectors to write out their reports by hand. Cramer and her team have been testing tablet PCs and laptops in combination with a wireless printer in an attempt to phase out paperwork altogether. Currently, the entire team of eight fire inspectors is testing the tablet- or laptop-with-printer combo. "They can inspect, print out the report and leave it there," Cramer says. "Hopefully, what they leave in the fields is more legible now. Inspectors' handwriting is a lot like doctors' handwriting."

The point of the dual testing of tablets vs. laptops is to see whether inspectors prefer typing in one device as opposed to the other. Cramer intends to use the preference in larger rollouts in the future.

Feedback has been generally good. Employees are glad to see some of the data entry tasks eliminated, and Cramer says that she's receiving anecdotal feedback that customers are happier, too.

Cramer envisions these pilots as the first step in a large wireless implementation that could eventually touch a large percentage of the city work force. One idea involves wireless applications allowing officials to do damage assessment reports in the field during natural disasters, taking the pressure off phone lines currently used for emergency response communications.

She also sees a host of other city workers, such as fire prevention officers, EMTs, police and fire fighters, using wireless technology. "We are in the middle of a police and fire dispatch wireless project, and we hope to put mobile devices in police cars. They'd be able to use them to fill out forms and could wirelessly submit and log in reports on incidents," says Cramer.

The long-term goal, she says, is to put wireless technology in the hands of every city worker who could use it. "We want to extend the city's network to cover the actual city," she says, "and make sure that the information people need is with them instead of sitting back at the office."

About the author: Carol Hildebrand is a freelance writer in Wellesley, Mass.

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Another city goes wireless: Cerritos, Calif.

This was first published in February 2004

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