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PI firm collars mobile technology, cuts cost and time

For a Chicago private investigation firm, implementing mobile technology means increased productivity, more efficient information processing and sharing, and decreased pavement pounding for world-weary detectives.

Private detectives burn through a lot of shoe leather.

Whether conducting undercover surveillance, serving court documents or gathering evidence and taking statements, a private investigator (PI) spends little time in the office.

The field agents at Chicago-based E.L. Johnson Investigations are no exception. The firm's street team is on the road constantly. But, at the end of the day, PIs used to trudge back to the office to file mountains of paperwork after hours of walking the city.

That is, until six months ago when the firm procured ThinkPad notebooks for its street investigators, essentially giving them mobile offices.

"If you told me eight months ago we'd be able to do all of this, I wouldn't have believed it."
Stacey Johnson
Executive Vice PresidentE.L. Johnson Investigations

 The street-wise detectives needed a little push to embrace the technology, but with that nudge they jumped into the high-tech world of mobile computing.

"It took a little while to get the street investigators working on the notebooks," said Stacey Johnson, E.L. Johnson Investigation's executive vice president. "It was kind of like teaching some old dogs new tricks."

Once over the hurdles, Johnson said the new technology transformed the business. In the past, when a detective tried to serve court papers and the recipient wasn't there, the investigator filled out worksheets and returned them to the office to be picked up by another PI to try again later. Considering E.L. Johnson sometimes serves 2,000 people a week, the paperwork stacked up.

Now, from the comfort of home, a car, a coffee shop or anywhere else they can catch a Wi-Fi signal, detectives can file their paperwork online. Most of the crew has been able to make two or more stops a day since the ThinkPads were deployed.

"They can see what another investigator has done with the case," Johnson said. "This helps us get it done as soon as possible."

The new notebooks, along with desktop ThinkCentre PCs, have broken down a number of doors, Johnson said. Field agents can receive new case information packets and log case status updates in real time. Scanned files can be uploaded into a database that any authorized user can access from the office or through a VPN. The notebooks also let investigators download and transfer digital photos.

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 A GPS system with mapping software built into the notebooks makes it easer to navigate the city streets. When your business is to find people, it's nice to know where you are and where you're going, Johnson said.

"We had decent equipment, but it was a little antiquated," Johnson said. The old system was prone to crashes, virus attacks and computer freezes, she said. Maintaining it was costing thousands of dollars, paying contracted IT service providers about $90 per hour for a fix-up.

The new system will save the company about $60,000 this year in overtime costs and increased productivity alone, along with cutting IT support spending. E.L. Johnson has already saved money by eliminating costly overnight and courier services, which was formerly used to ship paperwork to and from remote workers.

The technology has also changed the workings inside the office, eliminating cascading stacks of paper and overflowing file cabinets that required two full-time employees to tame.

"Our in-house investigators are not working as much overtime," Johnson said. Their time was usually consumed waiting for field agents to return with paperwork.

The agency's ThinkPads and ThinkCentres were actually the result of a stroke of luck. The firm applied for the Tech Twister IT Makeover program offered by vendors Lenovo, Intel, Linksys and CDW. E.L. Johnson stumbled upon the offer while looking for a personal notebook. She applied for the makeover and was one of five small to midsized businesses selected nationwide to receive a full technology upgrade.

The makeover included the PCs, along with IBM eServer xSeries 226 servers; Linksys SD and SRW series switches; network-attacked storage; and wireless access points.

"These computers, in six months, have taken us leaps and bounds," Johnson said. "If you told me eight months ago we'd be able to do all of this, I wouldn't have believed it. It's a bit of a nightmare actually, looking back at how it was."

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