You Won’t Expect to Find Tablets in These 4 Workplaces

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The workplace has been quick to adopt iPad and Android tablets. Today, it’s near commonplace to find tablets in the hands of doctors, real estate agents and retail employees. However, if you really want to see the future of tablets in the workplace, you have to look in unexpected places.

1. In Garbage Trucks

On a list of places you wouldn’t expect to see an iPad, inside the cab of a garbage truck would have to be near the top.  But you’ll find dozens of iPads in O’Fallon, Mo., just west of St. Louis.  Drivers use the iPads to spot residents who haven’t paid their trash bills, but who put their cans at the curb anyway, trying to receive free service. 

At first, the city of O’Fallon printed lists of cutoff accounts, but it was easy for busy drivers to forget which addresses to avoid.  Next, they tried high-end GPS receivers with custom maps created by the city’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Department.  As a driver pulled up to a house, he checked the map; a green dot on the address meant pick up, a red dot meant skip it.  The program worked great, helping to recover thousands of dollars in unpaid bills every month, but there were a few drawbacks. 

For one, in order to update the GPS units, an employee had to plug each device into a desktop PC and sync for new account data.  The process only took about five minutes per device, but 26 total units needed to be synced every day.  In addition, at a cost of about $3,000 apiece, the units were expensive to replace. 

“At first, the iPad wasn’t really a viable option because we had no way of installing our custom maps,” says Kevin Kingrey, GIS Manager for the city of O’Fallon. But that changed when ESRI, creators of ArcGIS, the industry-leading GIS software, released an ArcGIS app for iOS and Android. The app interfaces with ArcGIS Online, a GIS mapping site that can read data uploaded to the cloud or directly from an organization’s own GIS server.  Now, instead of syncing data every day, garbage truck operators simply use the iPad app to access a secure map on, where account status changes are available instantly. 

“The iPads also allow drivers to send information back to us in real time,” reports Kingrey. “If they see a broken trash can, they can indicate that on the map. The office will see it and schedule a replacement can delivery, possibly for the same day.”

There’s another bonus, too. “Even with 3G service, we can buy four or five iPads for the price of one of the GPS receivers,” says Kingrey. “If an iPad lasts a year, it’s paid for itself multiple times over.”

Garbage trucks were just the tip of the iPad iceberg for O’Fallon. Kingrey says, “We have a lot more departments using them now. Water and sewer, streets, building code enforcement is getting them soon; everybody sees how useful they can be in the field. The more information employees have at their fingertips, the better they can serve our residents.  The iPads make that possible.”

2. In Police Cars

With the new PolicePad app from Zco Corporation, crooks will have nowhere to run from the long arm of the law. Developed in cooperation with the Lowell, Massachusetts Police Department, the iPad app is a mobile information center for officers on patrol.

“Basically everything accessible on the desktop PC is now available in a small, reliable, relatively inexpensive and easy to use device,” says Officer Craig Withycombe, the man in charge of LPD’s information systems.

PolicePad features a map with real-time 911 call locations and information, registered sex offender addresses and even the current whereabouts of other squad cars, all at the touch of large, tap-friendly icons. Once an officer answers a call, photos, text messages, and streaming or recorded video can be sent to HQ or other PolicePad users, and just as easily attach to an electronic case file as evidence. The officers can access warrants, mugshots and legacy case files, as well as see the history of calls for a specific address if they’re going into a hot spot.

In conjunction with other apps, such as email, calendars, word processing and web browsing, a $600 iPad can virtually replace the $5,000 cruiser laptops found in many police cars, says Withycombe.

He adds, “In my over 30 years in dealing with technology — 18 with LPD — I believe these devices, tailored with the right software, will have a revolutionary impact on law enforcement.”

Zco Corporation’s director of marketing Katie Meurin reports that PolicePad’s launch is set for the upcoming International Association of Chiefs of Police conference, and will be available in Q4 2012.

3. At a Construction Site

If you need steel-toed boots and a hard hat at work, bringing an iPad seems like a bad idea. Nevertheless, that’s just what employees at Parkhill, Smith & Cooper (PSC), an engineering and architecture firm in Lubbock, Texas are doing, thanks to the PunchList app from Newforma.

In case you don’t wear a tool belt every day, a punchlist is an inventory of projects that must be contractually finished before a building is considered complete. A punchlist can include tasks as minor as putting on power outlet covers, or as major as putting the crown molding in the kitchen. The punchlist gets its name from the tradition of punching a hole in the paper next to the item to show it has been finished.

According to Sheri Mullins, project assistant at PSC, creating a paper punchlist used to be a two- or three-day process. Inspectors would either hand-write or tape record items for the list, which would then be typed up and given to the engineer for approval. The final list would be emailed as a PDF to the contractor.

Thanks to the PunchList app, an inspector uses an iPad to add items directly to an electronic project file, which can include photos and videos for added clarity. As soon as the list is published, it’s instantly available to the engineer back at the office, through Newforma’s project management network. When the engineer approves it, the list is assigned to the contractor, who uses PunchList to mark off items as they’re completed. The path from inspector to contractor can now take as little as 30-45 minutes. Mullins estimates they save approximately 40% of actual punch time and 90% of editing time by using the app.

Newforma’s David Wagner, senior product manager of construction solutions, reports that mobile apps like PunchList are a top priority for the company. Although many components of the project management suite can already be accessed via the web browser on a PC or tablet, Newforma is looking to create more apps optimized for tablets and smartphones by Q1 2013.

4. In Utility Trucks

When a thunderstorm rolls through the area, residents depend on the Wake Electric Membership Corporation. Hundreds of the rural North Carolina co-op’s 35,000 members call in to report power outages; therefore, things can get pretty hectic. But thanks to the Outage Management System (OMS) app, dealing with power interruptions has gotten a whole lot easier.

The OMS app from National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC), a leading software developer for electric co-ops, is a tablet interface for NISC’s own iVUE OMS, part of the popular iVUE Suite of desktop programs. The app maintains the core functionality of iVUE OMS, including the ability to create new outages, edit existing ones and assign open outages to repair crews, but it is streamlined for a more intuitive mobile experience. Using the app, dispatchers who would normally need to manage even small power outage events from the office, can now do so from anywhere, even at home on the couch.

But the real advantage of the app, according to Matt Vernon of Wake Electric Membership Corporation, is that it can be used in repair trucks. “Feedback from the guys in the field is positive … [The OMS app] cuts down on talk time via radio and mobile phone [which] allows [the crews] to respond faster to outages, especially in the middle of the night.”

The key is two-way communication between the app and the iVUE OMS desktop program. Traditionally, a dispatcher had to relay information to the trucks, but now, that information is at the crew’s fingertips.

By tapping on an outage, the map zooms to the interruption location and displays affected power lines. From here, driving directions from the truck’s current location, as well as the whereabouts of other trucks in the vicinity, are easily accessible. In addition, more data can be found in an outage pop-up box, including comments from dispatch and callers, affected electrical phases, and the feeder and substation where the line originated. Once the power is back, the crew marks the outage “restored,” removing it from the list of active outages in the app and in iVUE OMS, and simultaneously updating the map for all users.

According to Todd Eisenhauer, vice president of engineering and operations, the OMS app is just the beginning of mobile solutions at NISC. Eisenhauer says programmers are already working on tablet interfaces and mobile adaptations of more iVUE Suite programs, with some apps expected in late 2012. He adds, “For an industry that is in rural America … we are doing some neat things.” Surely the 35,000 people who rely on Wake Electric Membership Corporation would agree.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Johan Larsson

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