Wednesday, May 26, 2004
Housing Agencies Look to Their Pocket PCs for Paperless Inspections
Posted by Sponsor in "SPONSORED ARTICLES" @ 06:19 AM
One effective approach is being used by the Miami Dade County Housing Agency, which has moved to a paperless inspection process based on handheld devices. The Authority manages approximately 24,000 units that have to be inspected annually to meet guidelines of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that provides partial funding.
Figure 1: Generic Visual CE screen shot.
According to Walter Medina, Manager of Computer Services, the new inspection technique has helped resolve major problems getting inspections done on time to meet HUD compliance. “We were six months behind in processing inspections. Now that we are using the handheld units, inspections are online the same day.”
One basic challenge was finding the right software to develop forms that meet HUD guidelines and best fit the needs of the housing agency. He originally considered coding the application onto the Windows CE platform using a traditional development platform such as Visual Basic. Then he realized that the amount of time required made the idea completely unfeasible. “Visual Basic would have taken me 7-8 months to code the application because you have to account for every possible detail.”
Off-the-shelf software was another option, but Medina rejected it as well. “With canned software, you’re at the mercy of the software vendor, even if you want to do something simple like add a new button. However, if you can create the forms in-house, you can modify them whenever you want, such as when regulations change. You don’t have to worry about paying royalties or waiting for the software vendor to make the update.”
Streamlined Forms Building Tool
Medina created the handheld application using Visual CE, a database and forms building tool from SYWARE. Visual CE combines rapid development time with the flexibility to build applications to meet virtually any data collection need. An intuitive drag & drop interface simplifies application development, allowing programmers and non-programmers alike to build professional quality forms that are both visually attractive and highly functional.
Figure 2: Generic Visual CE screen shot.
“Visual CE allowed me to create the complete application in three hours,” Medina adds. “All the work that the SYWARE guys did to create Visual CE represents the work it would have taken me to create the form from scratch.”
Designing the Ideal Form
Medina’s challenge was to effectively squeeze the information contained on an 8 1/2 x 11 inch paper form onto the small screen of the handheld. Using Visual CE he created a 3-screen electronic form that captures all HUD requirements in a highly readable and easy to use format. Features such as drop down boxes and input windows that open within the screen effectively expand the small physical area available. Additional features such as a built-in number pad, scribble boxes, and time stamps add functionality that is beyond the capabilities of standard paper forms.
The initial screen is used to record preliminary information such as address, unit number, tenant’s name, inspector’s name, and date/time of the inspection. Screen #2 is where the inspection details are captured, with drop down boxes to record violation codes covering various issues such as safety, electricity, security, and lead paint as well as related information including responsibility, urgency, and action required. The third screen contains check boxes to indicate the status of basic services, such as whether appliances are installed and utilities are on.
Figure 3: Generic Visual CE screen shot.
Inspectors go from room to room, recording violations on their Casio Cassiopeia E-125 handheld devices. Inspectors can “point and click” to select the room being inspected, then specify information such as the type of violation, description, category, location, and parts needed to fix any broken items. Inspectors can also enter text comments using a built-in keypad, and create freeform drawings using the scribble box.
After inspecting all units on their itinerary, inspectors go to their local housing authority office, where they connect the handheld unit to a desktop PC and dump the data to the PC as a text file. Using an emulation program, the data is then transferred from the desktop to a UNIX server at the housing authority’s data center. Applications running on the server process and analyze the inspection and generate reports for the local housing authority and oversight agencies.
Automated Work Orders
Data captured by handhelds can also be readily integrated with existing desktop and server applications, creating further efficiencies that help ensure compliance with regulations and speed the delivery of services. For example data captured by the handhelds devices provides input to a server application that automatically generates repair work orders, specifying the location of the unit, the repair needed, parts required, urgency, and other relevant information. In the past, these work orders had to be keyed manually as a separate process. Using the new approach, repairs can be completed faster, leading to improved relations with tenants.
Tenants Are Impressed
In addition to saving time, the new technique also helps boosts the image of housing inspectors and the housing authority. Public housing tenants are often impressed when they see the inspector walk in and start clicking away on their little handheld device. The technologically advanced approach tends to add credibility to the inspection process. In many cases, inspectors also have more time to spend with tenants explaining violations and other issues related to the inspection.
And what do actual users think of the new approach? Medina reports that inspectors are delighted not to have to carry around stacks of paper, and have embraced the handheld units. He adds that the learning curve was also very brief. He scheduled a three-hour seminar to introduce the new system, but they picked it up right away – “within half an hour.”
Relational Database Capabilities
As he developed his application, Medina found that one of the most useful features of Visual CE was the auto-numbering capability. A unique number is assigned to every record and automatically renumbers records as new records are added. This ability to identify individual records allows developers to build applications with one-to-many relationships between tables, and provides the functionality of a relational database.
Medina’s next goal is to give inspectors the ability to print receipts or tickets using a terminal printer attached to the inspector’s belt. After finishing the inspection, inspectors could then generate a paper record for the tenant indicating whether the unit passed or failed the inspection, and describing any violations. This record would also provide immediate proof that the inspection had been performed. One solution under consideration is a companion product to Visual CE called Report CE that allows printing from the serial port or infrared port of the handheld device.
“If you’re going to be creating electronic forms, Visual CE is the program to use “says Medina. “Housing agencies with programming staff can duplicate any HUD paper form for use on a handheld device in less than half an hour. There’s no need for programmers to lose weeks or months creating something from scratch – just let the software do the work for you.”
For further information, contact:
Frank Yacano, Director of Business Development
PO Box 425091, Kendall
Cambridge, MA 02142 USA
Phone: +1 617.497.1300
Fax: +1 617.497.8729
Email: [email][email protected][/email]
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The above article is a paid advertisement for SYWARE and does not necessarily represent the views of Pocket PC Thoughts.