Out on a Limb

Out on a Limb

The humble handheld computer is playing a vital role in keeping Melbourne's trees and parks looking beautiful - a role that may soon revolutionise how the entire city is administered.

Melbourne takes its parks seriously. Even the city's official logo includes a leaf. But next time you're strolling one of its boulevards or gardens admiring the golden elms, consider the part that the humble handheld computer is now playing in keeping our southern metropolis looking so beautiful. It is a role that is about to get bigger and which may soon even help form the central nervous system of how the whole city is administered.

Picture those European-style parks and avenues. According to the City of Melbourne's own "amenity valuation formula", the total value of Melbourne's trees is estimated to be more than $500 million - an asset its civic guardians believe is irreplaceable. Enter the personal digital assistant and enterprise mobile software developed by local company, e-Wise. Its solution has already won enough fans and saved enough money within one small department of the city for its Swanston Street headquarters to entrust the future of its crown jewels to the same mobile computing system.

A recent field trial of handhelds by staff in the city's Street Activities division has revealed that it will save at least $110,000 a year for an initial investment of just $37,000. That's full payback in three months. Melbourne's much larger Parks and Recreation Group recently adopted the solution and the city's other major departments are lining up to be involved.

The enterprise mobile project is driven by the city's Integrated Business Services Group (IBS), that area of the council where technology, business and strategy converge. As an internal provider of IT services, its aim is to define the city's enterprise-wide technology needs and ensure that any investment fits with Melbourne's business goals. Paul Bunker, manager of business innovation and customer service at IBS, says the Street Activities handheld trial is an example of the city's IT and e-business strategy.

"We want to have a corporate-wide IT approach to solving a whole bunch of business problems," Bunker says. "At IBS, we look at the customer and the technology. We don't do tech for tech's sake or customer for the customer's sake. Those two approaches don't work alone so we've brought them together. What has emerged is that you get champions in various business units who pick up a project and move it forward."

Bunker says that for the Street Activities trial the council sought solutions from leading multinational vendors. Without exception, they responded with gargantuan and costly ideas. "We couldn't afford to risk millions on a big bang approach," he says.

"We hear a lot today about how vendors want to be your partner. My experience is that you don't get a lot of partnering. You get a lot of selling and a relationship where the vendor gets more and more out of you. They think this is partnering. With this vendor we've got much closer to the true spirit of partnership," says Bunker. "It's not about screwing e-Wise for everything we can or vice versa. We're trying to establish a sustainable partnership. I'm also looking at how all local government, not just our city, can benefit from projects like this."

So what has the City of Melbourne achieved so far?

Its Street Activities team monitors local laws and maintains infrastructure such as footpaths and public seats. Currently, its field officers file paper reports that are later keyed into a computer. Trials of the handheld mobile data system saved each officer an average of two hours a day in administrative chores. With such work costed at $30 an hour, the savings mounted quickly.

Field officers now enter data on handhelds through a graphical front end with built-in business logic, familiar drop-down menus and touch screens. When the officers return to base, the handheld data is synchronised and integrated with the city's back office Oracle database using software developed by e-Wise. Savings were immediate - reduced data logging and back office administration time, improved data accuracy and efficiency, standardised reporting and improved job satisfaction. Word soon spread.

Now Parks and Recreation, which is responsible for maintaining the equivalent of 1000 football fields worth of land and parks infrastructure throughout Melbourne, including 50,000 trees, 53 parks and 25 parklands, has started trials using the same enterprise mobile solution. And it expects similar results.

Green Assets

Martin Sheppard, head of contract and business support at the City of Melbourne, says the quality the city demands for its parks is higher than most municipalities in Australia. "Parks have always been important to Melbourne," Sheppard says. "That's why the city is prepared to invest. My bosses want the parks to look good but we've got limited resources. There is a concern about maintaining a balance between quality and making sure we don't put too much pressure on our most valuable assets, which are our people."

Sheppard says Parks and Recreation knew it needed to be "a little smarter" about how it maintained Melbourne's green assets. It wanted new ways to turn information into knowledge. But its dedicated field staff had used traditional tools like paper and pen for years to collect the information needed to maintain the parks. It was taking hours of unnecessary writing, keying and rekeying of data.

"One of the biggest challenges we have is not the technology but the change management issues," Sheppard says. "The team is very experienced in horticulture and grounds maintenance. They have been with the city anywhere between 15 and 50 years and some of them were happy to fill in forms forever. So we needed something as close to paper and pen as possible. The idea of using a PDA, where the device recognises handwriting, psychologically has worked well for us."

Sheppard says the time to collect parks data will actually increase by 10 to 15 per cent because it takes longer to enter information on a handheld than scribbling on paper. But the time needed to enter that data "back at base" will drop by at least 50 per cent because the process is automatically synchronised. The time for analysing the information will drop by 90 per cent and the communication between Parks and Recreation and its various maintenance providers will drop by 30 per cent.

"At the end of the day we'll have documented trends and evidence of not only how the parks are performing but also how our partners and maintenance contractors are performing," Sheppard says. "So if there are any issues, we're onto them before we have customers ringing to complain."

Other departments of the city also plan to adopt the enterprise mobile approach before year's end, including Parking and Traffic, Engineering Services, and Cultural Development.

Mobile Framework

Tracey Willett, the customer development coordinator within IBS, says the team implemented a framework that would meet the requirements of individual business units and ensure at least a three-year lifespan for all technology.

"One of the things we realised could happen was, say, Parks and Recreation and Engineering Services going to the same site for different reasons," Willett says. "Parks might identify a [tree] branch that needs lopping and Engineering might send someone to the same location to fix a piece of street furniture. We hope the mobility solution will allow one person to have a 360-degree view of a site and use the technology to input information and send it to whichever department manages the maintenance."

The IBS group has identified three types of hardware requirements for staff. One is a pure office model for management which has little need to be outside. The second is a device for staff from departments such as Engineering Services who spend 70 per cent of their time inside but who need to go out on audits once a month. The choice for both groups is the Compaq iPAQ, with a protective sleeve for outdoors use.

The third model is a rugged piece of hardware for pure field service staff like parking and traffic officers who need all-weather functionality. IBS is yet to decide between handheld models from Intel, Motorola, Compaq and Symbol. "We've tried to establish standards so we can deliver maintenance efficiencies but we also want to meet various user needs," says Willett. "The software also has to be scalable and flexible to accommodate the inevitable advances in technology."

In choosing an enterprise mobility solution the city says it had a number of key goals: to save money, improve business processes, achieve greater accuracy and make reporting easier. The solution also had to comprise one framework under which all mobility applications could be developed, deployed, managed and updated.

Melbourne's IBS team does not think twice when asked why its enterprise mobile solution has been so effective so soon. "The success is due to how the three parties involved have worked together and focused on the business outcome - consistently taking a step back and asking what's best for the organisation," says Sheppard.

And the team reserves special praise for the approach taken by their vendor. "It's easy for a supplier to come in and just sell a product but to go that extra mile and understand the business and the people inside it . . . that has been great for us," Bunker says.

"It's not just about doing a quick fit to keep us happy. They've actually questioned some of our business practices because they didn't understand the logic behind them. This meant that we had to go back and explain the logic or rethink the logic. And they had some valid arguments," he says. "It means we have a relationship with an organisation we can trust. This has given us a lot of confidence and that's vital for a team that is going to have a lot of change management issues."

Says Willett: "It hasn't been easy. We've really had to do some work in regards to the buy-in and show the solution working and achieving results. A lot of it is building trust amongst ourselves and believing in what we are doing."

The experience at the City of Melbourne amounts to a sweet victory for the enterprise mobile technology boosters who for years have promised returns on such investments. And while the sceptics will mutter scary phrases like "hidden costs", "upgrade charges", "training fees", "security issues" and "maintenance", Melbourne's IBS team believes it has little to fear. They plan to extend the reach and productivity of their mobile solution across the enterprise to provide better services and generate savings in the millions of dollars.

It seems that from a humble geek's gadget an enterprise powerhouse is expected to grow handsomely - just like Melbourne's $500 million worth of trees. FGo with the (Information) Flow 2003 - the year mobility makes its enterprise mark?

IDC says the enterprise market for PDAs is expected to accelerate in 2003 and account for 29 per cent of all handhelds sold. In 2004, IDC expects corporate adoption to increase to 33 per cent of the market - up from only 17 per cent last year. According to new IDC research, Sync or Swim: The Worldwide Smart Handheld Devices Market Forecast and Analysis, 2002-2006, shipments will increase from 14.6 million in 2001 to 31.6 million by 2006. Part of this growth will be driven by increased adoption of devices across enterprises.

Gartner also believes PDAs are shedding their "toy" tag and fast becoming a necessary enterprise tool. The devices are part of what Gartner calls a personal computer network - a seamless web of desktops, laptops, handhelds and smart phones. But Gartner and others like Aberdeen Group warn that IT managers need to consider how such devices impact staff time, training and budgets. Looking ahead to the days of wireless connectivity, Gartner says organisations should be aware that the total cost of ownership (TCO) for handhelds can be as much as $US3000 per user per year.

Gartner says the TCO for an integrated wireless PDA can be broken into cost segments: 60 per cent will go to capital (including hardware, software and network services); 30 per cent to operations (including technical services and support, peer support, application management and development); and 10 per cent to administration (including evaluation, implementation and training).

According to Gartner, 65 per cent of Global 2000 companies will support some type of mobile data initiative by 2004. Gartner's mobile wireless research director, Phil Redman, says effective mobile strategies enhance competitiveness, reduce costs and contribute to a robust e-business environment.

"Mobility is the next major business and technical discontinuity facing large organisations," says Redman. "Much as the PC and Internet revolutionised communications, mobility will transform how information flows among business users, customers and partners."

Tallying It Up

Where City of Melbourne's dollar savings come fromThe City of Melbourne's Street Activities team comprises seven mobile staff and one office staff member whose work is costed at $30 an hour. The enterprise mobile solution saves each person about two hours and 15 minutes per day in handwriting and rekeying of reports, visits to the office and gaining access to reports. This amounts to $469 per day, $10,309 per month and $123,710 per year.

Expenditure on the system is $7250 per user. This comprises the handheld hardware ($1500), the server licence ($5000) and user licences ($750). With integration and set-up costs of $20,000 for all users, the total expenditure is $41,500.

Operating costs per year are for software maintenance ($1980), system support ($3000), updates ($2500) and a hardware replacement allowance of $2500. Total operating costs per year are $9980.

That leaves a net saving of $113,730 - for one small department.

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