Housing Technology interviewed Darren Hilton, managing director of Handheld PCs, about trends in mobile working, integrating mobile services with housing providers’ core business applications and its range of bespoke and packaged mobile applications.
Where should housing providers be focusing their mobile strategies?
Getting the core applications into the hands of the housing officers is a key step to achieving the desired efficiency savings. These are typically complex and lengthy projects and have the potential to fail at various points, so prior planning is critical to ensure that the correct devices, airtime networks, end-user training and complementary software are tested in a pilot environment.
Mobile technology is moving at a fast pace so housing providers must partner with suppliers with knowledge and experience in all areas or they put their projects at risk. Beginning mobile projects with simple, easy-to-use applications, such as wireless email, can often act as a bridge to the more complex, workflow-oriented mobile applications. The most important focus has to be on the users and making sure they are 100 per cent comfortable with the devices, wireless networks and mobile software as well as the support processes if things don’t work as expected.
How should housing providers integrate their mobile services with their core business applications?
The most seamless approach should be to use the mobile applications provided by the back-office suppliers of these systems. This ensures that there is consistency between updates to the core application and the mobile application as the systems develop over time. Adopting mobile standards such as Blackberry ensures data is transmitted securely and ensures a good user experience. In our view, when a mobile extension to the back-office application either doesn’t exist or doesn’t fulfil all requirements then developing mobile applications using common, open standards such as XML is the best approach. This ensures that whatever is developed can be integrated with back-office systems without too much work.
What are Handheld PCs’ main products and services?
Our core business is the provision of packaged and bespoke mobile applications that are easy to use, quick to develop and robust enough not to need huge amounts of support.
Hand-e-pix uses innovative technology in the latest Blackberries and PDAs to capture and share photographs which are time/date-stamped and geo-tagged. Other contextual information and free text can also be added to the images which are sent in real time to our hosted Media Manager database. Here the information can be sorted, searched and shared. Images and incident information can also be viewed in a GIS system and via online maps such as Google Maps.
Hand-e-forms is our mobile application development tool which enables us to be responsive to customer requirements and build applications that can then be used across a specific sector, such as housing. Recent examples include a mobile customer satisfaction survey, a vehicle inspection checklist and an income recovery application.
How does Handheld PCs differ from other mobile working suppliers?
We are largely complementary because we develop mobile applications for housing providers that often fill the gaps left by core mobile applications such as repairs and maintenance. An example is the secure capture of photos, location and associated information about those photos from mobile devices. We also have the knowledge and skills to offer independent advice on bespoke mobile applications, devices, mobile networks and supplementary mobile technology that is often critical for successful deployments.
How does Handheld PCs integrate with job scheduling and repairs/maintenance systems?
Handheld PCs complements these applications which typically integrate with the core back office applications such as repairs and maintenance. For example, capturing photos is often an ad-hoc task which does not require scheduling; Hand-e-pix and Hand-e-forms are developed using common standards so integrating the records held with other application records is straightforward.
What are the benefits of Handheld PCs to tenants and residents?
Overall Handheld PCs offer a better level of communication between tenants and the housing provider, and the housing provider and its staff, ensuring a responsive, effective and efficient service.
For example, using the customer satisfaction survey we have developed, tenants can be confident issues will reach the right people quickly and accurately and their problems will be addressed in good time. By ensuring the repairs and maintenance teams use the digital cameras on their devices to report issues and completed tasks, they can be sure there is a focus on quality in the housing repairs process. And by having their rents captured and uploaded while the housing officer is with them should give tenants confidence that changes are immediate and accurate.
How well do housing providers use IT and technology?
There is inevitably a spectrum of progress with mobile working among the housing providers. It is important to look at organisations that have already made considerable progress in this area and learn from their mobile working experiences, such as Magna Housing Group and RCT Homes. Some intelligence from these organisations includes:
Focus on end-users via familiarity sessions, pilot groups, field support and training;
Choose the hardware carefully and test before you buy;
Survey your wireless connectivity to ensure coverage is adequate and avoid browser-based applications as network coverage is never 100 per cent;
Work with the back-office suppliers to get the core mobile applications fit for purpose;
Implement the best scheduling application as this is critical for better staff utilisation;
Supplement core mobile applications with niche applications that can add disproportionate value, such as customer satisfaction surveys, income recovery applications, vehicle inspection surveys, and digital image capture and management applications;
Persevere, as the benefits are out there but few people like change. Deploying this technology well will fundamentally improve the way people work.
What is the future for mobile services and devices?
The devices themselves now incorporate more specialised technology as standard, such as GPS, digital mapping, high-specification cameras, video and voice recording. As a consequence, mobile applications need to take advantage of these in order to keep up with the demands of users and the technology.
Forms-based, text-only applications will become a thing of the past – images, video and voice-based applications will enable users to receive, capture and send much richer information. Organisations will therefore need strategies to deal with the challenges of capturing, sending, storing, analysing and sharing digital media from and to devices, throughout the organisation and with external partner organisations.