Paper-based processes for surveying property conditions have been used for years. Of course, during this period some surveys have moved over to electronic data capture, but with varying degrees of success. One of the key factors that can limit the effectiveness of electronic data capture in the field is the accompanying hardware’s ability to capture large amounts of data accurately, quickly and cost-effectively for real-time reporting.
For many housing providers looking to embrace mobile working, there are many considerations when trying to ensure a successful deployment. Once a strategy for mobile technology in the field is in place, the criteria for specifying the hardware is the next logical step. The question that then often arises is how to identify the right bit of kit for the demands of housing and other facilities management.
How to successfully specify tablet PCs
For facility managers or those staff tasked with housing stock assessment, the main concerns when deploying tablets are that the devices have enough power, performance and battery life to support intensive computing in the field. In addition, the devices must be rugged enough to withstand bumps, drops and spills, as well as sealed against dust and moisture and have the ability to be easily cleaned. Combined with the need for quick, familiar data entry, this list of criteria soon begins to favour the use of tablets, as opposed to laptop PCs, smartphones or handhelds.
The tablets will be likely to need certain integrated features, such as Bluetooth, wireless, cameras, barcode scanners, magnetic stripe readers, RFID and finger-print readers, to help improve communication, documentation, data transfer and security. However, the devices can’t be cumbersome or difficult to use. They need to be lightweight, have stylus input to capture signatures and navigate legacy programs with smaller targets, as well as the speed and convenience of natural gesture finger-touch navigation, with a display that is viewable under a variety of lighting conditions as well as large enough to read and view multiple data screens.
Relative to other form factors like smartphones, tablets are a better choice for capturing business-critical data and running software systems as well as applications that are designed for a desktop interface or require several screens of data. Research shows that user compliance drops off after two to three screens of data, and this can be a real problem when working with a smartphone’s smaller display.
Tablets for facilities managers
Responsibilities associated with facilities management typically include a wide range of functions and support services, all of which need to be tracked and audited. Tablets not only aid this process by providing the ability to capture information, create invoices and manage work orders or schedules in real-time at the point of service, but they can also reduce material costs, enhance worker satisfaction and improve customer relationships.
Facilities managers can also monitor the status of maintenance requests, manage vendors, and view the status of major projects and so on, all from a single, mobile device in the field. The use of the Windows operating system on a tablet means the applications that are familiar in the office can be quickly ported on to the device, reducing the time needed for training. The ease of access to this vital information means problems are found quicker and corrective works carried out faster.
To efficiently survey a portfolio of nearly 90,000 properties, a major national housing authority initially looked at handhelds, laptops and digital pens. However, these devices were all dismissed due to software compatibility issues, form and web design, user friendliness, data transfer concerns, hardware robustness and optical character recognition (OCR) limitations.
The housing authority chose Motion Tablet PCs for the devices’ powerful processing capabilities, Windows operating system, large screen, portability and functionality. While out in the field, surveyors can input and update property information and add notes using the tablets’ digitiser pens, with the information then automatically stored in the relevant databases and backed up. This saves huge amounts of time and resources compared with using pen and paper. In addition, the tablets’ built-in digital cameras are used to capture images to further improve reporting with accurate visual records of housing conditions.
The authority found that adopting tablets has significantly reduced the operational costs of its housing condition surveys, delivered faster, more integrated processes, improved real-time access to data in the field and helped reduce errors.
Facilities managers are under growing pressure to increase efficiency, save costs and improve customer service. Tablets help make facilities management more efficient and more cost effective by streamlining workflows and seamlessly connecting the office to the field.
The demands of the field – rugged, easy to use and versatile hardware – must be reconciled with the needs of the back office: quick and effective integration into existing IT infrastructures and ease of management. The good news is that this can be achieved while still ensuring that housing providers and facilities managers can see the resulting RoI within months.
Nigel Owens is senior vice-president and general manager for EMEA at Motion Computing.