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Monitoring Public Works Projects via BlackBerry
By Jeff Goldman
The town of South Windsor, Conn., uses BlackBerry smartphones equipped with Freeance software to provide GPS tracking for monitoring and management of everything from snow plows to police canine units.

Michael J. Gantick, the town's director of public works, says the impetus for the deployment came from a simple desire to improve the town's management of its resources.
 
"We wanted something we could move around from vehicle to vehicle, and even send it out with just an employee," Gantick says. "We were looking for something that was economical, cost-effective, and that would be fairly quick to get implemented and out in the field."

After considering solutions from a number of different vendors, Gantick settled on Freeance, which allows a user to fill out custom forms on a BlackBerry in the field and upload GPS data to a central database.
 
A key factor for South Windsor, Gantick says, was the fact that Freeance was able to integrate with the town's legacy ArcGIS system. "We really wanted to use our mapping and our features, and everything that we have so far that's unique to our town," he says.

Gantick says the initial deployment, with 20 BlackBerry 8830 smartphones on Sprint's network, was surprisingly affordable. "We got the 20 units, everything fired up, the software, for around $12,000," he says. "That's pretty economical to get that kind of power out there -- to have the mobility and flexibility with these devices to move them on a moment's notice to another person or another vehicle."

The interface on the BlackBerry itself contains customizable forms allowing each user to enter information to be filed along with the GPS data -- and on the back end, the Freeance software connects to BlackBerry Enterprise Server as well as a PostgreSQL database and the ArcGIS platform for mapping.

The town's first deployment of the system was for leaf collection, starting in the fall of 2008. "They were able to place a box on the leaf collection units, where they could install the BlackBerry phones... so we could track in real time where the machines were and see their progress," Gantick says.

Prior to the BlackBerry deployment, drivers would report their progress in person at the end of the day, at which point the supervisor would update a phone system that allowed residents to call in and find out what areas would be covered the following day.
 
"With the deployment of the BlackBerry with this software, he can actually monitor where they are all day, and by mid-afternoon... he can update the phone system and the Web page to tell people where things are," Gantick says. "So he actually saved about an hour of his time every day, and was able to get out of there early -- just by knowing where people were."

And last fall, Gantick says, the system was used to correct a deployment error in real time. "They handed out their work orders one day, and one of the crews went out -- and all of a sudden, the supervisor looks on the screen and says, 'Why are they over there? They were supposed to go over [here],'" he says. "It had been a typo on the work order -- they had deployed the team to the wrong street -- and they were able to contact the guys and say, 'You're going to the wrong spot.'"
 
The next program to be deployed was snow removal. "We're able to see where the [snow plows] are in real time and understand which streets they've done," Gantick says. "We even had a situation last winter where we received a call from police dispatch saying they were dispatching an ambulance to a house for a medical call... and they were able to look on the screen and deploy a couple of trucks immediately to plow the way for the ambulance to get to the house."

All information recorded by the system can be reviewed at a later date, allowing for further analysis of the data. "You're collecting a date stamp and a location stamp for where these resources have been, and you can come back and sort and manage that information later on, whether it's days, weeks, months, years later, for the purpose of asking, 'Was that the most efficient way they could plow that street?'" Gantick says.

The data can also be used to resolve disputes. "We had a situation last year where some residents said a truck was speeding by their house while it was plowing snow, and we were able to go back and, by the date and time stamp of the location of that truck, we were able to determine what the speed of the truck was -- and, in fact, found that the truck was within our guidelines for the speed they were traveling," Gantick says.

The town has also explored using the system to monitor sewer line cleaning, sign inventory, and sidewalk maintenance -- as well as for the police department's canine unit. "By putting a BlackBerry in the hands of the handler with the dog... they can push a button and they'll have a map drawn automatically of where the dog has been," Gantick says.

And Gantick says he's just beginning to explore the system's potential. Future possibilities, he says, include overlaying a live weather feed onto the map, and developing a public Web site that allows residents to see where the snow plows are in real time. "We're still scratching the surface, and we keep on thinking of more things to use it for," he says.
 
 
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