Ready for RFID?

Government agencies embrace radio frequency identification (RFID) to speed library operations and payments at highway tollbooths, and to track everything from office files to hurricane victims.

MARCIE LYNCH DOESN'T MISS THE MAD scramble of looking for misplaced files. She and other staff members at the Marin County District Attorney’s Office in California used to send the same urgent e-mail several times a day: “A court date is tomorrow. Where’s the case file?” Each missive touched off a frantic search as about one hundred attorneys, paralegals, investigators and victim-support personnel stopped work to check their desks.

The D.A.’s office solved the problem in 2004 by microchipping every file with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, allowing employees to immediately pinpoint the location of every file, eliminating missing files.

“We used to waste so much time looking for cases,” recalls Lynch, the legal process supervisor. “Now the frustration factor is gone.”

RFID has “helped tremendously in locating missing files and allows our people to use their time more productively,” adds Veronica Acosta-Tabas, a supervisor in the D.A.’s office.

Growing Up

RFID is still in its infancy, but government agencies have begun deploying the technology to operate more efficiently. For example, Arizona’s Maricopa County Attorney’s Office estimates that using RFID to manage case files saves $100,000 to $150,000 a year in staff time that used to be spent searching for lost files.

Many government agencies use this technology to better track and manage inventory. When Oregon’s Eugene Public Library opened a new main library, it tripled its space and increased book lending by 20 percent. But the library didn’t need many additional staffers to check out materials, thanks to RFID, which enabled the library to develop a self-service checkout system and an automatic book-sorting system for returned books.

A number of state transportation departments use RFID for electronic toll collection, allowing motorists to pay without stopping at tollbooths. And some county jails and state prisons require inmates to wear RFID bracelets to track their location, with some reporting fewer fights among prisoners.

The Harrison County Coroner’s Office in Mississippi used RFID chips with unique 16-digit numbers to help identify Hurricane Katrina victims. Authorities inserted the chips into the deceased and linked the unique numbers with information on the bodies, such as physical characteristics and the location where the body was found. Those details were compared with missing person’s databases. “It helped us work a lot quicker and safeguarded us from human error,” says coroner Gary Hargrove.

Steve Halliday, an analyst with High Tech Aid, a Gibsonia, Pa.-based consulting company, says RFID is poised for huge growth. Wal-Mart, Target and the Department of Defense have led the way, he says, and the International Organization for Standardization is in the process of approving an RFID standard, which will further increase adoption.

Government agencies are developing new ways to use RFID. To verify a person’s identity and prevent fraud, the State Department plans to issue passports with RFID tags that would store personal information, including name, sex and date of birth. Some states are considering using RFID tags in driver’s licenses.

“The technology is extremely powerful, and we’re beginning to see wider use of it,” Halliday says.

Booking Benefits

In Oregon, the Eugene Public Library uses RFID to speed the process of checking out and reshelving books, says Margaret Hazel, principal librarian in charge of technology.

When a person borrows books, he or she walks to a checkout station, slips their library card into a card reader and places the books on top of an RFID reader. The device scans the tags on each book and displays each one’s title on a touch-screen monitor. Once the person approves the transaction by pressing “OK,” the device prints out a receipt. The library’s database is automatically updated to show that the individual checked out the books.

The self-checkout allows library staff to pursue more interesting work, and reduces time spent on typing and barcode scanning, which decreases the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, Hazel points out.

About 85 percent of library patrons now use self-checkout, she says. “We knew people would be interested in the self-help model because they are used to ATM machines and are getting used to self-checkout at supermarkets,” Hazel explains.

When books are returned, they travel along a conveyor belt into the library’s back room. RFID readers on the conveyor belt read each book’s tag. The system automatically sorts them by author and type of book, and then shelves them upright on appropriate carts to speed the reshelving process.

Despite the benefits of RFID, some organizations have raised privacy concerns because the chips can potentially broadcast personal information to RFID readers that are in close range. Government agencies that decide to use this technology must consider how to safeguard users’ personal information. The State Department faced criticism when it decided to use RFID in passports, so it plans to include encryption and other security measures to ensure privacy.

The Eugene Public Library makes every effort to protect its users’ privacy. Hazel explains that if thieves with RFID readers and special software attempt to scan a book’s RFID tag, they can access only a number that identifies the book, not the library patron’s personal information.

A Good Buy

The Marin County D.A.’s Office spent $50,000, while the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office paid between $70,000 and $80,000 for their respective RFID systems. IT administrators for both agencies say the technology is well worth the investment.

“It cuts down on one full-time person chasing errant files, and it’s gotten files to court on time much more easily,” says York Westgate, senior technology support analyst for the Marin County D.A.’s Office.

RFID requires some programming to integrate a county’s case management system with the RFID software, but once that’s done, the technology is easy to use and requires little or no maintenance, says Al Lucas, division chief information technology for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.

Both agencies purchased RFID pads, attached to computers that read RFID tags. When staffers move the documents, they place the files on the pad, and the database automatically updates the files’ location and the time the files were moved. The pads can read six to eight files at a time, says Marin County’s Westgate.

To work properly, staffers must consistently touch the file folders on the RFID pads as they travel around the office, Maricopa’s Lucas adds.

For Marin’s Lynch, that small inconvenience is much better than scrambling to find misplaced files. “I can’t rave about the technology enough,” she says. “It’s wonderful.”

RFID at a Glance

Defining RFID: Radio frequency identification is a wireless technology used for tracking objects and is a replacement for barcode technology. Unlike barcodes, RFID readers can read hundreds of RFID tags at the same time and don’t require line-of-site scanning.

How it works: An RFID tag is a small device with an antenna that communicates with an RFID reader. In a typical system, a tag contains a chip that is given a unique identification number. An RFID reader activates the tag and passes information to a database for processing. Some tags have a range of four to 10 inches; others have a wider range of 10 to 12 feet.

Cost: Prices for RFID tags range from 15 cents to more than $1. Analysts predict prices to fall in the future.

IT Takeaway

Here’s some advice from people who have implemented radio frequency identification systems:

• “Choose one vendor. It’s cheaper than purchasing tags and readers from different vendors and developing the software yourself.” — York Westgate, Marin County District Attorney’s Office

• “Attend conferences and meet vendors to learn the technology’s capabilities.” — Al Lucas, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office

• “[Placing] RFID readers too close to each other or to metal causes interference, preventing the readers from working properly.” — Margaret Hazel, Eugene Public Library

Oct 31 2006