Colonial capital Williamsburg, Va., is tech savvy today with an iPad implementation, says IT Director Mark Barham.

Can the Public Sector Really Benefit from the iPad?

Local governments discover useful implementations for the Apple device.

Local governments discover useful implementations for the Apple device.

Is the new Apple iPad a tech toy or tool? The product is definitely not just a consumer device, according to the many government leaders who have discovered ways to save money and improve productivity using the sleek touchscreen tablets.

Take the city of Williamsburg, Va., where five city council members are familiarizing themselves with their new iPads. The goal: eliminate the 34,000 pages of hard-copy agendas and other meeting documents printed each year.

Instead, council members and staff can now view electronic text and color graphics on their iPads and annotate the files. The city hopes that its $3,000 investment for five 32 gigabyte iPads will eliminate $2,000 in annual printing costs. If successful, the iPad experiment will pay for itself in about 18 months.

"It's a pilot project, but if the numbers bear out then I would certainly envision purchasing additional iPads for others in the city," says Mark Barham, IT director for Williamsburg.

House Calls

Williamsburg isn't the only local government that's eyeing the economics of iPads. On the other side of the country, tax assessors in King County, Wash., are testing five iPads as possible replacements for pricier PC tablets they use to collect data during nearly 120,000 onsite residential appraisals they conduct each year.

"Like almost all local governments these days, we are tight for money. But part of what is driving us is to see if there are technology tools that would allow us to do our jobs more efficiently," says John Arthur Wilson, chief deputy assessor.

Initial numbers are encouraging. Even tricked out with 3G support and 64GB of disk space, each iPad costs less than a third of the $3,400 price tag for the PC tablets appraisers now use. Wilson estimates a hardware savings of more than a quarter of a million dollars by the end of the county's three-year hardware refresh cycle for the PC tablets. "There's clearly a return on investment," he says.

Early feedback from users also gives the iPad high marks for its all-day battery life, light weight and bright screens.

But after less than a year on the market, the iPad platform is still experiencing growing pains. For example, King County hasn't found an application that specifically serves the needs of municipal tax appraisers yet. Acting on a lead from Apple, Wilson is talking with a commercial software maker that has developed some other iPhone and iPad apps used in the public sector. He hopes the economics work out to encourage the developer to create a specialized appraisal application for the iPad.

Availability of more government-specific applications is one hurdle for Apple to overcome in order to drive demand in the public sector, says Shawn P. McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights. "It's a very cool piece of hardware that's lacking a killer app that would make government users say, ‘We've got to have this tomorrow,' " he adds. "Whether the tablet PC chosen by government offices is an iPad or another solution will depend on unit prices and the availability and functionality of future applications."

Nicole Morris of the Kent County (Md.) Health Department uses medical applications on an iPad computer to educate patients.

Photo credit: James Kegley

Helpful Apps

But some agencies are already finding the apps they need. Maryland's Kent County Health Department is testing a 64GB 3G-enabled iPad for nurses associated with "Get Healthy Kent," an initiative aimed at reducing heart disease and strokes in the county.

One of the most useful apps is HD Cardiovascular System, a 99-cent encyclopedia of the heart and circulatory system. It's a big improvement over an old physical model that would have cost hundreds of dollars to update. "We can show patients the information they need right on the screen instead of lugging around a big, antiquated model," says Nicole Morris, program director for chronic disease prevention in the county.

That interaction offers one of the biggest paybacks of all: a closer relationship between nurses and patients. "They can touch the screen themselves to explore the cardiovascular system instead of us doing it for them," Morris says. "So it becomes a more intimate experience."

Optional Accessory:
Early iPad adopters are saving money by not buying the electronic stylus accessory made for iPads. They say a pencil or fingertip is just as effective for writing, sketching or annotating documents.

In Williamsburg, Barham says apps such as iAnnotate PDF are helping city council members transition to electronic documents with intuitive tools for adding bookmarks in documents that sometimes span 200 pages. Users can also type in comments with the iPad's virtual keyboard or use low-tech devices such as a pencil or their fingertips to highlight a passage.

Whatever applications agencies use with iPads, Barham recommends demonstrating the need for the tablet to budget-conscious citizens. "Be clear that you are not just putting toys in people's hands; there's a specific objective that you are trying to achieve," he says. "If you make people understand the goal and show them real numbers, they'll see that you are really trying to solve a business issue."

How to Navigate the App Store

You won't find a section for public-sector applications in Apple's App Store, but state and local government agencies can find useful programs by scouring general categories such as "Business" or "Productivity." Another option is to use the search bar to find apps for a specific business requirement (just be sure to include "iPad"
in search phrases to limit hits to this section of the store). Specialists, such as healthcare workers, can also home in on specific categories such as "Medical" or "Reference." Here's a sampling of what you'll find:

General Business

Documents To Go – Office Suite ($9.99) lets users view and edit Microsoft Office files

iAnnotate PDF ($9.99) annotates and bookmarks PDF documents

Penultimate ($2.99) electronically captures handwritten notes and sketches created with or without a stylus


eDictate, a free medical dictation app, sends audio files or speech-to-text translations of spoken notes to the user's e-mail application

MediMath Medical Calculator ($4.99) uses height and weight information to calculate body mass index values and create heart attack risk assessments

Medical Spanish ($4.99) translates and plays commonly used phrases

Public Safety

Citizen Request Tracker is a free tool that citizens can use to report broken street lights, potholes, graffiti, abandoned cars, or other problems to local municipalities

Spanish for Police ($2.99) provides more than 200 common commands and questions that police and other public servants can use to communicate with Spanish-speaking citizens


The official statutes of many cities and states are available in electronic form, including the 2010 health and safety codes of California ($9.99) and Texas ($5.99)

<p>Michael JN Bowles</p>

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Sep 22 2010