A smartphone application helps the Florida Department of Children and Families keep children safer, says Scott Stewart.

Why Mobile Apps Keep Florida Foster Children Safer

Mobile applications ensure timely data capture for state and local agencies.

In 2009, the Florida Department of Children and Families deployed a custom mobile application to assist case managers in the field. Soon most department workers, including investigators and attorneys, will be using specialized tools on their smartphones to streamline processes, reduce costs and improve the overall welfare of clients.

"We've seen an explosion in the capabilities of mobile technologies and want to use them to add value throughout our organization," says Scott Stewart, assistant secretary of administration and CIO for the Tallahassee-based agency.

Stewart is among a host of forward-thinking state and local government IT leaders coupling the advanced functionality of smartphones and tablets with unique mobile applications to gain greater organizational efficiency.

"Government is finding that improved productivity, lower costs, better customer service and the ability to simplify difficult tasks are all motivators to develop and deploy mobile applications," says Craig J. Mathias, principal at the wireless and mobile advisory firm Farpoint Group.

The Florida Department of Children and Families has reaped all these benefits. The agency's first mobile app gave the state's 2,400 case managers the ability to file paperwork from RIM BlackBerry devices in the field rather than having to return to the office to submit visitation notes. They also can attach a picture of the child that is time-stamped and marked with the geographic location.

In Florida, caseworkers are required to visit most foster children every 30 days. By remotely capturing data, these workers are able to visit more children, boost accountability and reduce travel costs.

The application's success has led the department to develop others, including a recently deployed program that enables attorneys to log critical case information as they sit in court. Investigators and case managers can later use that data. "Being able to enter that information in real time improves its overall accuracy," Stewart says.

Apps paired with mobile-device features will help the state's 1,500 child protective investigators stretch limited resources and respond faster to on-scene needs. For instance, if an investigator finds an in-home situation beyond her expertise, she can use the phone's video features to collaborate in real time with supervisors. This saves another visit and speeds help to families in crisis.

"With mobile devices, we can get information flowing quickly; and every minute counts when a child's life is at risk," Stewart says.

Waterway Cleanup

What once was an onerous and error-prone process in the city of Oxnard, Calif., is now a cinch thanks to a mobile app. In the past, city managers would dispatch young workers in a job training program to scope out the condition of storm drainage canals and to collect information using pencils and forms. If they found them clogged with litter, they'd jot down a general location and the type of trash, and that data would eventually make its way to city workers to be manually entered into a database.

This cumbersome procedure left ample room for data entry mistakes and information delays. The city now relies on a mobile GIS app to hasten collection and distribution of this compliance-mandated data. When crews spot trash, they call up a storm drain survey application on a BlackBerry Tour, enter (via a series of dropdown menus) the type and subtype of debris, take a picture that is automatically marked with the time and GPS location, and submit the form.

The data is fed into a SQL Server database and a GIS server where a manager or technician can analyze it and determine, for instance, where the litter is originating and how to remove it before it can pollute the ocean, according to David Endelman, the city's GIS coordinator. "Using this mobile app, we can assess our waterways with greater precision and get them cleaned up faster," he says.

Farpoint's Mathias says that while specialized apps such as Oxnard's are rare because of the cost to develop, maintain and upgrade them, he expects more state and local agencies to deploy mobile apps that are tied to their websites.

Hunting and Fishing

That's exactly the strategy that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission took. Their custom Apple iPhone app is automatically fed by data from the department's website.

The app enables hunters and anglers to register their animal kills and has enabled the commission to speed up the collection of information about wildlife populations. Using the GPS feature in their phones, sportsmen also can locate nearby wildlife management areas that meet their hunting and fishing criteria, details about the game and fish available there, commission alerts and pertinent regulations. For fun, they can post photos in the virtual trophy case.

While the app is meant to inform and entertain citizens, it also provides essential data for the commission, according to Randy Zellers, editor of the commission's Arkansas Wildlife magazine.

"We require all deer and turkeys to be checked in after harvest. Biologists use this data to assess total population, trends in hunter success and participation, and which public lands are being used the most," he says.

The results dictate season lengths, opening day of the season, bag limits for the next year and management schemes for public lands. With greater numbers of users logging their kills via their smartphone, the mobile app contributes to the accuracy of this data, Zellers says.

Coming Soon!

Users eagerly await new smartphone releases such as the Apple iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S II LTE and RIM BlackBerry Colt. Though manufacturers haven't released many specifics about the features, look for ease of use, suggests Craig J. Mathias, principal at wireless and mobile advisory firm Farpoint Group. Industry observers anticipate some of these features will be incorporated in forthcoming mobile devices:

  • Dual-core processors
    Already companies such as Apple include dual-core processors in their tablets to support high-performance tasks such as multitasking. This same core power is being aimed at smartphones.
  • PC- and server-independent
    Smartphone and tablet makers, including Apple and RIM, are working on devices that are ready out of the box and don't rely on external help from PCs or servers. In this scenario, deployments and updates would be done over the air and data would be stored in the cloud.
  • Souped-up rear- and front-facing cameras
    Expect most cameras, including those onboard the Samsung Galaxy S II, to feature a one-two punch of rear-facing cameras that support HD video conferencing and recording and front-facing cameras that support video chat and similar applications.
  • Near-field communications
    RIM earlier this year announced its intent to equip its devices with NFC, a short-range wireless protocol that enables two devices (or a device and a terminal) to connect. Such connectivity can serve as the basis for making mobile payments, exchanging information such as business cards or quickly downloading data about the surrounding environment, such as a map of a municipal building.
<p>Colin Hackley</p>
Oct 04 2011