Lowell Police Department officers gain situational awareness with a custom mobile app for Apple iPads, says Craig Withycombe.

Jan 20 2014

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For nearly two decades, notebook computers were standard fare in Lowell, Mass., police cars. Now, they're becoming a thing of the past.

The Lowell Police Department recently began installing Apple iPad devices in cruisers and issuing them to detectives and officers, allowing them to more readily access and share information. With their touch screens and compact size, the devices are more user-friendly and portable (and less expensive) than the rugged notebooks the department previously used.

When a 911 call comes in, a custom iPad app takes disparate data and, for the first time, provides officers with a single view of the information they need: call details from the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, an interactive map with driving directions and a history of calls to the specific address. The app also shows tweets from a crime scene, providing officers with even more situational awareness.

Craig Withycombe, the officer in charge of the Lowell Police Department's MIS division, says, "We're getting accurate information in an expedited fashion, and that's tremendously important when our officers respond to a call."

With handheld computers becoming more diverse, powerful and feature-rich, governments have many options when it comes to equipping their mobile workers with notebooks, tablets or smartphones. "There are more choices than ever, and what IT departments choose to adopt are all over the map," says Craig Mathias of the Farpoint Group, a mobile and wireless analyst firm. "There's no downside, provided it is cost-effective, users can access mission-critical applications and the IT department can really manage and secure these different devices."

Fighting Crime with Tablets and Data

The Lowell Police Department previously relied on rugged notebooks. While those devices are durable, Withycombe says they're also pricey and inconvenient for use outside of police vehicles. So in 2011, the department explored the use of tablets.

Withycombe partnered with software developer Zco to develop a graphical mobile app that pulls information from the CAD system and various databases in the records management system, providing officers with faster access to information. After a successful pilot in 2012, the tablets became so popular that the department hasn't looked back. "Our officers want iPads because they allow them to be much more mobile," he says.

So far, the department has deployed about 70 iPads, including 12 to patrol cars and 30 to detectives. Detectives investigating a grocery store robbery can use the device's built-in camera to photograph suspects shown on the store's video security footage and quickly share the photos with other officers, Withycombe says. Meanwhile, when a driver appeals a ticket, the traffic officer can pull up the driver's history on the tablet rather than having to print it out for the court hearing.

When budget permits, the department wants to purchase iPads for each of the city's 230 officers. Until then, Withycombe will buy the mobile devices as funds become available. The department will also equip the remaining patrol cars when existing notebooks reach their end of life or when the department purchases new vehicles.

The move to tablets saves money. Rather than spending $5,000 to purchase and install a rugged notebook, the department can get a 16-gigabyte Wi-Fi and 4G-enabled iPad for $600 to $700. And as the department standardizes on a new police car model to replace the Ford Crown Victoria, it's more cost-effective to buy iPads for the vehicles rather than purchase kits to remount the existing notebooks.

Withycombe manages and secures the devices with MobileIron's mobile device management software. The department subscribes to Verizon for a 4G wireless Internet connection and deploys Columbitech's virtual private network (VPN) software to encrypt traffic using the FIPS 140-2 standard.

Because the iPads come with only a one-year warranty, Withycombe extended the warranty an additional two years for $99. The tablets given to officers are protected with cases, and none have been damaged so far, so the department will re-evaluate whether to purchase the extended warranty in the future, he says.

An Alternative to BYOD for Remote Workers

Chesapeake Employers' Insurance used to equip its remote workers with one standard notebook computer, but in early 2012, it began allowing employees to chose among three different models: the Toshiba Tecra, a traditional notebook; the Toshiba Portégé ultraportable; and the Lenovo ThinkPad Twist, an ultraportable that coverts into a tablet.

The move is in response to the growing popularity of bring-your-own-device (BYOD) initiatives in the workplace and some employees' complaints​​ that their existing notebooks​ were too big and heavy, says Scott Trickett, the company's information systems director of infrastructure.

The organization, which provides workers' compensation insurance in Maryland, isn't ready to allow employees to use their personal devices for work because of security and management concerns. So instead, the IT department is giving users more notebook options. "This alleviates the pressure of BYOD and gives our employees the flexibility to choose which of the three devices best fits the department or employee's needs," Trickett says.

Legislation recently established the insurer as a private, nonprofit company, which had historically been an independent state agency of Maryland. Today, about one-third of the 400-person staff works remotely and needs a notebook. Some people, such as auditors and special investigators, work remotely full time; employees in other departments telecommute part time.

In addition, as desktop PCs reach their end of life, the company has begun equipping more employees with notebooks so they can work from home if any type of disaster strikes. This aids business continuity planning and disaster recovery if a failover is needed to an alternative site. "These laptops cost a little more money, but bring considerably more value to the organization with flexibility and disaster recovery needs," says Derek Meeks, the assistant vice president of information systems for Chesapeake Employers' Insurance.

The company replaces desktop computers every five to six years and notebooks every three to four years, and with 30 percent of its desktops and 30 percent to 40 percent of its notebooks due for a refresh in early 2012, it was a good time to re-examine the company's notebook policy, Trickett says.

The IT department tested six notebooks and sought user input before settling on the three models. The convertible notebook is popular among investigators visiting sites, says Sam Miller, a junior systems administrator. "They can walk around with the tablet and jot down information. Before, with a laptop, they didn't even take it out to use."

Chesapeake Employers' Insurance also changed its smartphone policy in early 2012 by decommissioning its BlackBerry devices and allowing full-time remote employees and department heads to choose between an iPhone, Android or Windows smartphone. Users had complained that they needed a more powerful and feature-rich phone, Miller says.


of tablet users say the devices make them better multitaskers.

SOURCE: CDW Tablet Poll (December 2012)

Tablets Enable a Very Real Return on Investment

Elsewhere, Eric McHenry has adapted his mobile strategy in Santa Rosa, Calif., to take advantage of the latest technologies and trends.

When McHenry first arrived as chief technology officer and IT director for Santa Rosa in 2005, the city had only a handful of notebook PCs. Soon after, he purchased them for department heads, city council members and mobile employees. More recently, with tablets and BYOD becoming popular, McHenry's migrating away from notebooks and purchasing tablets for staff. He's also allowing employees to use their personal devices to access work email and calendars.

"Five years ago, most employees didn't expect to access anything when they were outside the office. Now, they fully expect it with city-owned and personal devices," McHenry says.

Santa Rosa standardized on the 16GB Wi-Fi and 3G/4G versions of the iPad. Besides being much more affordable than notebooks, the tablets allow the city to eliminate paper processes and become more efficient, McHenry says.

Mobile workers in utilities and other departments can now pull up work orders and electronically enter their reports. In the past, they manually picked up work orders in the office, and at day's end, dropped off their reports to staffers who typed them into the computer system.

"Like a lot of cities, we're looking for ways to make employees more efficient," McHenry says. "The return on investment that we're getting is substantial."

Opting for iPads

When the Lowell Police Department began exploring tablets, Microsoft hadn't yet released the Surface device, so the only choices were iPads or Android tablets.

Craig Withycombe, the officer in charge of the Lowell Police Department's MIS division, says he selected iPads because Apple provides more of a controlled environment, which makes it easier to manage. For example, the Apple Store approves every app before making it available for download, while the Android Market has more of an open-door policy for apps, which leads to security risks.

"In our environment, we want to keep things controlled and running the same way from Day 1 or Day 101, so that's why I looked to Apple. They control the software being deployed," Withycombe says.

Shawn Henry

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