Handheld Database Application Helps Housing Agencies Go Paperless
By Frank Yacano, Director of Business Development, SYWARE, Inc. (www.syware.com)
"Inspections are Online the Same Day."
The value of handheld PCs as a data collection tool can be put to good advantage by public housing agencies. Until now, a periodic inspection by an official with a clipboard and paper form has been a fact of life for anyone who lives in public housing. The ability to capture inspection data electronically eliminates the delays and potential errors associated with duplicate entry work, as well as the need for inspectors to carry around armloads of paper. It also has the potential to improve relations with tenants.
One effective approach is being used by the Miami Dade County Housing Agency, which has moved to a paperless inspection process based on handheld devices. The Authority manages approximately 24,000 units that have to be inspected annually to meet guidelines of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that provides partial funding.
According to Walter Medina, Manager of Computer Services, the new inspection technique has helped resolve major problems getting inspections done on time to meet HUD compliance. "We were six months behind in processing inspections. Now that we are using the handheld units, inspections are online the same day."
One basic challenge was finding the right software to develop forms that meet HUD guidelines and best fit the needs of the housing agency. He originally considered coding the application onto the Windows CE platform using a traditional development platform such as Visual Basic. Then he realized that the amount of time required made the idea completely unfeasible. "Visual Basic would have taken me 7-8 months to code the application because you have to account for every possible detail."
Off-the-shelf software was another option, but Medina rejected it as well. "With canned software, you're at the mercy of the software vendor, even if you want to do something simple like add a new button. However, if you can create the forms in-house, you can modify them whenever you want, such as when regulations change. You don't have to worry about paying royalties or waiting for the software vendor to make the update."
Streamlined Forms Building Tool
"Visual CE allowed me to create the complete application in three hours," Medina adds. "All the work that the SYWARE guys did to create Visual CE represents the work it would have taken me to create the form from scratch."
Designing the Ideal Form
The initial screen is used to record preliminary information such as address, unit number, tenant's name, inspector's name, and date/time of the inspection. Screen #2 is where the inspection details are captured, with drop down boxes to record violation codes covering various issues such as safety, electricity, security, and lead paint as well as related information including responsibility, urgency, and action required. The third screen contains check boxes to indicate the status of basic services, such as whether appliances are installed and utilities are on.
Inspectors go from room to room, using the Visual CE application to record violations on their Casio Cassiopeia E-125 handheld devices. Inspectors can "point and click" to select the room being inspected, then specify information such as the type of violation, description, category, location, and parts needed to fix any broken items. Inspectors can also enter text comments using a built-in keypad, and create freeform drawings using the scribble box.
After inspecting all units on their itinerary, inspectors go to their local housing authority office, where they connect the handheld unit to a desktop PC and dump the data to the PC as a text file. Using an emulation program, the data is then transferred from the desktop to a UNIX server at the housing authority's data center. Applications running on the server process and analyze the inspection and generate reports for the local housing authority and oversight agencies.
Automated Work Orders
Tenants Are Impressed
And what do actual users think of the new approach? Medina reports that inspectors are delighted not to have to carry around stacks of paper, and have embraced the handheld units. He adds that the learning curve was also very brief. He scheduled a three-hour seminar to introduce the new system, but they picked it up right away - "within half an hour."
Relational Database Capabilities
Medina's next goal is to give inspectors the ability to print receipts or tickets using a terminal printer attached to the inspector's belt. After finishing the inspection, inspectors could then generate a paper record for the tenant indicating whether the unit passed or failed the inspection, and describing any violations. This record would also provide immediate proof that the inspection had been performed. One solution under consideration is a companion product to Visual CE called Report CE® that allows printing from the serial port or infrared port of the handheld device.
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