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Camera phones can be a mixed blessing for businesses with trade secrets to protect. But for organisations with extensive field-based workforces, camera phones can be a highly effective tool.

Reading Borough Council is about to start a trial in which 12 field-based employees will be given smartphones with built-in cameras. The aim is to create a faster, more effective method for recording and repairing the damage – deliberate or otherwise – that regularly occurs to playground equipment, street furniture and other council property.

“At the moment, we rely on our people in the field taking notes or remembering to tell someone about the damage they have seen,” says Ben Stanesby, parks manager for the council. Using camera phones, the council wants to automate this process.

The idea is that a field worker takes a snapshot of the damaged property and then by simply pressing a few buttons, sends the photo over the cellular network to the relevant council office. If it is a damaged playground swing, then the photo would be sent to the parks department, for example.

According to Mr Stanesby, the new system has the advantage that the photos are automatically transmitted to the right person and arrive much quicker than if they had to be downloaded from a conventional camera. “When the picture lands on someone’s PC, they can see immediately what needs to be done,” he says. “It makes for quicker reporting and also means that we get a better record of what has happened.”

The council hopes the system will improve efficiency and save money by allowing the office-based supervisors to decide what work needs to be done just from viewing the picture back at base. With the old manual system, even if field workers remembered to report damage they had seen, an initial inspection visit was still required before a repair team could be sent. With the camera phones, the need for inspection visits should be reduced.

The smartphone that the council plans to use in its trial is the Mio A701, made by Belgium-based Mio Technology. It runs on O2’s GPRS network and as well as a 1.3-megapixel camera, it has a built-in global positioning system receiver. Mio Technology claims the Mio A701 is the first GPS-equipped smartphone to use the conventional mobile phone form-factor.

Mr Stanesby says the GPS capability is the key to the project and the reason why it opted for the relatively expensive Mio over conventional camera phones or even digital cameras. The GPS receiver means that when a photo is transmitted from the Mio, the image is stamped not just with the date and time but also the co-ordinates of the location where the picture was taken. That is particularly important for an organisation such as a town council, as a lot of its assets look the same. If a park bench is damaged, the parks department needs to know which one. There could be dozens of similar-looking benches in a particular park so a photo, by itself, is not a great help. By using GPS to plot the exact location, there is no room for confusion.

If the trial proves successful, the council envisages giving the camera phones not just to inspectors but to a broad range of field-based workers, such as street wardens and environmental workers, who may come across damaged property while performing their main functions and until now had no easy way to report it.

Nevertheless, the council has some concerns about giving sophisticated handheld devices to people who are not necessarily heavy users of technology. “The system needs to be simple to use… In fact, it has to be so simple that people will choose to use it,” he says.

To transmit the photos, Reading council is using an application called hand-e-pix, developed by Handheld PCs, a UK wireless software company. The company claims that the software has been designed to be used by anyone, irrespective of the user’s level of photographic experience.

In today’s increasingly litigious society, Mr Stanesby also believes that camera phones could help the council in various ways. By speeding up the reporting process, damaged property will be repaired promptly, so reducing the potential for injury claims. In addition, the time- and location-stamped photos provide evidence of when an object was found damaged and when it was repaired.

Mr Stanesby says the photos could also be used to build a case against vandals and graffiti artists. By taking photographs of the “tags” or distinctive spray-painted signatures of grafitti, the council can cross-match new grafitti to that of known culprits.

The GPS capability built in to the Mio devices opens up some interesting possibilities for tracking the location of council workers – to decide who is best placed to respond to a reported incident, for example. Handheld PCs has taken this idea a step further by developing a solution that takes the latitude and longitude data from the GPS system and passes them to a navigation application, so giving council workers turn-by-turn directions on how to find the abandoned sofa or broken bench. However, tracking has obvious “Big Brother” connotations, and Mr Stanesby says this is a sensitive area so tracking is not going to be used in the trial.

Ultimately, Mr Stanesby says the list of possible users for such a system would include anyone who works outside and could benefit from having irrefutable evidence of what they have seen and, more important, when and where they saw it.

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