|Handheld Public Services|
|Written by Alistair Norman on Tuesday, 03 May 2005|
Employing almost one million people (or around 780,000 WTE),the NHS is the biggest single employer in the country. Nationally, the Police service employs in excess of 250,000 staff. The Fire and Rescue Services provide a 24 hour a day, 365 days a year service to all areas of the country, attending thousands of incidents a year. Given the scale of these organisations, the pressures they work under, and the complex information needs they have in doing their jobs, it is no surprise that they have taken to information technology like ducks to water. And it is also no surprise that, as mobile technologies have become available and matured, that they have also adopted these tools in the pursuit of greater effectiveness, improved efficiency and increased flexibility.
The tools they use are as diverse as the services they are in use in:
So, there are lots of emergency services using mobile technologies to deliver real benefits for their staff, and for the public they serve. A few examples:
There are no reliable figures for the numbers of mobile devices in use in the emergency services as a whole but we know there are over 30,000 at the moment. And we know the number is growing daily. One police force alone plan to have over 2,000 units in service by the end of the year and others are not far behind. Many of these devices are in car units with A5 screens, others are ‘traditional’ laptops and tablets, some are smartphones, and soon there will be a new device – the Airwave Data Companion, a highly portable A5 screen tablet tailored specifically to the emergency services in the UK by mmO2 Airwave, who provide the secure bearer channel for a lot of the communication in the blue light services. But by far the greatest number are handhelds in the conventional sense; XDAs, Ipaqs, Palms. They are starting to take root in the pockets and affections of emergency services staff right across the UK.
So far so good. However, as is often the case when you introduce a technology, once you have it you find it can do more than you thought. Emergency services are no exception to this rule. They have invested heavily in providing staff with mobile technologies for good business reasons, such as the ones outlined above and, as a result, there are thousands of staff out there with little screens in their pocket or on their harness, or in their car, ambulance or fire engine. And these users, as well as the organisations they work for, are coming to the realisation that they could be using this technology to provide learning opportunities or support staff in making decisions in complex and pressured situations.
Currently, however, there is little being done to make specific provision for decision support and learning making use of the features of mobile technologies. All of the emergency services are providing information to staff using mobile technologies and people do learn from that. A few organisations are providing some Word documents on handhelds for staff to consult and some are also giving access to intranet information on browsers on mobile devices. Much of this, however, is based on mobilising the applications which already exist rather than providing specific learning applications which are tailored to the learning needs of the mobile worker and the capabilities of the mobile technologies they use.
Now, there is a philosophical debate to be had here about what learning is and I don’t intend to go there in this article, but for our purposes we can identify a few areas where emergency services staff can make use of mobile learning or mobile information:
ß Instant information – getting the answer to the question ‘are we looking for that car?’, ‘what is the law on special licensing hours?’, ‘how do we treat this chemical spill?’
ß Decision Support – guiding staff to make decisions in uncommon situations by providing information in a format which supports good decisions, ‘I’ve got a situation that needs handling here, but I’ve never had to handle one before, what do I do next?’, ‘I’ve got a couple of choices here, which one best fits the response specified by the protocol?’.
ß Updating – as new laws come into place, as evidence based practice updates medical procedures and as new threats bring new challenges to staff. In all of the emergency services staff need to update, and this can be done in many cases by using mobile learning just as well as by taking people off active duty. Briefings are another area of m learning in this updating category – the ability to ‘self brief’ means that an officer who has missed a briefing doesn’t have to be at a disadvantage all shift.
ß Forward learning – staff have to study to progress to new roles, tasks or responsibilities. Mobile learning provides a way of allowing them to do some of that study in time which would otherwise not be used productively. In the shorter term this could also be the situation where a police officer for example parks for ten minutes and checks the law and Force policy before they proceed to deal with a non urgent call. The result is a better informed officer and, hopefully, a more effectively handled incident.
ß Audit learning – making sure that lessons learnt in other settings are internalised and taken forward – maybe by the use of check questions emailed to a smartphone or access to a web page on a PDA based browser.
Taken together these areas provide quite a few opportunities. They also provide some unique challenges which may set this area of learning on mobile devices apart from many other contexts:
Much information is sensitive, some of it is classified – so putting it in a Word document on an SD card isn’t really a good idea.
But, getting information out to officers, firefighters and paramedics is only a part of the equation. If the organisation is to be as effective as possible as a whole then information has to flow back from the field, sometimes in real time and sometimes as a result of a debrief. This organisational learning facilitated by handheld and other mobile devices is maybe not as apparent a focus as that of getting information out to users in the field, be they road warriors in sales or firefighters on a fire ground, but it is equally real and emergency services are starting to make inroads there as well. GPS systems mean that information can be proactively pushed to users without their having to request it, integration with command and control systems allows organisations to profile types of crime as they are reported from the streets, ambulance crews can use telemetry to provide huge swathes of data to hospital staff while they are bringing a patient to the ward, and police officers can file intelligence reports seconds after having seen a ‘person of interest’ rather than hours.
I see information as the basis of effectiveness in most organisations. But information alone is not enough. People need knowledge to be effective, and knowledge is information in a context, available to a person with the mental tools and maps to make use of it. Mobile technologies affect every part of this process of creating knowledge in situations: mobile information systems receive, process and provide the information, mobile learning helps to provide the mental tools and maps to turn information into knowledge. Mobile decision support is important because it provides the necessary checks and balances to cope with issues around decision making models and the complexities of making life and death decisions in pressure situations. Taken together, in any organisation, all of this adds up to increased effectiveness, to saved time, greater efficiency and, in the emergency services context it means lives saved and crimes prevented. So, what are we waiting for?
Alistair Norman works for AIMTech which is a research group of Leeds University Business School under the direction of Dr David Allen and Professor Tom Wilson. AIMTech carry out research and consultancy in the area of information management and mobile technologies in the public sector with specific reference to the emergency services and public safety. They have recently completed projects for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, for the Police Information Technology Organisation and for the ODPM sponsored Project Nomad, as well as for numerous individual companies, police forces and other emergency services. Current projects include police command and control systems, mobile decision support models, mobile learning, cultural enablers for interoperability, and ambient intelligence.
|Last Updated ( Tuesday, 03 May 2005 )|