Trading Laptops for Smartphones

The handheld device is proving handy for cities.
April 2011
Steve Towns
By Steve Towns  | 

What’s the business case for convenience? Well, in Chicago, eliminating some hassle for city officials contributed to a fivefold increase in citations issued to owners of trash-strewn vacant lots.

Last spring, Chicago ward supervisors—who oversee snow removal and garbage collection in the city’s 50 council wards—began carrying smartphones loaded with a new lot-inspection application. The phones have built-in cameras to document neglected properties and GPS software that verifies the address. Supervisors simply pull the phone from their pocket, snap a photo, choose the type of citation to issue from an onscreen menu, and press a button to transmit the citation for adjudication. The whole process takes a couple of minutes.

Compare that to the old way: Supervisors wrote paper tickets, fetched cameras from their cars and then matched photos to tickets to submit them. For busy ward supervisors, the process took far too long.

“They simply couldn’t take the time to do that for every violation, so they let some go,” says Chicago CIO Jason DeHaan. “We saw a tremendous increase in ticketing when we deployed the application, and I attribute that largely to the convenience of the mobile device.”

The numbers back him up. In spring 2007, supervisors issued between 500 and 700 citations per month using paper tickets. In the spring and summer of 2010, monthly citation numbers ranged from 2,500 to nearly 3,500 with the smartphone app.

The city considered deploying the app on standard laptops. But as smartphones improved -- packing a decent camera, GPS location technology and a usable Web browser into a pocket-size device -- they became a better option. “Those capabilities were game-changers for us,” DeHaan says.

Not only are the phones more convenient for users, they’re also less costly for the city. Some models cost less than a buck from the city’s wireless carrier—although the price goes up to $700 for special models. Compared to several thousand dollars for a properly equipped traditional laptop, the phones are a bargain.

The Web-enabled phones also let supervisors instantly see the location of nearby city vehicles and personnel. Using a stripped-down version of Chicago’s Mobile Asset Tracker -- which maps GPS-equipped vehicles and phones throughout the city—supervisors can, for instance, find every city garbage truck or snowplow within a half-mile radius of their location.

Others are also starting to pack smartphones. Late last year, city building inspectors began using a smartphone-based app for ordering vacant building demolitions. “We converted that application from a laptop to a smartphone because inspectors often are in precarious situations—the building may be in very bad shape or the neighborhood may be dangerous,” DeHaan says. “Having a smaller device lets them get in and out of the property more quickly.”

For the past few years, the technology industry has debated whether increasingly sophisticated phones -- and now, slick new tablet computers -- would displace laptops as the go-to mobile device for most users. Fancy phones may not fit every task, but Chicago’s experience shows they’re a compelling choice under the right circumstances. For a growing number of government workers, it could be that their next laptop will be a smartphone.