Author: Chris DiPierro

CTO

Why Flexibility in Scripting Can Future-Proof Your Mobile Data Capture Solution

mobile data capture scripting

mobile data capture scripting

North Carolina’s General Statue Article 3 Chapter 19 defines the Animal Welfare Act of 2005. The act lays out the requirements, responsibilities, and procedures for boarding kennels, shelters, and pet shops. It also provides important guidance on the way these establishments must be inspected.

When the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDA & CS) decided to modernize their inspection process, a key requirement became immediately clear. Beyond the basic abilities to look up license data even while disconnected, validate all collected information, and capture photos of potential violations, subtle variations were required.

While the statutes for different establishment types are similar, a series of differences apply. Boarding kennels only require three inspection questions relating to their recordkeeping, while animal shelters require seven. And that’s only one of the differences between establishment types. Other differences include entire statute sections being required or not.

Until the NCDA’s recent modernization project, this need was handled by separate forms (Word documents) that, while similar, still required separate updates any time the common elements changed. The NCDA needed a mobile data collection system that would provide a more seamless approach to data collection.

This is one of the reasons the agency turned to our Mi-Apps product. We’ve written several blogs advocating the need for a simple design tool where business owners can design effective data capture. But, that simplicity should not come at the expense of flexibility. Mi-Apps allows for customization of forms in real time based on specific collection needs. This level of flexibility has existed within the Mobile Impact Platform for years and allows the use of a single form in this use case.

Now as we continue to enhance and improve the NextGen Designer, we’ve been proud to bring this level of flexibility to our design tool. Version 11.4 (released in Q4 last year) introduced JavaScript client-side scripting. This comes with a full syntax checking auto-complete enabled editor as shown below:

Scripting in Mobile Data Capture

A line or two of script code can take what was originally FIVE forms and reduce them down to just ONE. This can make a world of difference for the long-term maintenance of forms. We’ve since added .NET server-side scripting to the same tool for the purposes of approval workflows and customized data exports. Here too a little scripting can go a long way to automating your process.

When you’re deciding on a mobile data capture solution, ask yourself if you have a need for a little bit of customization. If you do, then make sure you consider a platform that’s poised to deliver that flexibility—now and into the future.

3 Reasons Why the Right Mobile Data Capture Solution is Critical for Site Investigations and Inspections

Mobile Data Reporting

Mobile Data Reporting

You’ve probably heard it before, but it’s worth repeating, site investigations and inspections require mobility. It’s not an opinion or a debate, it’s merely a fact now. But, have you ever stopped to think about why having the right mobility solution is so important? Here are 3 good reasons.

  1. A good mobile collection solution results in better data quality.
    It starts, as it often does, with data quality at the point of collection. All good digital form solutions should be able to perform complex validations even using offline mobile forms. These can include required fields, range checks, and conditional form flow. But, what if your investigator is working on something they’re unfamiliar with? That’s where instant access to regulations and governance come in. Your mobility solution needs to be able to provide this on device at the time of capture.
  2. The collection device and the software are both key factors to your success.
    Data validation isn’t the only need, of course. The mobile device cannot get in the way of the actual work. If an inspector is struggling with a large device, or an expensive one that can be easily damaged, they’re taking their attention away from the actual task at hand. Fast, responsive, well-designed digital forms must be thought of as the same as any other tool used in the field.
  3. The right mobility solution makes your data more valuable.
    Lastly, collected data through onsite inspections must be able to be integrated with robust analytics packages. Your mobile data collectors are going to be capturing hundreds or thousands of data points per week. If it can’t be reported on, it’s basically useless. Make sure that your mobility solution allows you to integrate data with packages that allow you to provide critical insights about investigations and inspections.

My advice to all mobility adopters is to make sure you evaluate how your solution is going to work in the field before you make the leap. Make sure that you can capture accurate data while offline, provide access to needed resources, and easily tie that data to backend systems for critical reporting.

Deploy a Digital Mobile Data Capture Solution for Inspections in 90 Days or Less

Mobile Data Capture

Mobile Data Capture

Mobile data capture solutions improve data accuracy, increase productivity, ensure compliance, and can help you gain insights into your business. This isn’t something that has to be proven anymore; it’s just fact. With that in mind, your goal shouldn’t be how to convince yourself of those truths, but instead how do I get it done quickly. My answer for this is to partner with a company that’s done it before and can help you with a few key areas:

  • Professional Services
  • Forms/Inspection Libraries
  • Rapid Paper Prototyping
  • Easy Training
  • ROI Insights

Professional services often sound daunting because we have an association with a high price tag. The truth though is that professional services don’t have to mean months of invoices and can instead be the kick start your project needs. With the right mobile inspection software, you don’t need to contract with a team of developers for months. In fact, buying a Getting Started Accelerator Pack of 100 hours of on-demand for expert knowledge can get you live in days.

Part of the reason professional services can help you out is because these experts often have a large forms library to draw from. Whether it be field inspections, compliance, or audits, that team has likely seen it all. Though we all like to think our use cases are unique, the truth is there’s a lot of overlap. It’s a lot quicker to take something that’s been done before and modify it than it is to start from scratch—and a library lets teams do exactly that.

I’ve touched on the concept of rapid paper prototyping before as a tip for getting your team onboard, but it’s also an important tool for getting things done quickly. One of the biggest time-wasters in any project is redoing something you’ve already done because it wasn’t done right. It’s no surprise the same applies to mobile data capture solutions. If you build a compliance inspection report that your users can’t use, then you’ll find yourself building revision 2 and revision 3 and so on. Instead, prototype with your representative users from the start. Draw things on paper or in a prototyping tool and then build the solution from their interaction with your prototypes.

Once you’ve got your solution built, make sure you’re paired it with the right training. This can take many forms, but a good partner will work with you to tailor a curriculum that meets both your needs and skill level. Often this means starting with training the trainer so that you can continue the training process internally without the need of a vendor. If you’ve started with professional services, make sure they use your mobile forms as a guide through the training to help you see how the theoretical meets the real world.

Lastly, make sure you’re looking for ROI insights. Many mobile data capture solutions look at only the capture side even if the platform provides a robust analytics infrastructure. When you’re thinking about your forms and your data, make sure you also think about what you want to learn from that data. Is it how many commercial field inspections are done per week? Is it how long it takes each inspector to do his or her work? Whatever it is, make sure you have this goal in mind as you begin.

If you stay focused on those aspects of your project, and you pick the right partner with the right platform, 90 days should leave you with enough time to implement the solution and sneak out for a quick vacation because you’re done early.

True Offline Mobile Data Capture Has Never Been Easier with NextGen Designer

One of the features I’m most excited about in our new NextGen Designer release is what we’ve dubbed Frictionless Data Replication or FDR for short. FDR aims to solve a problem that plagues just about all mobile development projects, how to get data to mobile devices in a simple way that allows for its offline use without having to reinvent the wheel.

Built on top of our premier Data Replication Services, FDR allows for point and click configuration of CSV, SQL, and other data sources. Simply provide details on where to find the source data, click a query button and tell our Mi-Enterprise Middleware Server (part of our Mobile Impact Platform) how fresh to keep the data and that data source is ready to use by any number of apps developed in the NextGen Designer.

There’s no coding, no setting up scheduled tasks or services, no configuration of any sort required outside of the provided web interface. None of the typically tedious, troublesome, and unmaintainable tasks that typically plague deployments are required. That same interface allows administrators to limit which of their form designers are allowed to access data on a source by source basis.

Designing apps that use those data sources is frictionless as well. Drag field(s) on to the forms and navigate to the Data tab within the Designer. From there, drag fields from your data source(s) on top of the fields. You can always change these links or the design of each form page later if you want. Relationships between multiple columns in each data row are preserved such that when someone chooses an option in a picklist all other fields are updated at the same time. Need data from multiple sources on a single form? No problem, simply drag them both on.

From there you’re done. The iOS, Android, and Windows form filling apps will automatically synchronize all of the data needed at the freshness interval you setup. It will even happen in the background when the app isn’t in use. Take the devices offline, capture your mobile data, and send it back to the Middleware when you’ve reestablished connectivity.

Providing data to your mobile field collectors has never been easier. Watch this video to see for yourself!

 

What Does it Mean to Have True Offline Capabilities for Your Mobile Workforce?

 

A study earlier this year found that the US has a 4G coverage rate of 81.3% and an LTE coverage rate of over 90%. These numbers aren’t bad, they’re above the world average, but still leaves 10% out in the cold domestically, and larger uncovered populations worldwide. The numbers get a bit worse when you start looking at maps that show coverage by location instead of population.

Lack of coverage is exacerbated in that often times the best place for a mobile workforce to operate are the most remote. The flexibility of carrying “just a phone” lends itself to mobility in areas where it is impractical to carry a laptop. Moreover, when natural disasters strike, communication infrastructure needed for critical tablet based operations might have been destroyed.

What is therefore needed is an offline capable solution. However, this raises a new problem. What does offline mean? What can a device do without a connection to the cloud or to home base? What does it mean to be truly offline capable? To answer that question, I have outlined a set of requirements that I think you should look for in your mobility platform.

  • Data availability – This one is usually the most obvious. There is some sort of data set that exists in the back end and it needs to be available to the mobile user for scheduling, lookup, reference material, or other similar activity. Be sure your solution supports synchronizing this data to the device. Ideally, look for a solution that sends small change sets to the device and syncs in the background.
  • Does the app work? – Ok, maybe this is actually the most obvious. Web based solutions are great for the back office, but techniques like local storage, and cached offline apps leave a lot to be desired when pushed to the limit. This is not the browsers’ fault; it is more a case of use the right tool for the right job.
  • Look and feel – Some solutions provide a bit of a hybrid approach to offline functionality. They might require you to mark some of your app as offline capable and can sometimes impose limitations on app size (think # of fields or sections in a form) or user experience. These can work, but make sure you measure the tradeoffs if you go down that path.
  • App logic – One of the most important aspects of mobile data capture is data quality. This is typically enforced by a set of rules and other logic at the point of capture. Make sure your solution supports disconnected logic. The rules should be handled by the device on the device. There should not be a need to connect to the server to handle field requirements.
  • Store and forward – Lastly, the whole concept of being able to store in progress data capture and then send it to the server when you’re back online is critical. Some users might not come back to an office or other connectivity hotspot for days or even weeks. Make sure your device can safely, securely store in progress data capture and then send it back up when reconnected.

I feel that if you can tick those five boxes above, your users will thank you. Even if they are only occasionally disconnected, having a solution that was built to be used while disconnected is important. Do your homework, and make sure you find a mobile application that is truly offline capable.

Mobile Data Capture: 5 Tips for Getting Your Field Teams on Board

People often ask me how to get their field teams on board with their mobile data capture projects. For ops and safety managers, it’s easy to see the value of improved data integrity and accuracy, enhanced compliance reporting, and greater workforce efficiency. However, at the field level, it’s sometimes hard for staff to see what’s in it for them. For a successful mobile data project, it’s critical that field staff understand its day-to-day value and don’t view the project as something “those office people want us to do.” Here are 5 tips for making your mobile data capture project a success from start to finish.

Tip #1: Listen and learn how your staff really works.

In your mind, you have a pretty solid idea of what your field staff does every day. You want to improve data accuracy, so your first thought is standardization. If Jane is doing it one way, then Bob can do it that way too. It sounds good in theory, but it can be difficult in practice.

If you have 50 field staff filling paper forms, no matter how cookie cutter your forms are, you have 50 different styles of filling those forms whether you realize it or not. While you aren’t going to meet with all 50 and solicit every idea they have, what you must do is establish a core group of subject matter experts. These key personnel will form your go to team for ensuring everyone else adopts your solution. They know their peers’ challenges with the current solution and they’ll be your biggest advocates when your new mobile solution is ready.

Tip #2:  Engage staff early with your prototype.

Once you’ve found your experts, the next step is to get them involved in the project. I’ve alluded to this in other blog posts, and I’ll say it again here: Your best design decisions are going to come when people are interacting with a prototype of what they’ll actually use in the field—not by reading someone’s 100-page design specification document.

The good news is you don’t need fancy prototyping software or legions of technical writers. Just grab a few sheets of paper, some sticky notes, and a pencil and start drawing. When you illustrate a field staffer asking for a key piece of data and your expert tells you “well if we’re capturing their last certification date, we should also capture their qualifications,” you’ll have discovered that you’re able to capture better, more accurate compliance data than you even knew was available.

Tip #3: Share the benefits of reporting with your team.

A prime benefit a mobile data capture solution is that you’ve got pretty dashboards with all sorts of drilldown charts that improve reporting quality and ensure you’re in compliance. However, your field staff typically sees a very narrow slice of the business landscape. You can change that.

I’ve discovered that anyone collecting data is likely interested in the results of that data. Setup one of those compliance reports to automatically email to your field staff every week. When you do, you’ll get the curious questions which leads to staff engagement and you’re likely to get good ideas that can be rolled into future iterations and projects.

Tip #4: Analyze metrics—and go deep.

It’s easy to instrument a mobile data solution with analytics if you set out to do so from the start. The basics of how long an inspection takes, how many are submitted over time, and how many compliance violations you’re finding over time are likely obvious. But you can go a level deeper looking at in-app or in-form analytics.

For instance, if you analyze how long it takes between the time the last question on an inspection form is filled and when the form is signed by a facility representative, you might find out that your inspector is simply too far away from where they need to be at the end of the inspection. Maybe you can reorder the questions to cut 10 minutes off each inspection leading to greater staff efficiency and productivity.

Tip #5: Iterate, iterate, iterate…

Mobile apps and electronic forms are not meant to be static. It’s all too common to see government paper forms that were last modified in 1953 (not exaggerating!). The benefit of digital transformation is supposed to be that you’ve adopted an easy-to-update system, yet I’ve seen many an electronic form that looks like it was in use when AOL was a twinkle in someone’s eye.

Once you’ve analyzed your data and figured out how your mobile deployment can become more efficient, present that to your experts. Engage and prototype with them again. Figure out if there’s a way to report on even more accurate data. And then roll out a revision.

Bottom line? Get your staff members engaged early and throughout the process. With the right mobile data solution in place and your field staff on board, nothing will stand in the way of your smashing success.

 


Are you in environmental consulting and want to make the business case for mobility? Learn how to get your budget approved, and more in our new eBook.

 

 

Throw That App Away!!

In the business world, many have come to rely upon mobile apps to help achieve digital transformation of their organization. As a result, we’ve come to think of mobile apps with a certain amount of permanence. We’ll all come together, spend six months defining requirements, talking to subject matter experts, outlining the integration with our ERP system, and only then we’ll start building the thing. A year later we’ll have a solid version 1. It’ll resemble a Swiss Army Knife, and possibly cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but we’ve created something we can use for the next ten years until it becomes the next generation’s green screen.

What happens when we have a near term business need? We don’t have a year and a committee, but we have a real-world problem that needs to be solved. The answer tends to be somewhere between break out the clipboard and call the resident Microsoft Excel expert. Neither are good mobile solutions, but this is the world that business analysts tend to turn to.

It should be our job as an industry to fix this. And it needs to start with the way we think about mobile apps. Mobility isn’t going anywhere, but that doesn’t mean every app must live a lifetime. If our problem can be solved in a month, then our app only needs to last a month.

Let’s look at an email someone in a technology company’s infrastructure group might receive:

Hi John -

I figured out what's happening with the new fiber cabinets. Looks like the techs didn't know that the new 4800 switches need 150 watt power supplies, so some of them got installed with 120 watt units. We're going to have to send someone around to check them. The supplies look the same, but the 150 watt ones have serial numbers 315xxx vs 312xxx for the 120 watts. Also, the 4800s need to be wired from the back or it interferes with the signal. Can we have the tech get photos for me to review? Thanks -- Tim

This problem needs to be solved quickly to satisfy customers. We can’t spend months or even weeks to design it, and if we can get it out to the technicians today, they can start work immediately. But it’s not a trivial survey either. In addition to text data we need to capture photos, verify serial numbers (ideally via scanning their barcodes) and though we trust our technicians, we’d like to gather location data to verify they are where they say they are. We’d like the reports of each inspection emailed to us and if we get CSVs we can feed our BI tool.

How long do we think this would take to build? Well, after a bit of training and practice I can build it in 5 minutes and have it deployed on iOS, Android, and Windows devices in 5 minutes more. Our technicians can be collecting data faster than you can get a Unicorn Frappuccino®. You might think I’m exaggerating, but the scenario above is now one of our standard demos. Even sales can build it in 15 minutes. Even if we round up to an hour, our total cost of deployment could be less than 0.1% of an “enterprise mobile app."

Of course, what happens after all our fiber cabinets and power supplies have been inspected? The app we spent so long building? The app that’s now sent back hundreds of records and saved the infrastructure project? Well…then it’s time to throw it away. It really is that simple. If the job is done, and the problem is solved, just get rid of it. There need not be any tears, angst, or heartache.

To be fair I should be a little more environmentally friendly. Rather than throw it away, feel free to recycle it the next time a business-critical problem comes up.

Mi-Corporation’s Mobile Impact Platform is known for helping organizations transform their mission critical data capture processes by providing solutions that enable fast and accurate data capture, thereby ensuring that key KPIs are being met. Mi-Corporation can also keep your workforce agile and able to meet the ever changing needs of customers and the market with the ability to quickly and easily build “throw away apps.” For more information, please contact us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2015 Holiday Tech Wish List: Apple’s iPad Pro

iPad Pro

 

What tech is on your 2015 Holiday Wish List?

We've tested the latest mobile technology devices for field workers -- and while it's difficult to choose our favorite -- the good news is that whatever device you or your organization decides to purchase, you'll have the ability to accomplish so much more with less simply by moving from paper to a digital inspection process.

Without further ado, here's our first device review of our short blog series:

Apple's iPad Pro

iPad Pro

A lot has been written about the iPad Pro, especially in regard to replacing your laptop — as implied in November by Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook.

You may have even seen Apple’s latest ads promoting how the iPad Pro’s large clear screen can help you “learn about the universe.” While the new form factor and optional pencil will certainly provide for an enhanced experience, particularly for the creative minded, I haven’t seen much written about how the iPad Pro aims to address the field service industry.

We obtained an iPad Pro on the day it was released, and around the office the initial reaction – as to be expected – was, “wow, that’s large!” But, like kids on Christmas, we quickly downloaded Mi-Forms, Mi-Apps, and Mi-HVAC Apps to the new “toy” and took it for a spin.

Mi-Apps Home Screen

While each of these apps were built before the device existed, they all worked fast and reliably. We were easily able to navigate from page to page in Mi-Forms, and section to section in Mi-Apps. Tapping checkboxes and focusing fields was quick with the larger screen providing a nice finger target.

Mi-HVAC Apps Work Order Form

Mi-HVAC Apps Work Order Form

Using the Mi-Forms’ paper-like interface, the experience was very similar to holding a clipboard. This makes sense because the iPad Pro and a standard piece of paper are about the same size. If field workers are accustomed to the clipboard and pen model of data entry, then this is about as close as you can get to that in a mobile environment.

With that said, the iPad Pro is not without its downsides.

1. As a desk worker, I don’t have to hold a device all day long like field workers do. At over 1.5 pounds, the iPad Pro is a good 65% heavier than the iPad Air 2. While that weight might normally be reserved for battery space due to the larger screen size, the quoted battery life expectancy is the exact same.

2. The onscreen keyboard size is a little too large, which leads to hand fatigue as you’re typing and holding the device. This could make collecting data in the field using touch input wearisome for workers.

3. Standard operating system screens have not been optimized for the larger screen real estate. For instance, while there are still just 4 app icons across the home screen, there’s now a lot of extra padding between each icon.

The good thing about these particular issues is that they can be easily addressed going forward. But right now, it feels a bit like you’re looking at the iPad Air through a giant magnifying glass.

The verdict? In my mind, the iPad Pro fits a niche that certain industries will find very useful. For instance, those interacting with an aging population or those with visual impairment might find this ideal. So too might those who are searching for a true mobile “clipboard” experience.

While it should ultimately come down to the requirements of the job and field worker, as a laptop replacement or primary field service device I would recommend exploring your options. Fortunately, there’s a lot of competition in the space, and we’ll provide a similar review on a couple of those devices in our upcoming mini blog series.

Stay tuned!

Intel + Mi-Co: Mobilizing Workers with Mi-Forms

intel web

intel web

Last year, Intel approached us with an exciting opportunity to tune our software for increased functionality with their 2 in 1 line of convertible devices. You may have seen their advertising around these devices over the last few months.

It presented a great opportunity for us to enhance our Windows mobile form solution Mi-Forms. We chose to update our Mi-Forms menuing system and to enhance touch support within the mobile forms.
After implementing, we were asked by Intel to describe the experience and provide best practices and lessons learned. In our opinion, it was extremely easy to take advantage of Intel’s new APIs in an existing codebase.

Those lessons and specifics of the technical implementation are now published as part of a joint white paper published on Intel’s site. I encourage you to take a few minutes to discover what we did, and see how Intel’s 2 in 1 devices can enhance your productivity.

The end result of these changes are now incorporated into our Mi-Forms v10.1, which you can try for yourself by accessing our demo software.

View White Paper

Mapping in Mi-Forms

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend Esri’s Developer Summit in Washington DC. Aside from a chance to visit the nation’s capital near where I attended school (go Terps!), this provided a great resource for providing details on how to more tightly integrate with Esri’s ArcGIS Platform. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can provide a way to visualize all sorts of data from weather information, to transportation, to light pollution. Esri is a leader in this field and at Mi-Corporation the desire to provide more and better data to our customers is a priority.

The summit focused on how to create customized maps, add features to those maps and then integrate them into both mobile and desktop applications. Esri provides a suite of SDKs designed to drop into web, iOS, Android, and .NET applications. These SDKs communicate with Esri’s REST based APIs as well as offline services in order to allow users to display data on phones, tablets and other computers. A focus on their development community was evident not just from the software they’ve created, but from the large community supporting it.

Feeling energized and ready to use what I learned, I began working to implement Esri’s .NET control in a Mi-Forms form. Using their tutorials, I was able to create a new map form field and provide services from that map such as forward and reverse geocoding, adding graphics, and even get driving directions. The end result was the form below that allows a user to plot inspections on a map and manipulate that map in order to visualize what’s been done, what’s left to do, and how to get where you need to go:

ESRI Blog

This is a preliminary implementation in Mi-Forms, but it shows me that adding powerful GIS services from Esri into our platform is sure to provide a needed and useful feature to our partners and customers. We will be working hard on further integration with Esri in the near future both on Windows and in our iOS/Android offerings. If you’re interested in seeing how it shapes up, I would like to personally invite you to our Mobility Summit where you can have a hands-on with the technology. For now though, I wish you safe travels and as you glance at a map or GPS, think of what data would look good on it.