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Hand-held survey tools

May 16, 2012
It seems that moving companies are abandoning the old fashioned paper pad and biro in droves in favour of more digitally efficient means of collecting information. But are they all they are cracked up to be?

If you are using survey software, you need some sort of hand-held device to gather the information.  For the purists (or is that - the Luddites) a paper pad is by far the best way.  It’s easy to use and allows the surveyor to maintain eye contact and a conversation with the customer, rather then scrolling through digital menus searching for the right icon. Yes it does mean that someone back at the office has to input the information into the back office system but that’s a small price to pay by comparison to learning new ways.

 

For others a hand-held device is either a logical business decision or, in the case of some large contracts, such as the MOD, an essential requirement.

Which one to choose is largely a matter of personal choice.  The only primary requirement is to ensure that the device is capable of running the necessary platform required by your software provider. Colin Wynn from Administer Software explained that his software runs on Windows (XP Tablet, Vista or 7), but it does not run on any Android or Apple device. Apart from that, he has no opinion as to which works best. “Some say they want small devices, so we used to sell devices with 7” screens but most moan that the screen resolution is too small. We’ve recently sold devices with 10” screens and these seem to be well received. Some of our clients use A4 slate tablets but others moan that they are uncomfortable to hold and can be heavy, as well as hot under lots of usage.”  It really is just a matter of choice.

Colin also explained that users need to choose between a touch screen or one operated with a stylus.  “Stylus is great, but if lost the device becomes practically unusable until you’ve a replacement. Touch screen is great, and can work with a stylus, but some moan that every part of the screen is touch sensitive, so laying your hand over it to click on something on the left for example often means that the rest of your hand has clicked on something else.”  It’s probably best to have a go with someone else’s before making a decision.

From a user’s point of view, Andy Shotbolt from Britannia Reeves, prefers the larger tablet device.  He uses the hand-held for all his military and international surveys and is phasing it in for domestic moves too.  “It is particularly useful for part loads where not everything in the house is going,” he explained.  “We can give the customer an inventory during the survey and get them to sign it off before we leave.  That way there is no confusion about what’s going and what is not.”

Some who have not tried using a hand-held believe it to be slower and more difficult to use.  “But it’s a question of changing attitudes. After a bit of practice it’s just as quick and you get much more comprehensive information.” He did say, however, that it is important to make sure the software you use is sufficiently flexible to accept adjustments in descriptions or volume quickly and easily. Anyone who has been on the road for more than a few weeks will know that there is no such thing as a ‘standard’ anything.

Maria Russell from Britannia Lanes in Bridgewater has used hand-held devices for years.  Like Andy she started using them for military contracts but now uses them for everything.  “We wouldn’t be without them.  They survey takes a little longer but it saves time overall.  It also forces you to list everything rather than just putting something down as ‘misc’.  You end up with a more comprehensive inventory.”  She did say, however, that the accuracy of the information and the assessed cube does depend on entering the details correctly. “It’s the old story, Garbage In – Garbage Out.”

Andy Wade from F&N in Grantham feels the same.  He uses hand-helds for all international, European and military moves but not for domestic work. He feels that an experienced surveyor can do a domestic survey just as well. He has chosen both Moveman and Techmate software, depending on the job. “It’s more accurate than doing it on paper,” he said, “and it gives us a slick, professional image.”  Andy’s sales people go as far as talking a small printer with them and printing out the inventory for the customer before leaving the house.  

Nobody questioned had anything bad to say about hand-helds that was not refuted by those in the know.  It just seems that it takes a while to get used to doing things differently.  That’s when the technology really begins to pay off.

Back to paper? Not quite!

The most natural way in which we all record our thoughts and notes is with a pen and paper.  But in this digital age we need more. Today we have to record digitally, upload immediately, avoid duplication and eliminate potential human error.  The old biro no longer cuts the mustard … or does it?

Administer Software has recently partnered with Destiny Plc, experts in digital communication technology, to provide a system of collecting electronic data just by using a pen.  It appears to provide users with the best of both worlds: the flexibility and convenience of using a pen and paper, with automatic data capture. 

On 21 February, Colin Wynn from Administer Software hosted a workshop presented by Tom Thiselton, Sales Executive with Destiny Plc at which current users of Administer Software could explore the opportunities for the technology.

Tom explained that the technology uses a digital pen and paper that is printed with a unique dot pattern.  The dot pattern allows the pen to ‘know’ where it is on the paper and, therefore, which field it’s completing.  When the form is complete, the pen pairs with most mobile phones* to send the information back to the office immediately.  There is no delay, no opportunity for documents to be lost or damaged, and no chance that information will be transcribed inaccurately.  The system is ideal for inventories, crew sheets, delivery notes and survey sheets.  It could also have applications in the warehouse for recording container positions.

“Each pen has a unique identity so can be attributed to a particular person or vehicle,” he said.  “It recognises where it is on the piece of paper, but that’s all.  The data is completely safe as it is meaningless without the unique dot pattern that goes with it.”

The system uses a sophisticated handwriting recognition system so that all but the most illegible handwriting can be accurately deciphered by the software. It has the ability to see how a sentence is written to establish individual words or letters making it much more accurate than Optical Character Recognition that looks at each character individually. When the information is transmitted back to the office it can be sent direct to the back office system or via a verification process to eliminate any errors in transcription. “The system also knows what each field is supposed to contain,” explained Tom. “So, for example, it would never mistake a ‘5’ for an ‘S’ in a date field.” 

The technology is not new. Tom explained that there were already 6,000 pens in use within the NHS, for example, and Pickfords have been using the system for approaching two years.  Administer Software, however, wishes to bring this technology to smaller companies by providing an interface to its own system and amortising some of the development costs to make it more affordable.

The pens represent a significant cost for smaller movers but it is designing the forms that costs the real money.  Whether the technology can be adopted by the wider moving industry will depend on whether companies are willing to co-operate by using universal forms rather than insisting on designing their own.  If a set of industry-standard forms, identical apart from each individual company’s branding, could be agreed, then the system would be well on the way to gaining general appeal. Administer Software is looking for at least ten companies to come together to use each form.

Participants at the meeting voiced a number of concerns. In particular people were concerned about the possibility of people losing the pens as, they said, they already had a problem with mobile phones. However none of the objections were show stoppers and the attendees identifies many advantages of the technology including: improved paper trail for documentation; speed and prevention of documentation loss; saving on surveyors’ time; time saved avoiding manual data entry of survey, job and inventories; clients receiving quotations quicker; and  more accurate volumes.

In a survey after the meeting, inventories, surveys, waybills, and crewsheets were identified as the forms most likely to benefit from development for use with a digital pen.

Administer Software is currently working closely with its existing users and Destiny Plc to establish the best way of taking the project forward.

*The digital pens will not pair with an iPhone as Apple blocks the sending of data through Bluetooth.

MoveMan Mobile and the rugged option

MoveMan Mobile is software designed to help surveyors produce electronic surveys of customers’ property. MoveMan claims that its mobile software was the first of its kind in the UK and has been developed to become the complete package for surveyors: it automatically cubes contents including ad hoc items, records damaged or high volume items and collects electronic signatures providing a fall back position if there is a dispute over the content to be moved or any damage sustained.

MoveMan operates solely on Windows devices so operators need little extra training as the platform is familiar to most people. Windows Tablet PC’s enable the user to collect images of items, premises or access with notes written directly on the image so that this information can be passed easily to the crew without having to spend too much time collating information.  It is also a laptop replacement allowing it to be plugged into a screen and used as a laptop in the office, without the need to switch between what’s used on a survey and the office machine.

Rugged hardware

The choice of hardware is often based on fashion rather than practicality.  However, MoveMan promotes hardware that is durable and rugged for use with its MoveMan Mobile software.  Phones or iPads can easily be damaged if dropped.  To prevent the problem Moveman has partnered with Motion Computing for over six years. Motion Computing is a specialist Tablet PC manufacturer and only make devices for the field worker.  All its hardware conforms to drop test standards and is dirt and dust resistance.  The company’s current offering, the CL900, provides a rugged machine resistant to a 4ft drop onto concrete from any angle and a gorilla glass screen four times more resistance than that of retail-based tablets.

Whilst the price is an immediate factor in any purchase, Moveman has found that the total cost of ownership, when everything is considered, makes the rugged option the best buy.  

Information supplied by Chris Elson of Enhanced Operating Systems.

iPhone App for inventories

Until now, making effective inventories has relied on expensive hardware and software.  Inventory Photos for the iPhone allows anyone to take time and date stamped, geo-tagged and watermarked image inventories.

Developed by professional insurance claim handlers, Inventory Photos is an intuitive visual inventory app allowing both service providers and clients within the rental and global removals industries to swiftly and accurately log faults and damages, along with all stock and possessions.   Based around a series of intuitive icons, the user simply selects the most relevant icon to take high definition images.  Once a title and description is added, the time and date-stamped images can be uploaded to a secure server, along with geo-tagged location information for retrieval in the event of any claim or disagreement.  Watermarked, the images are also tamperproof for increased credibility.

Removal, rental and storage companies now have the ability to log identified damages at their origin, saving time and effort and avoiding any potential misunderstandings from the outset.  In addition, the app provides clear savings on insurance premiums with the reductions in claims that it can bring.  This is not to mention potential claim reductions from all parties witnessing insurers and handlers publicly making the inventory using their iPhones.  This conspicuous usage reinforces that a reliable inventory is being compiled, something that will reduce the probability of false claims and disagreements arising.

Paul Baker, Director of Baker and Co, commented on his company’s motives behind developing Inventory Photos: “We’ve seen time and time again the barriers to making reliable and thorough inventories, from language and IT restraints, through to time and expense.  The iPhone allows for a solution to these limitations, enabling people of all competency levels to accurately and effortlessly log damages and possessions of all types with the simple click of a button.”

Users can purchase the app to store images locally on their iPhone or opt to upload and store on a secure server.  In this case, in addition to time and date stamping, images will be geo-tagged with GPS location, available to access at a later date.  For a limited period of time, the app and this service is free of charge.

Already accumulating satisfied users, Baker and Co plans to add further features to Inventory Photos, including video and the ability to map the movement of possessions.  Although ideal for rental and removal markets, the app is also geared towards creating inventories of property and most business and household possessions.

Inventory Photos app for iPhone can be downloaded at: http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/inventory-photos

Inventory Photos

Inventory Photos simply features a small set of icons as follows:

House Icon – Capture geo-tagged images of belongings prior to collection to highlight condition.

Car, Motorcycle and Boat Icons – Designed with prompts to the user to take pictures of specific areas, e.g. doors, wheels, interior.  Ideal for parking, storage and leasing scenarios.

Jewellery Icon – Capture and store images of valuables to make available to insurers as proof of ownership in the event of a claim.

Warehouse/Office IconCreate a simple survey of an office or commercial premises. Video capture planned.

Packing Crate/Carton Icon – Photograph cartons and crates prior to collection to demonstrate correct construction and loading.

For Rent Icon – Register the exact condition of a property prior to rent/lease.  Provides invaluable photographic evidence to both tenants and landlords in the event of a dispute regarding dilapidations.

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