PDAs cut social workers' paper

PDAs cut social workers' paper

Cecil County Social Services Department social worker Valerie Scott, right, enters data into her Handspring Visor using the Mobile Case Management System. Cecil County bought 40 PDAs for its social workers to use in the field and office.

Cecil County, Md., department discovers that the handhelds are fast, efficient and reliable

Bill Duffy, chief of the Information Management Office for the Cecil County, Md., Social Services Department, jump-started social workers' productivity when he bought 40 personal digital assistants.

Before the change, for every hour a social worker spent in the field, he or she spent an hour in the office filling out paper forms. The mound of paperwork created a costly lag time between when an action happened and when the report was filed. The paperwork burden produced problems for residents, caseworkers and the social service system as a whole.

Duffy bought 40 Visor Deluxe PDAs from Handspring Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., and installed 22 forms on them. Social workers now can fill out paperwork, transfer it to their desktop PCs and file the data all at once.

The social services employees work with 17 soup kitchens, a domestic violence center, a food bank and many other community projects. All of this work requires the social workers to write reports and maintain files.

PDAs work ASAP

'We thought the amount of time that was being spent on paperwork was horrible and uneconomical,' Duffy said.

'Using the PDAs allows us to put everything that is about one case in one spot and provide the most reliable data in a timely manner.'

The units run Version 3.0.1h of the Palm OS from Palm Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif. Officials created the department's forms in Satellite Forms Enterprise Edition 4.0 from Pumatech Inc. of San Jose, Calif.

Workers see the forms in what-you-see-is-what-you-get format and use drop-down menus to fill them out.

The PDAs have 8M of RAM and a keyboard.

Although 8M of RAM might not seem like a lot of memory within the context of today's PCs, John Inkley, federal sales manager for Palm, said 8M can hold three unabridged copies of the Bible.

When workers return to the office, they synchronize the PDAs with desktop PCs using Synchwise Pro from Toffa International of Wolverhampton, England and the information is transferred to the department's main database.

Server upgrade soon

To share this information, the county hired Alpine Data Systems Inc. of Newark, Del., to build a relational database using Microsoft Access 2000.

The database resides on a server with a 266-MHz Pentium II processor and two 18G hard drives with twin network cards for load balancing, running Novell NetWare 4.11.

Duffy said he plans to upgrade the server to Novell 5.1 with Pentium III processors soon.

'The system updates the front end based on the back end, so when information changes everything is up to date,' Duffy said.

Make it a dozen

Duffy said he hopes to buy another 10 to 12 PDAs. 'The PDA is not obtrusive and provides an easy way to take notes that doesn't intimidate the resident,' he said. 'The time savings and the data accuracy are significant.'

The Social Services Department spent $68,000 on the 40 units and software instead of more than $100,000 on notebook PCs that many mobile government employees must carry. Duffy said he also likes the PDAs' easy maintenance. He said when there is a problem, he sends $75 and the device to the manufacturer and receives a new handheld a few days later.

Maintenance on notebooks would have been much more complicated and costly, Duffy said.

Other county agencies also are looking into using PDAs. Duffy has spoken about them with officials from the Health and Mental Hygiene Department and Juvenile Justice Department.

'For the type of work we and other similar agencies do, notebooks are overkill,' Duffy said. 'We don't need a full-fledged suite to collect this data. Also, by using PDAs, it keeps the network secure because viruses on PDAs are virtually nonexistent.'

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