Going Paperless

VBA project manager Rob Reynolds says about 100 field appraisers are carrying wireless handhelds to send in data and receive new assignments.

Olivier Douliery

Olivier Douliery

PDAs have proven so useful in the field that VA considers giving them more work

Military veterans who apply for home loan benefits are answering the doorbell to appraisers toting handheld wireless devices instead of clipboards.

The Veterans Benefits Administration employs almost 100 field appraisers to do spot checks of real estate valuations across the country. They can now tap a few buttons on the BlackBerry devices from Research in Motion Ltd. of Waterloo, Ontario, to send e-forms back to the office.

Besides built-in e-mail, calendar and contact-management functions, the appraisers use a custom wireless application developed for VBA by LRW Digital Inc. of Glen Burnie, Md.

Veterans who hold certificates of eligibility from the Veterans Affairs Department apply for home loans through private mortgage lenders, said Rob Reynolds, the IT project manager. The lenders are responsible for getting professional appraisals. VBA's appraisers audit a small, random sample to ensure that the work is being done properly.

Field appraisers go on the road for a week or so at a time to spot-check pending mortgage applications. They used to carry a stack of forms, one for each property to be visited. Now the form resides on their BlackBerry units, already loaded with name, address and background information for each property.

Paper form adapted

The custom wireless application mimics a two-sided paper form known as the VA Field Appraisal Review Form. It was broken down into four easy-to-scroll sections for the BlackBerry, Reynolds said.

He described the e-form as 'very user-friendly,' with more check boxes than typing fields because of the device's small keys.

The wireless application transmits the field workers' data directly into VBA's appraisal program, which saves the office staff an enormous amount of retyping, Reynolds said.
'We're as close to paperless right now as we can get,' he said.

BlackBerry wireless coverage doesn't extend to every corner of the country, however, said Scott Belden, executive vice president and chief operating officer of LRW Digital. A BlackBerry unit will keep searching for a wireless signal, he said. When it detects one, it sends back the stored information.

BlackBerry's Triple Data Encryption Standard encryption is certified under Federal Information Processing Standard 140-1. 'It would take a minor miracle and an awful lot of time to decode,' Belden said.

Now that the field appraisers have gone wireless, VBA supervisors don't have to wait for them to get back to the office to take new assignments. The appraisal program can push fresh information to the field, Reynolds said, and supervisors follow up via e-mail.

He said he brought up the idea of using wireless devices shortly after he started working for VBA's loan-guarantee program at the end of 2000.

'It took a year to get the go-ahead and three months to make it happen,' Reynolds said.
The programming took LRW Digital's team about six weeks, Belden said. The whole project cost less than $150,000, or about $800 per handheld unit, including a year of air time.

Reynolds chose St. Petersburg, Fla., for a pilot site because many veterans retire to Florida. When he held the first training classes, appraisers were skeptical about the BlackBerry's keyboard. Some predicted that no one would use it, 'and then they converted,' he said.

The wireless project went national in August, and users seem satisfied with the devices, Reynolds said. He started with 78 BlackBerry units. More are on order.

Keeps on clicking

During the first three weeks of September, VBA's appraisal program flagged 271 cases for field review. The agency handles about 400,000 mortgage applications per year.

Asked whether he was concerned that handheld devices might be somewhat more fragile than the old clipboards, Reynolds replied, 'I've had one unit for a year and a half, and it still works fine.'

Another group within the VA Loan Guaranty Service, which backs veterans' mortgages, is interested in developing more uses for the handheld devices, Reynolds said.

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