In Florida, RFID system keeps case files under control
State attorney’s office integrates RFID tags with file-tracking system to follow active case files
- By William Jackson
- Mar 06, 2009
The Florida State Attorney’s Office for the 15th Judicial Circuit in Palm Beach County takes on about 120,000 cases a year. “About 20,000 of those are felony cases,” said Dan Zinn, the office’s chief information officer. “That’s where the action is.”
And action was a problem. Keeping track of paper files as they moved through the office and the court system was a big job. If a file could not be found when it was needed in court, it could result in a hearing being delayed or even a case being thrown out.
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“It’s not just tracking the files,” Zinn said. “It’s having control of a series of processes.”
His office has taken control of those processes by incorporating passive radio frequency identification tags in its case file labels, putting RFID readers throughout the four floors of office space, and integrating the technology with the office’s computerized file-tracking system.
“It is a simple technology,” he said. “All that had to be done was for some companies to come together with some software to make it work.”
The solution is composed of InnerWireless middleware called the PanGo Unified Asset Visibility platform; passive RFID tags, printers and programmers from Zebra Technologies Corp.; and readers from ThingMagic.
“This is one of the high-value opportunities” for the maturing field of RFID asset tracking because of the large volume of documents that organizations are tracking, said Greg O’Connell, Zebra’s director of government sales.
“There are a lot of things that people want to track, and there is no one technology that tracks them all,” said Mox Weber, director of product management at InnerWireless, which supplied expertise in asset tracking. The PanGo platform provides a layer of abstraction and an application programming interface that links a variety of RFID tag types on the front end with tracking and management systems on the back end.
The technology might be simple, but the implementation had its challenges. The office had a homegrown file management system, called STAC, developed in the 1990s that sought to use bar codes to track the movement of files. Clerks were supposed to scan the bar code label when they received a file, and that data would be used to update STAC with the file’s location.
“That was nice, but most of the secretaries said they could type faster than the time it took to put the file under the reader,” Zinn said. “It didn’t save them time.” The system was never fully implemented even though the file labels have bar codes. “Why invest in the hardware for bar codes when the users don’t want it?”
The manual system was not used consistently, and attorneys often sent frantic e-mail messages when they couldn’t find a file they needed in court. Then 25 or 30 people would spend 20 minutes or so looking through their offices for the missing documents.
Officials began considering an RFID-based approach in 2004.
“If we could use RFID, it would make the scanning function transparent,” Zinn said. But there were few standards for the technology at that time, and it was expensive. “It was $5 a tag and probably $100,000 to put in the hardware.” With 120,000 cases a year to tag, “it was way outside the cost-effective range. So we put that on the shelf.”
They revisited the idea several years later, when a new generation of tags and readers that complied with Electronic Product Code Generation 2 standards began to appear.
“The tags dropped in price to 20 cents” for passive RFID, Zinn said, which was not much more than the cost of the self-adhesive bar code tags the office was already using. “They are not cheap — about 15 cents each — so the difference was about 5 cents, 10 cents at the most to go to RFID.”
Officials designed a system based on passive RFID, which is the simplest, cheapest type of wireless identification tagging. A remote reader sends a radio frequency signal to the tag’s antenna, which powers the tag but limits its range and functionality. The most popular chips hold 128 bytes of data, which is enough to provide a unique identifier for each tag.
Passive tags typically connect to a database that holds more information about an item, O’Connell said. The range varies depending on the type of reader, environment and material to which the tag is attached. In optimal conditions, the range can be as far as 30 feet, O’Connell said, but it is more likely to be three to five feet.
For the Florida attorney’s office, Zebra is supplying adhesive tags, which incorporate third-party RFID chips. The company is also providing its R110Xi printer and programmer to print the labels and program the chip with a unique identifier.
A file is tagged with a programmed label, the label is scanned by a bar code reader so the STAC system can identify it, and that ID is sent to the PanGo platform so it can link the bar code with the RFID tag’s unique identifier. From that point, the system is transparent to users. As the file moves through the office, stationary devices read the RFID tag and PanGo keeps track of the file’s location for STAC.
The PanGo software typically runs on Microsoft Windows Server 2003. The readers connect to the server via a virtual local-area network, and PanGo receives the data using the Application Level Events standard for Electronic Product Code data. PanGo’s API was used to create the interface with STAC.
A pilot system went live in February 2007 with 30 readers at key points in the building. “The project actually took about 60 days to design, install and implement,” Zinn said.
Using only a limited number of readers, the system was able to pinpoint files’ locations to a general area of a floor, which could include multiple offices with hundreds or thousands of files. But the system worked, and it was an improvement over the manual approach. The next step was to enhance the level of detail.
“We are still implementing 91 additional readers” throughout the office space, Zinn said. One reader has been installed at the jail intake office 15 miles away so the system can also track files taken there.
The results of the new system are most obvious in the reduced number of frantic e-mail messages from attorneys searching for a file, Zinn said. Those messages have dropped from a minimum of five a week — and sometimes as many as 10 or 15 in a week — to one or two. With the lost productivity of 25 or 30 people looking for files valued at an estimated $20,000 to $30,000 a year, the system has paid for itself in the first year, Zinn said.
Officials are expanding the system to include RFID tags in employee and visitor IDs, which could be linked to file tags. “We will be able to marry up the location of the file with the person who is likely to have it,” Zinn said.
The next step will be to apply RFID technology to portable devices such as laptop PCs and audiovisual equipment.
William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.