Big Brother is watching ... in a good way

It's gratifying when glitzy new technologies find their way into uses that actually help people get their jobs done, and even more so when those technologies can help protect lives.

The Alabama Department of Human Resources has launched a pilot project that promises to do both. The department has outfitted social workers sent into the field with cell phones that can track their location and send alerts if they stay longer than expected.

'A couple years ago, there was an incident in Tennessee where a social worker was abducted,' Barry Spear, public information officer at the department, said. 'That brought national attention to the dangers social workers face. Nationally, there are problems with the drug abuse, methamphetamine labs. If we know workers are going into some sort of situation like this, we'll have some type of police escort. But you don't always know. We tried to find some type of solution to better protect our employees as they go out on these investigations.'

Spear said that if the worker arrives at an appointment and doesn't leave within two hours, an automatic alert will be sent to supervisors. A supervisor will try to call the worker, and if the worker doesn't respond, emergency personnel will be dispatched.

The Motorola i880 cell phones also support Global Positioning System technology and are loaded with TeleNav software so that workers' locations can be pinpointed and tracked. 'It actually puts an indicator on a map of every stop that somebody makes,' Spear said. 'We're not trying to be Big Brother here. That's not the purpose. The purpose is for efficiency and protection.' In addition, the phones have a panic button that workers can use to send an emergency alert to supervisors.

The phones can also be used for a variety of other purposes. For example, the built-in cameras come in handy when social workers consult with supervisors back in the office. A worker might send a photo of a child's bruises back to a supervisor. 'This is particularly helpful for new social workers, the less experienced social workers, to be able to get some guidance as to what they may consider to be abuse and what may not rise to the level of abuse,' Spear said.

The phones are also loaded with scheduling and forms software.

To date, the program is limited to one county ' Jefferson County ' in Alabama. And two snags, familiar to government technology implementers, have hindered a more widespread adoption of the technology: compatibility and budgets.

Spear said the forms and scheduling tools haven't been implemented yet because they aren't compatible with the software used in the office by the department. 'We looked into what it would take to have the programming work done to make it compatible,' Spear said. 'Given the fact that we're revamping our child welfare program at this time and switching over to another system within a year, it didn't make good fiscal sense to spend that money for something that was going to be used for no more than several months. When we do get this new system working, then we will go ahead and make the effort to have the software in the phone programmed so it is compatible.'

Tight state budgets have also prevented the department from extending the program to other counties.

'This is a pilot project,' Spear said. 'At this time, we don't have any plans to go statewide with that, basically because we're in tight budget times. When the money is available in the future, there's a good chance that will expand this to other counties.'

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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