VA looks beyond iPad pilot to 'hyper portable' era

The Veterans Affairs Department has recently scaled up a pilot program to provide clinical and administrative staff with Apple iPhones and iPads. If the effort is successful, it may lead to the deployment of thousands of mobile devices across the VA.

The VA is no stranger to mobile devices as it has run and managed wireless equipment for a decade. But it has only recently begun using what Horace Blackman, CIO of VA’s Central Office, refers to as “iDevices”— smart phones and tablets running on Apple iOS or Google’s Android operating systems.

The VA pilot project began in 2011 as a small feasibility test focusing on providing a group of Washington, D.C.-based clinicians access to e-mail and text messaging. The initial test consisted of about 100 devices, but it quickly became apparent that a larger study had to be undertaken.


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“There is a good reason for us to look more broadly at this and explore some additional use cases,” said Blackman, who is also director of VACO IT support services. So in late 2011, the VA launched an expanded pilot program consisting of about 1,000 devices with the option to expand to 1,500. But instead of opening up the entire VA architecture to iOS-based devices, the number of units was deliberately kept low and restricted to facilities and personnel in the Washington, D.C., region, Blackman said.

While the VA is well aware of the operational and financial benefits of mobile tech, the security of the devices remains an overriding concern, especially with respect to the VA’s most widely trafficked digital asset: veterans’ personal health records, Blackman said.

Nonetheless, if the program goes well and the iPhones and tablets perform, VA executives envision a time when there could be as many as a 100,000 iOS devices operating across the department, Blackman said.

iOS pilot plan

The current pilot program consists of some 1,000 iPhones and iPads. Of those, 600 devices were issued to clinicians and support staff members at the Veteran’s Health Administration. The VA allocated 100 more devices to an innovation team supporting the health care group by writing and developing apps for the devices. That team is also working on developing apps that can be rolled out to the veteran population, Blackman said

There are also about 100 users on the VA Benefits side who are determining how the smart phones and tablets can be integrated into supporting health care benefits and services delivery, Blackman said. The remaining 200 devices are split between VA headquarters, the National Cemetery Organization and several other parts of the VA.

In addition to the Apple smart phones and tablets, VA is also using the Good for Enterprise container from Good Technology, which allows mobile users securely to access e-mail, use a suite of mobile productivity apps from Quick Office, and browse the Web. The Good Technology container ensures that there is no data leakage from the devices, Blackman said.

As the second largest department in the government after the Defense Department, the VA already manages an assorted mobile inventory, including some 17,000 laptops, cell phones and BlackBerrys, as well as about 400 iPhones that are not part of the pilot program. A third of these devices reside in the VA headquarters organization.
 
“We have to clearly understand where we’re going with these devices; otherwise, the cost of rolling these things out could become significantly prohibitive,” Blackman said. Because of these concerns, the VA chose to keep the expanded pilot program’s numbers at a modest level. As the program runs its course, the department will study and refine the system as needed, he said.

'Hyper portability'

To help administer the program, the VA is also looking to procure a mobile device management system that will be used to manage its mobile inventory expansion.

The first milestone of the pilot program was designed to ensure iOS devices could be integrated into the VA's IT environment. The second pilot expands this process by testing a variety of mobile use cases across the department. The third milestone will be deployment of the MDM system to centrally manage these devices. Blackman also envisions a fourth stage that will expand its range of mobility from a pilot program into standard operations across the VA.
 
“Once you get to that point, you can start talking about numbers — 5,000, 10,000, 100,000, every person in the VA gets one,” he said.
 
The VA will likely select an MDM this year, Blackman said. The department is also considering developing its own app store, with a variety of apps for different environments within the VA. It is also talking about designing a process for having the  department develop its own apps. But this will probably happen after the department has the MDM selected and in place, he said.
 
Feedback from the pilot program has been overwhelmingly positive so far, Blackman said. The iOS platforms provide the VA with a great deal of flexibility by allowing people to carry a “hyper-portable” device for basic e-mail, office automation and messaging that allows users to be more mobile and productive.
 
“For us, it represents the next logical step from the laptop in terms of mobility,” Blackman said. Smart phones and tablets are part of a progression that started with desktops and workstations, he added. The iPhone also gives the VA the flexibility to integrate a variety of applications from other parts of the enterprise. The process is one of continual exploration and refinement as the department works with the devices. “We’re learning more about how we can get more out of these devices,” he said.

Reader Comments

Tue, May 29, 2012 Steve

From the tone of the article, there is no intent of including android or RIM OS's. The selection of iOS devices is troubling, as iOS is VERY proprietary, and would unnecessarily restrict device selection and future development.

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