Nation's capital throws paper out the door as housing inspectors hit the streets with handheld PCs

Nation's capital throws paper out the door as housing inspectors hit the streets with handheld PCs

Wireless system supports wide-ranging property duties throughout the city

By Claire E. House

GCN Staff


Washington housing inspector Shirley Buie enters a code violation into RAPIDS on her handheld PC, which links wirelessly to the main office system.


For 22 years, District of Columbia property inspector Shirley Buie started her day with a stack of paper assignments.

Now, she pops open a handheld PC that plugs her in to an inspection management system from anywhere in the city.

The Remote Access Property Inspection and Dispatch System uses wireless Internet, geographic information system, Global Positioning System and client-server technology to support an array of inspection responsibilities within the district's Housing Regulation Administration.

Field conveniences include digital photography, route mapping, ticketing and database access.

Back at the office, staff members can auto-schedule inspections and track inspectors on GIS maps as they cover the city.

Prime contractor Optimus Corp. of Silver Spring, Md., developed the system along with CGH Technologies Inc. of Arlington, Va., and Facilities Management Co. Inc. of Landover, Md.

HRA averages 50 phone-in complaints per day from tenants and other concerned citizens regarding code violations. Employees enter the information into RAPIDS' complaint entry form, CGH senior systems engineer Johan Meiring said.


An infrared transmission from the PC tells Buie's portable printer to spit out a citation, complete with fine and other information.


The form's address field references DCPropertyView, an integrated GIS mapping program from Spatial Systems Associates Inc. of Baltimore, to ensure the accuracy of street names.

For vacant property, the system immediately assigns an inspection to the officer responsible for that location. For occupied property, the employee looks up owner information in the system's property database and contacts the owner to set up an appointment. RAPIDS then assigns the inspection'to Buie, for example.

Buie logs into the system through her 266-MHz PictureBook, which is about half the size of a typical notebook. RAPIDS runs under Microsoft Windows 9x on the PC, which has 64M of synchronous dynamic RAM and a 4.3G hard drive.

Each PC has a SmartCapture digital swivel camera built in and a small GPS receiver from Garmin International Inc. of Olathe, Kan., clipped to the outside.

The books connect through the Ricochet wireless Internet service to the office server's IP address via 38-Kbps Ricochet modems from Metricom Inc. of Los Gatos, Calif., using a 128-bit encrypted tunnel.

The team chose Ricochet because it has a flat monthly connectivity fee of about $30 per user rather than a per-minute charge, Meiring said.

After log-on, Buie clicks on the PictureBook's scheduling window and finds inspection assignments downloaded and prioritized by color. She pulls up data and photos of any previous visits to the address and checks out general property ownership information.


Buie then tapes the citation to the property owner's door.


'Before, I'd have to do a lot of research into property ownership,' Buie said. 'Now, when I go to the field, I'm able to pull up that information right away.'

Before she heads to the property, Buie clicks the Find Route button for directions. RAPIDS, which receives GPS information every 30 seconds from the PCs, notes the latest inspector location and the address location. The program taps the GIS maps to both list directions step by step and map them graphically.

On arrival, Buie clicks the Inspection button and begins entering data. She selects the violation number from a pull-down menu, and the system fills in its description, correction deadline and violation fine.

Buie then captures a .jpg image of the violation. Buie returns to her car and has the system print a citation from a BJC 80 printer from Canon Computer Systems Inc. of Costa Mesa, Calif. The printer receives an infrared signal from the PC.

When Buie hits the Close button, the data and photos transmit back to the office into RAPIDS' main Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 database running under Windows NT 4.0.


The District of Columbia's RAPIDS property inspection system uses GIS technology to create inspector route maps.


'It eliminates the need to forward inspection sheets to data entry clerks,' said Steven Walls, chief of the D.C. Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Department's Office of Information Systems.

The main system runs on a Dell PowerEdge 6300 server with four 550-MHz Pentium III Xeon processors, 2G of RAM and a 38G hard drive. Photos are compressed to 10K for transmission.

If the connection goes down, the PCs hold data in a Microsoft Access database until it's restored. Each handheld comes with a car charger, and its battery runs six hours, Optimus program manager Cliff Andrews said.

The GPS signal also lets HRA managers track inspectors as they make their rounds, either on map plots or through animated programs that trace the routes.

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