‘Game Changer’ Mobile App Rollout Under Way
August 25, 2014 Dan Burger
A mobile workforce benefits from remote access to information and applications. Done right, a mobile application development project can be created, tested, introduced in phases, and enhanced within a schedule that handles risks and reduces project management trauma. Last year, one of 21 regional centers within the California Department of Developmental Services began a search for mobile application development assistance. It found a partner, developed a pilot project, and is on its way to a statewide rollout.
The California Department of Developmental Services provides services and support to individuals with developmental disabilities. The San Diego-Imperial Counties Developmental Services, Inc. (SDICDSI), one of the regional centers in the statewide network, is responsible for software development on the primary business application, called SANDIS, which was originally developed in the mid-1980s to track client information for the organization. From that time forward, SDICDSI has led the SANDIS software development that aligns with the CDDS mission of supporting community-based services. With a great many workers in the field, mobile devices could be a productivity game changer for CDDS.
Nancy Lorch is a manager at SDICDSI. She’s a 35-year veteran at regional center and has been the lead programmer on the SANDIS project for more than 15 years.
“We could see that mobile was going to change the way out of office workers would work,” Lorch told IT Jungle. “So we started investigating what we could do with mobile on the iSeries.”
As that idea took shape, two IBM i tool vendors specializing in mobile application development tools were selected to build prototype mobile apps. Lorch says both prototypes were impressive, but ultimately the decision to go forward with Profound Logic was made.
The project benefactors were CDDS service coordinators with a need to take their client information into the field. Each of the coordinators has 65 to 70 clients with developmental disabilities. The coordinators keep track of their varying capabilities and needs, which they are able to input on location in the field. The primary objective of the mobile app was to allow those coordinators remote access via an SSL connection to the DB2 database at the regional center. Some data is one-way only and some is two way. All data from the database is stored on the database, not on the mobile device. There is no interchange, upload, or interface.
All mobile app development projects are mindful of security issue, which was a top priority from the beginning, Lorch noted. “We are not a direct service agency, but we provide case management and we are handling confidential information. The state department of developmental services makes sure we are not outside compliance regulations.”
Successful app dev projects almost always take a multiple phase approach. In this case, the original mobile app was intentionally kept simple and it began with a small pilot group of testers. The functional priorities included the capability to pull up a list of clients with their basic information and provide the capability to record notes about each client. It helped that Lorch formerly worked in the case management area and was familiar with the type of information case workers need to function efficiently. The pilot group was equipped with Apple iPads provided by the regional center and the participants had access to real data.
Lorch says the experience has been positive and the group is no longer in pilot mode. Ongoing enhancements to the app are being introduced. Android tablets are now mixed in with the iPads. Gradual enhancements to the application and a wider rollout involving more case workers and more regional centers are near-term goals.
“You can’t wait to start the project until it includes everything you can think of built into it,” she says. “We rolled out the product and planned for it to be a process of adding functionality. It is going out in phases of enhancements that go through test environments before roll out. Feedback from the service coordinators–the end users–is leading to the enhancements. We continue to put security rules in place, because we are preparing for BYOD (bring your own device).
BYOD is widely considered a productivity enhancer because end users have devices with which they are most familiar. It does, however, bring with it a larger device management burden. According to an IBM survey of chief information security officers, less than 40 percent of organizations have security policies in place to deal with the popular bring your own device (BYOD) phenomenon.
While some organizations struggle with lengthy deployment schedules, the turnaround time from feature request to delivered enhancement has been very fast, Lorch says.
“We had our first users in April and we are now ready to introduce a new enhanced version of the app. That’s part of the beauty of the relationship with Profound. They build these apps and I don’t have to go through a learning curve. They do a great job. They are professional, know what they are doing, and they can get the product out quickly.”
The mobile apps that Profound is building are green-screen apps that were converted to browser apps about 15 years ago using a tool called J Walk, which at that time was produced by Seagull Software. Seagull has since been acquired by Rocket Software. J Walk allowed the green-screen desktop apps to have Java wrappers, which created the desired graphical user interface.
The J Walk front end on the desktop app, however, has no bearing on the new mobile app.
In building the mobile app, the green-screen interface was rebuilt from scratch, although the backend database and some of the existing RPG logic for the green-screen apps was reused, according to Alex Roytman, CEO at Profound.
“We used the Profound UI Visual Designer and the mobile widgets in Profound UI, which allows us to build this kind of interface rapidly,” Roytman says. “Rebuilding the interface specifically for mobile was key in allowing a truly mobile experience.”
The new mobile interface was designed to fit in smaller devices like iPhone and Android smartphones, as well as tablets. The mobile app supports device rotation and is capable of implementing native mobile device features like photo capture, dialing phone numbers, and geo location. The Profound UI Mobile Client, a free app available on Google Play and the Apple App Store, makes it simple, Roytman says, to deploy IBM i mobile apps with native device capabilities.
All client data and all transactions are accessible in real-time, which allows users to bring the functionality of the original green-screen application with them on mobile devices. Don’t get the idea this is a green-screen presentation, however. It is presented as an app optimized for mobile use.
For now, the mobile app is a subset of the desktop app. So users, when they are in the office, rely on the J Walk app because it contains more data. The mobile app will eventually include all the data that the desktop app can access.
Each of the regional centers have their own IBM Power Systems computer running IBM i 6.1. They are connected by a wide area network that’s controlled by state department of developmental services. Software updates are coordinated over the WAN.
As the mobile project took shape at SDICDSI, a second regional center prepared to implement it. That rollout is expected in the coming weeks. This fall there will be a webinar that all the CDDS regions can attend and learn about the mobile app.
“I think there will be a lot of interest and that it will go statewide after that,” Lorch says.