Planning For Reliable Mobile Communication, Part II

I’ve already mentioned that a mobile application developed specifically for use by a worker trying to function normally while coping with a disaster should not drain the battery unnecessarily, be based on push technology, and have multiple (alternative) network connection paths available when its primary one fails.

The mobile application’s small user interface should use checkboxes and radio buttons rather than text fields wherever that makes sense. Doing so can reduce network traffic (and ultimately battery usage) to a certain degree.

Doing so also can reduce the time required for the user to input or read basic information to a considerable degree. And, selecting a checkbox takes much less time than typing a (possibly imprecise) message into a text box or a text message, using either a real or virtual keyboard.

Virtual keyboards, tapped serially with a stylus, are available in commercial products, typically in the familiar QWERTY layout. But, stylus keyboarding requires intense visual attention, virtually at every key tap, which prevents the user from focusing attention on text output—a time consuming process.

For this and one other reason, real keyboards are to be preferred over virtual ones: styluses are easily lost (that’s one of the reasons they’re sold in three-packs).

Finally, applications used by emergency workers should exploit integration with native handheld device functionality whenever possible. For example, once a newly updated telephone number is pushed out to the user by an application running on a backend server, he or she should be able to click on the phone number and have the phone dial launched automatically.

IT Policy

Before discussing the importance of IT policy in emergency situations, I want to stress that you need to build emergency preparedness into the culture of your organization.

Orientation sessions for new employees should include an overview of the preparedness plan and all employees. Key employees especially should periodically participate in mock exercises. Today, however, many organizations have yet to seriously consider the impact not taking these steps can have on the Net Present Value (NPV) and other financial measures of their operation.

For the most part, emergency workers will be firemen, policemen, medical personnel and other public safety workers carrying out jobs for which they’re trained. But, IT and other workers trying to preserve their organization’s assets on an ad-hoc basis, sometimes with little or no formal preparedness training, may also be called upon to play an important role.

Furthermore, as recent events have shown, members of any one of these groups may be physically unable to reach the site(s) where their help is needed. In such cases, it may be desirable, where possible, to add certain mobile computing functionality, normally available only to pre-designated staffers, to those other employees whom random events place at critical sites.

At the same time, it may be desirable to disable battery-draining applications and functionality that are not needed for emergency work.

For example, the administrator can turn off power hungry apps that aren’t needed (perhaps GPS) or disable functionality like the extra layers of security that are so important for normal business operations, but which can degrade the performance of applications whose only purpose is the handling of a time-sensitive emergency data.

These kinds of changes can be achieved rapidly by assigning preconfigured profiles to mobile users or groups using the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). I cite this particular server because of its widespread use by both public and private-sector emergency personnel worldwide.

Mail Servers

It is possible that a crisis could render useless a system component such as Microsoft Exchange or Novell GroupWise that the handheld messaging system relies on. To enable you to circumvent these e-mail servers, Research in Motion has introduced PIN-to-PIN messaging that allows one BlackBerry user to exchange messages with another by using the personal identification number (PIN) of the other device instead of the recipient’s e-mail address. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency is one of the agencies exploring the use of this PIN-to-PIN communication.

Recognizing that administrators need to have 24/7 access to their servers, software publishers like Idōkorro Mobile have introduced mobile apps where administrators can have complete control of a network and its servers (BES, Active Directory, Lotus Domino, etc.) virtually anytime, anywhere.

Finally, as things change in the organization – people come, people go, programs fold, programs start – the plan(s) has to be updated to reflect these changes. Good luck!

Marcia Gulesian has served as software developer, project manager, CTO, and CIO over an eighteen-year career. She is author of over 100 feature articles on IT, its economics, and its management.