Say ‘BlackBerry’, and most people think of enterprise email; the gift (or curse) to be able to send and receive work email on a device that need be no further away than your pocket.

What seemed a revolutionary idea at the time is now proving a little dated; with bigger screens, always-on internet access and cameras, modern smartphones and tablets take pictures and load them to Facebook in a few clicks; carry out videoconferencing, and access the world online. Tablets can carry the same amount of data as a laptop, but can be operated standing up, with a single hand.

One person’s entertainment is another person’s productivity software. With that in mind, the USNRC has begun a pilot programme to offer some work software on the tablets and smartphones of its nearly 1000 mobile workers.

The organisation’s chief information officer Darren Ash explains. “Six years ago as an agency we made a significant investment in BlackBerries, and a quarter of our workforce now has them, and we made a significant investment in laptops for employees who needed them. [As far as mobile working investment goes] that is it. The direction that the agency is moving, the future of mobile devices, is becoming a more diverse environment. That doesn’t mean that we are throwing them away, but it makes greater demands and more expectations for more diverse suite of products for staff.”

I put it to him that a cynical observer would say that the programme is designed to push the IT budget on to staff. He replies: “We don’t have the resources to buy tablets and smartphones for everyone. It’s difficult to keep up with the consumer market. Our employees have a greater ability to upgrade to the latest device; that takes time for us. They also want choice, and the freedom to take the direction they wish. It is not about moving toward getting employees to buy their own and pass the cost on, it’s a matter of choice. That is exciting and important.”

Another benefit for employees is convenience, Ash says. “They keep their stuff, we keep ours, only on one device…people like to carry one, not two, or even three phones.”

The first stage of the pilot project, which is voluntary, and opened up to all agency staff in October, involves smartphones—BlackBerry, and some Samsung and Motorola models—that are already US government-certified for encryption. Users will gain access to agency email, plus also contacts and their calendar (“as employees enroll, they can have one calendar for personal [use] and work”). The second stage of the pilot, due to launch in January, will involve devices (including the iPad) that do not have that certification.

I ask if the USNRC is developing software (an app) for these devices. Ash replies, “No. It is a secure container. If you’ve got an iPad, for example, then there can be a portion of it that is more secure and protected, that holds our stuff, with NRC apps on it. We have the ability to separate the information, and if they lose it, we have the ability to specifically wipe our stuff within the container. It is encrypted, protected, and we can wipe it…If you want a specific game app, you can have it; that’s perfectly acceptable. But within the secure environment, there is only work.”

&#8220Darren Ash, USNRC chief information officer”

“They keep their stuff, we keep ours, only on one device”

In future, the project is looking towards creating a so-called ‘virtual private network’ to link to remote servers, and to offer other software. “But first we have to make sure we are not wasting resources. We also want to make it modular, and create a strong foundation initially,” Ash says.

The USNRC has also launched a pilot programme for construction inspection inspectors in regional office II (Atlanta) to use the Apple Mac iPad, the BlackBerry PlayBook and the Samsung Galaxy Tab. “What’s important for a construction inspector is having the necessary documentation and the requirements, so that as they do an inspection, they are able to take pictures and videos and notes. Those are critical activities in the field, and they want to be able to do their job efficiently, and don’t want to carry a binder or go back to their office to look things up,” Ash says; all of these tasks an internet-connected tablet could do.

His colleague Edwin Leong, IT specialist, enterprise architecture, adds: “We also want them to be able to share information (information and notes over agency email) while they are performing an inspection with their peers. With a tiny phone it is not so easy or convenient, and they need the connectivity to do so.”

The pilot programme will enable this kind of person-to-person connectivity; what is not yet available is one-to-many connectivity; that is, posting on a social media-type of bulletin board. But Ash says that it is coming. “In the longer term, our agency has made a significant investment in Microsoft SharePoint. That is used throughout agency as one vehicle for employee capture and sharing of information, whether at a regional level or at the headquarters. This is one area that we know we need to get to.”

Backing up the IT are two types of infrastructure; the hard infrastructure of device management, and the soft infrastructure of processes, procedures and a helpdesk.

The initiative is part of the agency’s mission to “emphasise transparency and openness, which are vital values for ensuring that the public knows what we do.” Ash adds: “This goes beyond enabling staff to be efficient. How we best provide information on different formats for the public to know what we do. We are designing systems that provide that, such as a major system one and a half years ago, to help allow openness of data.”

The system he mentions is called ADAMS, and is an invaluable web-accessible document archives. However its interface is somewhat rigid, and searching on it requires practice. I say that I couldn’t imagine using it on a phone.

Ash agrees: “That is one of the pain points of ADAMS. It is not designed around tablets; this is one of the critical issues we need to deal with in the future. How we enable solutions like that in this new environment. That’s a critical gap right now for ADAMS.”

Author Info:

This article first appeared in the November 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International magazine.

Ash quote
“They keep their stuff, we keep ours, only on one device”

Darren Ash, USNRC chief information officer