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Meter Readers Make The Switch To PDA

iTouch DataCol News release 8.5.02

Data collection experts DataCol NZ Limited have empowered their meter reading staff with PDAs. The Palm-based devices from wireless experts iTouch Business Mobility are one of the biggest technological advances the industry has seen for years, and DataCol is reaping the benefits with huge savings in time and money.

Staff at data collection company DataCol knew there had to be a more efficient method of managing information collected by electricity meter readers, so went to work on a prototype. While still at the drawing board stage a new client gave DataCol a week to produce a working example. DataCol took its concept to iTouch, which produced PDA-based meter reading software to interface with their meter reading system, which had been specifically designed for the NZ de-regulated market meter reading system.

The challenge For many years, meter readers have used hefty, brick-like units costing $5000 to $7000 apiece. At the end of a day's work, the meter reader would go back to base and dock the data via modem into the company system. DataCol MD Grant Thomson saw an opening in the industry for a smaller, less expensive and faster system using the latest technology.

While data collection is DataCol's core business, a large part of that is electricity meter reading, with more than 100 field staff at work. This meant a lot of time was spent in the transmission of data, and in staff time, both in travel and in data processing. DataCol already had a database, and a proof of concept system using a PDA costing less than $300, but needed to turn its plans into reality.

The solution DataCol's Grant Thomson approached iTouch because of its reputation in developing Palm-based applications, and gave the team barely more than a week to complete the project. "We showed them what they had to do, and they pulled it together. I'd read articles on iTouch, and other applications they'd developed gave me the idea for this - I could see the correlation to the meter industry," Mr Thomson says.

"Using iTouch meant we saved a lot of time and money, as we didn't have to go to someone else's proprietary system. It was really in line with where we wanted to go."

The product was developed over several meetings and later via phone and email, says iTouch Software Development Manager Rod McKay. "The timeframe was pushing it and it was a concerted effort. Staff worked on it through the weekend to get it done."

Benefits As well as its core use as a meter-reading tool, DataCol's new waterproof PDA can be used elsewhere in the company's operations, with the ability to add barcode scanning, GPS capabilities, and in synchronising with Internet networks. DataCol has also developed Palm-CDMA interaction.

With the iTouch solution DataCol contractors have previous meter figures at their fingertips, and can project future readings. A list of customers is downloaded on to the Palm, as well as a high-low reading value for each meter. "When a person reads the meter, the Palm will give them an alert if the reading is out of the range it is expected to be," says Mr McKay. "That's an alert that either someone is tampering, or that the previous reading or the new reading is wrong - it could be that an invalid number has been entered." The unit is also much lighter than the previous brick handhelds, making it user-friendlier for the readers.

Meter reading in remote rural areas has traditionally been a problem, but with the ability to attach a GPS module to the PDA DataCol can GPS its meter sites, "even the office boy or the tea lady can find the meters now," says DataCol's Grant Thomson. "In the rural areas, only one guy in the world knows where that meter is, and he's been doing it for the last 10 years. If something happens to him, you're in trouble, and you can't get the readings for those customers. Now we can and it will give greater security and risk management service to our Energy Retailer clients."

Technological innovation iTouch's Rod McKay says the application was relatively simple, although it had to work with DataCol's existing DataSwitch database, which gives the ability to read meters for multi retailers across many networks.

With only a handful of other companies in the meter reading industry, there has been little innovation over the years. Now, with the DataCol - iTouch breakthrough, Mr Thomson expects PDAs to become the norm for meter readers. "We're the first that I've heard of in the world to put the meter reading system on to a Palm OS. I think in a few years time everyone may be doing it."

The old traditional devices used by meter readers were run on a proprietary operating system, so no extra features could be built in. However, with the iTouch PDA, DataCol has been able to add features and benefits - such as a function to measure the progress of the meter reader, the rate at which they're reading, and their estimated time of completion. "That means that we can man resources -- the reader can know how they're doing, or that they'll need to call for help, or need to work faster to get the round finished on time," Mr Thomson says.

"We can also allocate rounds to contractors in the field via the CDMA network, and they can download the data to us from the field. It's very easy to use and it's saving a lot of time, and a lot of money. Readers no longer have to fight traffic to download at the office before the cut-off time for billing. They can do it from the field after reading their last meter. It also allows DataCol to switch read requests between its field contractors real-time in the field instead of having to send someone out from the office or have two readers come in from the field to exchange handhelds.

We also took care of waterproofing the units by importing a specially designed pouch from the U.K. So now we had a very flexible waterproof handheld in the field for under $300 compared to $5000."

DataCol will be interfacing a bar-coding key database to its DataSwitch system as the next step. The bar coding PDA handheld now allows the key room and the readers to very quickly and securely authorise the exchange of keys between them using the readers handheld. This does away with paper based recording and manual database entry. Another time and cost saving.

DataCol is also looking to interface AMR (Automatic meter reading) and IVR (a voice messaging system) to its DataSwitch system so that meters can be read through the phone network.

But despite these innovations, there's little fear that human meter readers will become obsolete in the near future - the cost of the technology is currently too high and the rate of payback thought to be too slow. For example, DataCol can read a meter on contract for less than $1, so it costs about $6 a year to get all the reads for a single customer. To move to an automatic system, the cost per AMR unit inserted would be about $150 at a minimum. That provides approximately a 25-year pay back period on unit cost alone. Plus, there are the benefits of a meter being physically sighted by the reader, and the goodwill benefits of the reader being able to talk to the customer. DataCol plans to market a commercial meter reading system with a more robust platform, and with PDA's that have flash card memory and the ability to bolt on bar-coding, GPS, and CDMA or GPRS connection, for $700 to $2500 each. "As the deregulation wave rolls around globally we believe we can ride ahead of that and sell these data collection systems for energy utilities," Mr Thomson says. "We want New Zealand to be our showcase where we perfect and demonstrate this technology, and then commercialise it globally. We are also interested in talking to and developing solutions for other industry organisations that have need of smart data and work validation solutions for their field personnel."

About DataCol DataCol was formed in 1999 by Grant Thomson to provide data management and services to industries including energy, medical and security, and cost-effective services to the deregulated power industry. Its customers include major retailers throughout the country.

With nine staff and 101 field contractors, the company specialises in smart data collection services and systems that interface with field personnel. It has gone from being a field service contractor to developing systems for the industry.

DataCol is also the first resident company to join the Canterbury Innovation Incubator programme. For more information, visit www.datacolnz.com

About iTouch iTouch is listed on the London Stock Exchange and has operations in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Israel, with a further three operations in joint venture with MIH.

iTouch a leading provider of mobile content, commerce and communications services. It enables individuals to use wireless PDA devices to receive real-time information, effect transactions and use other value-added corporate services.

In conjunction with mobile network operators, iTouch provides services over a full range of mobile voice, data and Internet platforms, allowing customers to choose how they wish to send and receive information without being constrained by technology limitations.

The company provides a range of mobile products and services to enable businesses to communicate more effectively with their customers, potential clients and employees, either individually or on a group basis. The iProduct suite delivers critical office-based sales, service, survey and delivery information direct into the hands of the mobile workforce. For more information visit www.itouchmobility.com

Ends

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