Mission-critical apps: high value, slow take-up?

Greater use of data in the field, via applications, can dramatically increase efficiency and situational awareness, but deployment across the critical comms sector is patchy. Sam Fenwick looks at the factors involved and how to overcome organisational inertia

In the hectic and stretched world of critical communications, speed, accuracy and efficiency matter, with lives often hanging in the balance. It is perhaps no surprise that many end-user organisations have been exploring a more data-centric operational model, with impressive results. Back at CCW in June, Hannu Aronsson, chairman of TCCA’s Apps Working Group, pointed out that a simple database query application allows an officer to obtain the information they are looking for in just 11 seconds and two SDS (short data service) messages, when to obtain the same information verbally from a control room operator would tie up two people (the operator and the officer) for 55 seconds (one minute, 50 seconds in total) along with a voice channel.

It is not just about speed – with a database query app there is no possibility for a word to be misheard. Using apps to cut out paper-based processes reduces the need for rekeying and can dramatically increase accuracy, lowering the error rate from around 30 per cent to two per cent. Similarly, mobile working apps that let police officers fill in reports without returning to their station reportedly allow them to spend an hour and a half per shift more out and about, making them a much more visible presence in their local communities.

Of course, the ability to access databases in the field creates its own problems. What happens if a device is lost or stolen and ends up in the wrong hands? Rahim Zaknoun, head of developer ecosystem at Airbus, is responsible for the company’s SmarTWISP app programme for the company’s TETRA-LTE hybrid terminal that has been running for about two years and has more than 200 independent app developers on board who can bring new technologies such as AI, IoT, analytics and facial recognition to the critical communications sector. He says the issue of security is one of Airbus’s customers’ main concerns. First Airbus puts in place an application certification process, which means that only the applications checked and validated by Airbus can be installed on the Tactilon Dabat device. In addition to this, third-party applications can add more security, eg, Dual Authenticator, an app from United Biometrics, which allows a Tactilon Dabat user’s identity to be confirmed and logged through the use of multiple biometric identifiers, such as face and voice recognition and fingerprints.

Aronsson says that from the perspective of a control room operator, the extra situational awareness that additional data about users in the field can bring is comparable to the huge leap that occurred with the introduction of satellite-based location tracking into two-way radio terminals and similar devices, and can allow the operators to work in a more efficient way. He points to modern terminals’ many sensors and functions, along with their strong man-down features, together with the potential to deploy in-building location services and biometrics. Even a simple alarm that can alert an operator to the fact that someone’s radio battery is about to run out has great value as it means the operator can get them to pull back or swap them with another team.

Zaknoun adds that one of Airbus’s SmarTWISP programme partners is a Finnish company called Steerpath, which offers an outdoor and indoor location services app that makes use of Bluetooth beacons, and the two companies are in the process of discussing this with customers. Other interesting apps in the SmarTWISP catalogue include the Secunet Bocoa app from Secunet, which helps users carry out rapid identity checks in the field, biometric ID, database queries and ID document verification; Epicblue’s SenTAct app, which uses artificial intelligence to locate staff and assets, to alert on hazardous situations, and generate mission intelligence; and the Visual Accident Perimeter app from BIG, which allows real-time visualisation of an incident by using video and augmented reality.

There is also Sepura’s AppSPACE software environment, which brings a wide number of applications to its range of TETRA radios (see p26 for more details). Aronsson says while it can be tempting to put off experimenting with apps until “the next wave of technology comes along”, it is possible to get started without any big investments in new devices given narrowband technologies’ data capabilities, and through doing so it is possible to generate a better return on investment and/or see improvements in employee safety and other areas from your existing radio fleet and network.

The bottom-up approach
We have established that apps have a huge amount to offer critical communications users and organisations. One might therefore be forgiven for thinking their use would be ubiquitous. Sadly, this is not the case.

Aronsson says one of the things that he observed while at this year’s Critical Communications World was that there are “huge differences” in the extent to which countries and organisations around the world are making use of applications in mission-critical settings, despite the fact that whenever anyone gave a presentation at the event that discussed their use of apps, they clearly were seeing great benefits from doing so. There is therefore a need for more organisations to reach out to their peers in other countries and see what they are doing this area. Aronsson highlights the need to look out for success stories in the critical communications media and suggests that such organisations would benefit from speaking to their network and terminal vendors about this topic.

He believes that the largest barrier to greater adoption of apps in the critical communications sector is the tendency for organisations to resist change, and one of the most effective ways of addressing this is to “start with a small team in your organisation and with small steps”, as opposed to a “big top-down project [approach which] has not been so successful”. This allows evidence on the app’s effectiveness to be gathered while causing little disruption and then, should it prove successful – Aronsson says it is typically more a “when” rather than “if” question – it can be rolled out elsewhere. If the pilot fails then the risk is contained when compared with a larger-scale initial roll-out. This approach also allows an application’s use of network resources to be assessed prior to full roll-out, which can help alleviate the concerns that public safety network operators might have.

Aronsson also advocates starting small in terms of integration with other IT systems as this reduces the complexity of the initial project and the potential for delays, which might occur if the initial team project were to begin their pilot with an app that was integrated with national databases. He says starting off with an app that only uses local information is the best approach; then, if local pilots and trials prove successful, the team is in a stronger position to discuss integrating their app with national databases; “because [they] already have the reference [case they] can show [the teams responsible for the national databases] their security set-up and network load – it makes it much easier to have that discussion with the people who own the additional data”.

He agrees that one good way to enhance the bottom-up approach is to appoint an internal app champion to try to drive such projects forward and to present the results from successful trials to other parts of their organisation.

Zaknoun says that based on the results of his company’s fourth annual professional app survey, one barrier is that while there are “some internal initiatives taking place within organisations to [adopt] secure mobile applications”, there is a lack of high-level planning in this regard. He adds that though some organisations like those in the Nordic countries are ahead of the curve here, ideally a large public safety network operator or similar organisation needs to take the lead on this so that others might follow their example at the international level.

I ask Aronsson what organisations could do to mitigate some of the issues around simply downloading apps from commercial app stores. He says the FirstNet App Catalog model, which includes apps that also appear in public app stores and reviews and certifies them, is a good example of how to address this issue.

“They have apps that are only on the FirstNet [App Catalog] but they also have apps which are on the public app stores, but they are still listed on the FirstNet site and they have different levels of certification or verification. That gives you a kind of curated access to the public app stores. So if you want an app from a public app store (and people do because there are many very useful apps on them for these kind of operations), you can look at a curated list of apps and download them knowing that an independent body has looked into these and considers the developers to be dependable – I think that will help a lot.”

He adds that, using the FirstNet App Catalog as an example, “anyone from anywhere in the world” can look at its list and download and use the publicly available ones. The FirstNet Catalog contains more than 40 apps, with recent additions including 10-21 Video, a private live-streaming app; Pulsara, which enables clinicians to exchange patient-specific information through alerts, messaging, audio clips or video chat during time-sensitive emergencies; and AccessMyLAN, which makes it easier for IT administrators to manage mobile security, productivity and compliance for first-responder devices.

Zaknoun says Airbus has an application certification process/service to make sure all recommended apps by Airbus are meticulously checked and the Dabat device will not allow the user to install any app that isn’t Airbus-certified.

Aronsson notes that sandboxing features are available on some smartphone platforms – “for example, on Android a lot of people are doing hardening on the Android for this kind of use-case – which can be used to restrict the amount and types of information that apps can access. In combination with other approaches to hardening, in a hardened smartphone environment, this means that you can reasonably freely install apps from the open app store[s], probably not totally openly, but it’s a way to manage that situation.”

Aronsson adds that many smartphones, especially those designed for mission-critical use, can set different security levels for different apps or can be run in a highly secure mode which might disable some of the apps. “So, it’s a combination of curating the
open app stores and then at a technical level hardening [the smartphone platforms] and keeping each app in its own sandbox.”

The race is long
Zaknoun highlights the slow speed of internal decision-making and procurement processes in the public sector and large organisations. This is far from ideal from an app developer’s point of view as many are used to being able to quickly bring apps to market in the consumer world, and as many are small or medium-sized enterprises or start-ups, cashflow is a significant issue. “[App developers] have to be patient,” says Zaknoun. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” He adds that this market also requires a far more involved and ongoing relationship between developers and their customers than in the consumer world, given the need, in most cases, to integrate applications’ backends with customers’ databases and authentication systems, and to adjust apps so that they can “bring real value to customers’ existing investments”.

He adds that one other complication is that typically app deployment involves working with a different set of people on the customer side – IT teams and departments as opposed to the people within end-user organisations that are responsible for TETRA and Tetrapol networks.

Zaknoun says that if the critical communications sector is to succeed in attracting and retaining app developers from outside the sector, then vendors, network operators and end-user organisations all need to work together to create the market conditions in which they can thrive. “If we don’t work together, those developers will [enter the market] and then disappear. [We need to show] innovative developers that there is a business opportunity for them and that these three parties are here to help them to develop [and] innovate for this sector.”

Ask for more
Both Aronsson and Zaknoun say non-technical issues are far more significant than technical ones, when it comes to mission-critical app adoption. “On the technical side, the answers are clearer and there are experts, vendors and others who already have solutions for technical [issues],” adds Aronsson.

“By their nature, developers are problem-solvers – they can [build] whatever you want, [be it] high levels of security and availability, geo-redundancy or local redundancy,” says Zaknoun, before adding that he is aware of developers that are building products with the long-life cycles preferred by mission-critical customers. He adds that he has been surprised by what app developers “can do in a very short time frame – [in about] six to 12 months”.

Aronsson says currently the mission-critical community is reaching out to commercial developers and asking for mission-critical equivalents of popular apps such as WhatsApp, for example, but this approach fails to take advantage of the fact that there is a lot of additional functionality that can be introduced that wouldn’t be appropriate in a consumer context. “A good example of this is location information. [Due to privacy concerns] you cannot have [consumer] apps that rely on the [non-anonymised] locations of lots of people, but in the mission-critical sector it’s typically completely okay because it’s a job safety issue. People are not reaching far enough if they say ‘I want a mission-critical WhatsApp’ – it’s better to say ‘I want a mission-critical WhatsApp and as we can track [all our users’ locations], I want to be able to see where the messages are being sent from [along with similar information]’.”

He says app developers looking to target the critical communications sector should research the special requirements around security, data protection and reliability, both in their own country and abroad – “especially now that we are moving to broadband, it’s going to become more of an international global market [than it has been in the past]. The good news here is that although every country and vertical has their own rules and special requirements, they are often very similar to those in [other countries].”

We have seen that a more data-centric approach to operations results in impressive improvements in efficiency, accuracy and situational awareness at the control room operator level, but the degree to which this is employed varies wildly, with organisational resistance to change being a key issue. This can be partially alleviated through the use of a bottom-up strategy using small pilots to quickly demonstrate the value of apps and similar tools. At the same time, efforts to capitalise on the application development skills and new technologies being honed by the wider telecoms sector will founder unless end-users, network operators and vendors come together to help app developers through what is often a long and involved journey to product maturity and deployment.