Laptops Trump Handhelds
Part of keeping mobility simple is sticking with laptops, Myers said, adding that Allstates catastrophe team hasnt made the plunge with computing devices smaller than laptops.
Adjusters use Microsofts Outlook application heavily and need access to all Allstates applications to process claims quickly and ultimately deliver a check to a homeowner. "We need adjusters to do everything they are qualified to do," Myers said. "Handhelds dont provide all the flexibility yet."
Allstates goal is to roll out one set of technology that touches everybody differently. With handhelds, there will be limitations, Myers said. He also noted that Allstate leases Dell Latitude notebooks for its workers.
Given the limitations of handhelds—a smaller screen, scaled-down browsers and difficulty connecting to enterprise applications—Myers said it makes sense for the insurer to stick with laptops.
Berndt agreed that handhelds are too limited to access multiple applications but said the gap is closing. "Handhelds like the Treo certainly werent as mature last year during Katrina, but they have become much more robust since," he said.
Ultimately, handhelds could prove a viable option for companies like Allstate, especially if they consume less power. "Remember, the big limitation on laptops is battery power," Berndt said. "The challenge is recharging and finding the power to do so."
While on the surface it seems inconceivable that hackers would target ad hoc networks during a disaster, Myers said you cant chance banking on their benevolence.
According to Myers, one of the biggest issues facing on-the-fly networks is security. To control that, Myers keeps his laptops under tight controls to make sure each one is up-to-date with patches and standardized.
Often during catastrophes, Allstate has to loan laptops to fill-in adjusters from other states. Myers keeps close tabs on these laptops so he can keep all patches and software current.
"With [hurricanes] Katrina and Wilma we had an overflow and handed out laptops and air cards to local adjusters," Myers said.
Browning said that security is a concern for anyone supporting mobile technologies in the field. "Security is a big challenge," he said. "During Katrina, we were blessed that we were not under attack. The networks were largely opened, and you relied on people in the field to use their individual firewalls."
Its also very important that mobile devices are kept current and simple enough for users to be their own technology support personnel.
"These situations make brittle IT support more brittle," Browning said. "When the workers are in the field, how do they communicate with the IT guy?"
Allstates Next Steps
For this hurricane season, allstate is locked in with its current setup. Katrina proved that Allstate could procure mobile command centers—ultimately, it used 28 of them—and maintain an infrastructure that worked under the worst circumstances. Its biggest move this year is upgrading to broadband mobile cards for agents in the field.
Allstates next move is to update its mobile applications and rolling office with a connection to its next-generation enterprise applications, collectively dubbed Next Generation Claims Systems.
These browser-based applications, an update to the system that governs everything from claims to estimates and check processing, are custom-built on Microsofts .Net platform.
The implementation, to be delivered over three years, will eventually tie into Allstates mobile interface, the company said. The timeline has yet to be determined.
As for Allstates office on wheels, Myers said the technology is rapidly converging to the point where the only limit on the insurance giant is imagination.
What remains to be seen is if Ciscos mobile command center, which has been tested to create its own ad hoc network using Wi-Fi technologies, becomes a template for the insurance industry.
For now, its all about storm chasing. "We can get 400 people on the ground quickly, and if we bring in more, were comfortable we can go up or down with the technology to support that," Myers said.
Storm Chasers: the Challenges
- Power Mobile networks need power, and when key pieces of infrastructure such as the electrical grid are down, its nearly impossible to make a connection. Many mobile networking kits can lift power from vehicles, but that only goes so far. Generators and battery backups are critical.
- Broadband cellular plans While these laptop cards can provide easy access to key applications, they arent industrial-strength.
- Wireless and satellite interference Wireless communications depends on line of sight; debris and buildings may diminish reception. Satellite signals face atmosphere interference and jamming difficulties.
- The unexpected No matter how much a company plans, a storm such as Katrina will uproot it. Make sure your contingency plans have contingencies.