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There may not be any obvious connection between a London traffic warden issuing tickets to errant motorists parking illegally on the streets of the UK capital and meter readers in the West African country of Mali. But there is a link – both use DAP’s rugged handheld computers.

The London traffic warden can be seen pounding the streets with his handheld computer, linked to a mini-printer for issuing penalty notices, swinging from his (or her) belt. The computer also serves to photograph cars they have caught parked illegally and to log locations via GPS.

Mali’s meter readers use similar equipment to read customers’ electricity and water meters, recording their usage for billing purposes. Energie du Mali (EDM) was one of Africa’s first utility companies to make the transition from error-prone paper records to a computer-based system. Since 2004, EDM’s meter readers have been using the DAP’s CE5000B model.

The computer serves a dual role by reading both electrical and water meters as EDM is a dual service utility supplying both power and water.

The CE5000B has been such a success that the state-owned utility company made the decision in February 2010 to order and take delivery of the first of approximately 250 of DAP latest model, the CE3240B. Like its predecessor, it is a rugged handheld computer and the company will deploy them to its meter readers throughout the country.

Just how rugged was demonstrated to me by Simon Bowe, general manager for DAP’s Europe Middle-East Africa office who flung a CE3240B onto a concrete floor and watched my reaction with a smile. Although the unit was switched on, its operational function remained stable while the thick, rubberized exterior and special, toughened plexiglass screen protects the unit from being damaged.

Furthermore, DAP’s handheld computers can withstand the tough climatic conditions in Mali, able to withstand temperatures of up to C50, the effects of torrential downpours and high humidity as well as cope with the ever-present risk of sandstorms. Its sunlight-viewable 3.5" colour LCD screen with LED backlight displays easily readable data, whether in a dark interior or in the blazing sun. The scratch and shock resistant touch-screen can be also used with a stylus or finger.

While the CE3240B packs in many of the same features as the CE5000B, with enhanced functionality and processing power, the overall design of the new unit has been overhauled. Smaller, lighter and ergonomically designed, these tough handheld units are specifically designed to lessen user fatigue.

The device weighs less than half a kilo and has an extended-life battery, which is field-swappable, designed to provide a charge for an entire eight-hour shift.

With DAP’s CE3240B, data will be transmitted by WiFi over the local area network and also by GPRS real-time to the back-office server. From there, the integrated solution (developed in conjunction with AS Consulting) will automatically update the billing system. The outcome will be a faster, more efficient transfer of data that eliminates the need for the meter reader agent to physically visit the main office to download data.

DAP has also customised a special connector for EDM that allows an automatic reading of the meter using an optical probe. Whereas meter readers (or as they are called in Mali ‘zone agents’) could spend 10 minutes performing a manual reading, the information is transmitted in seconds using the new connector.

"Energie du Mali was forward thinking in making the transition from a paper-based system to a computer-based one, and they are reaping the rewards of that decision in terms of increased operational efficiencies, decreased errors and lost data, as well as overall cost savings," says Bowe.

"With the upgrade to DAP’s CE3240B and by transmitting data using local and wide area wireless communications," Bowe adds, "EDM have the opportunity to increase efficiencies even further."

With local software partners, DAP serves utility industries continental Africa and throughout the world with an network of partners and resellers marketing its computers in more than 60 countries. DAP is based in Quebec, Canada, and has offices in the US and UK.

Stephen Williams