AMCauis: Key and Property Auditing, Tracking and Management

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St Andrew's Bureau - Case Study

St Andrew's Bureau, a property letting agency established in 1959, in Cambridge, contacted me in 2004 and asked if I knew of anyone who had any barcode database software, to manage keys. I said that I didn't, but I could write one for them - and the result is AMCaius. AMCaius has now been in successful operation for nearly three years.

St Andrew's Bureau's requirements were to be able to track keys and to keep an audit trail. They have over 1000 properties in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire.

With a large number of staff and sub-contractors, they were constantly ringing around to find the status on particular keys signed out. Additionally, St Andrew's especially wanted to deal with the problem of landlords or tenants losing or claiming never to have returned or received key sets.

The issue of auditing is one that St Andrew's takes particularly seriously: some of the key sets that they receive from landlords are really expensive. Master Security keys for flats that, if needing to be replaced, must be specially-ordered from a Security firm. So, one of the procedures that St Andrew's already had in place was that they require tenants to sign and date a photocopied record of the key sets that they receive and return, so that they cannot claim not to have received a key set. Also, they wanted me to ensure that Master Security key sets (typically for flats) not be given out to tenants.

Implementing AMCaius at St Andrew's Bureau took some time. The reason for this is because of the data entry requirements for so many key sets: over 2,000. The staff entered these key sets during off-peak working hours, for only a few hours a week. The whole process took about four months, but the estimated actual amount of time spent would have been somewhere around 100 to 150 hours: not an insignificant amount of time.

The primary reason for spending so much time is that the process doesn't just involve data entry: a barcode for each property needs to be printed out and stuck above the hook for that property's key sets, and also a barcode needs to be inserted into the key fob. The secondary reason is that St Andrew's specifically wanted a 'Maintenance Code' associated with the property, which is an easy-to-remember code for the staff to identify the property quickly: this code needed to go onto the property's barcode sticker, and also onto the key fob barcode. Also, St Andrew's wanted to enter some details about each key set - how many keys, what type they were etc. so we made up a mnemonic e.g. F for front door, B for back door, G for garage, R1 for room 1, TF for top flat and then entered all this - all two thousand key sets - into the database. Additionally, particular key sets needed to be marked as 'Master' key sets so that they would never be accidentally given out to tenants. All of this took time, and St Andrew's specifically wanted to use their own staff rather than entrust the task to a temporary VDU data entry clerk.

In 2004, there were two crucial data record keeping locations for properties that St Andrew's used: The Book, and an Excel Spreadsheet. The Excel spreadsheet turned out to be useful to save an inordinate amount of time on data entry, by importing a csv file into the AMCaius database. The Book is a hardcopy database - quantity one - sorted by street name. Useful - but incredibly painful to use ("Who's got The Book??" was a much-repeated cry that I heard every hour). AMCaius superseded The Book, instantly, because of its deceptively simple search capabilities. Type any known information - flat or house number, street name or postcode, or Maintenance Code, and the search is narrowed down immediately to match.

We initially installed the software onto a spare unused PC: a Compaq Desktop system with a 1 GHz processor, 10Gb hard drive and 128 Mb of memory, which, on spec, was perfectly adequate for the task. As it turned out, the reason why this particular PC wasn't being used was because it regularly overheated (and crashed). Swapping the hard drive into a better computer solved that problem. As the software runs on Linux, on a dedicated PC, moving the hard drive into a newer computer did not present any difficulties: St Andrew's managed to make the swap completely on their own initiative.

Access to, and use of, AMCaius is pretty straightforward. From the main console, it is a matter of scanning the Staff barcode which is on a board on the wall near the main console, then scanning a key fob, and then entering some information about why the key set is being taken away, and pressing return on the keyboard.

For the office staff, they are able to access the AMCaius database by logging in to the AMCaius PC over their LAN. Some initial confusion resulted from users trying to click on the on-screen menu options with the mouse: for simplicity, AMCaius does not use - or require - a mouse: it is a text-based program (like the old mainframe applications) that can be easily accessed and used over a modem or a secure internet connection. Once the user's fingers had been glued to the keys, they found it very quick and intuitive to use: F1 for people, F2 for properties, F3 for Keys, F4 for bookings, F5 for new, F6 for edit, F7 for show, F8 for print.

Every tenant now also goes onto the database, as well as staff. When the tenant's barcode is printed out, it is put into their file, for convenient scan-access to their records on AMCaius. The barcode is stuck onto their photocopied and signed record of the physical key set that the tenant receives. So there is quite a comprehensive audit trail going on, and AMCaius is an integral part of that audit trail.

A few months ago, I got a frantic email from St Andrew's: someone had dropped the Worth Data barcode reader and it now made a nice rattling sound. I informed them that they could, temporarily, type out the barcodes from the labels on the PC keyboard (the barcodes are ASCII: EAN-128) as long as they made sure they correctly typed upper and lower case letters, and didn't try to press delete if they made a mistake then they should be able to get by (the Barcode reader emulates a standard PC keyboard). They ordered a replacement USB barcode scanner from Worth Data and, aside from some confusion over the USB to PS/2 adapter on the older scanner, everything went smoothly. It turned out that the old Compaq machine could accept the scanner into the PS/2 mouse socket (!), and it was detected by the PC as a second keyboard instead of a mouse, which confused absolutely everybody including the support team at Worth Data. I emphasised the requirement for the Barcode Scanner to emulate a USB keyboard, and that made everybody happy.

The moral of this particular tale is: take care of your barcode scanner! Consider getting a spare one, and make sure it is a USB keyboard device. Also, make sure that you get one with a cable that will stretch far enough to your board (or get a wireless one), and also make sure that you get a Laser barcode reader. The cheaper barcode readers may have difficulty scanning through key fobs, and this will irritate your staff no end. Make their lives easier (and, long-term, save your company time and money in the process): be prepared to spend a bit more on a decent scanner.

AMCaius is now a critical part of St Andrew's Bureau's day-to-day business, helping them to be rigorous, thorough and efficient (something that is very rare with IT systems these days). They are able to find out who has what; who had what, and apart from hardware issues (such as overheating, which they solved by using a better PC, and someone dropping the barcode scanner and needing to buy another one) they have been extremely happy with AMCaius.