Even though I’ve been aware that some real estate appraisers have been using tablet computers to help with their property inspections, I hadn’t thought too much about how mobile devices could impact our tax assessment office. I’ve been using a measuring tape and taking notes on a clipboard for more than 30 years now, and the prospect of learning how to enter data electronically seemed somewhat intimidating. I also had some misconceptions about how we could do our work using a mobile device. Our CAMA (Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal) system requires either a network or web connection in order to enter changes, and the option of having a mobile data collection system that was dependent upon a continuous web connection didn’t seem practical. Enter PRC Powerpad, a software package developed and patented by some NJ assessors who wanted to improve the efficiency of their data collection process. To solve the problem of our CAMA program requiring a live connection, they developed a system in which the CAMA data for an entire county or municipality is downloaded into a PC or tablet. The data is then edited in the PRC Powerpad either in the office or during field inspections, and CAMA is updated when an connection can be established. This gives assessors mobility without the need for continual connectivity, which eliminates the need to take handwritten notes and then transfer the information to the CAMA system. Not only does this eliminate the extra time required to enter inspection data after returning to the office, it also increases accuracy because information is entered when property details are fresh in the minds of those performing the inspections. Entering information directly into a system designed to seamlessly integrate with the CAMA program reduces data entry errors, and PRC Powerpad will alert the inspector before leaving the site if a sketch is not properly “closed out”. This approach is especially helpful during times when large numbers of inspections are being completed, such as revaluation projects or reviewing assessment appeals. Inspectors can either upload data from a WIFI hotspot or wait until they return to the office before updating the CAMA system.
When I first heard that our office was going to start using PRC Powerpad, I didn’t anticipate the impact it would have on nearly every aspect of my work. I was just happy that to be using a computerized sketch program again, as I had during my “fee appraiser” days. Since I entered the tax assessment field, the CAMA system we used required us to manually enter building dimensions. This was a tedious and time consuming process that I found especially frustrating since I knew how much easier it was to sketch properties using a graphical interface. Much of our initial data entry is from building plans, and PRC Powerpad works just as well on a PC. I have found that I prefer doing sketches on a tablet using a stylus, since it feels more similar to drawing on a paper than doing sketches on a PC using a mouse. PRC Powerpad is well-suited for measuring properties and completing sketches in the field, as illustrated in the video below.
One unanticipated benefit of my transition to tablet-based field work is the ability to track hundreds of property changes with a Google spreadsheet. I’ve already used Google Drive for several years to track added assessments, subdivisions, and other pending changes. It’s not uncommon for our office to monitor 500 or more properties at any given time, which requires constant “drive-by” inspections to track progress of new construction or other property improvements. Before transitioning to a tablet computer, this would require bringing batches of field cards for selected neighborhoods and writing inspection dates on the cards. Using Google Drive on the mobile device eliminates the need for field cards, since adding a worksheet that sorts properties by inspection date continually directs inspectors to neighborhoods and properties requiring updated information (see sample spreadsheet below). Inspection dates are updated in “offline editing mode” and all edits are synced with the cloud-based spreadsheet when the tablet is in WIFI range.
A big challenge for assessors transitioning to mobile devices is becoming proficient with touchscreen keyboards. One of my concerns about using a tablet during property inspections was struggling with entering information while accompanied by an impatient homeowner. Additionally, sometimes it’s necessary to take more extensive notes that exceed the space limitations of our CAMA system. This is often the case when we are inspecting more complex properties or if the inspection is being conducted for an assessment appeal. In these circumstances, I have found Microsoft One Note to be a great tool that enables me to take extensive notes electronically that I can easily attach to a permanent digital record for the property (see example below). Using a stylus to “write” directly onto the tablet eases the transition from taking paper notes, although it’s still important to make any needed changes in PRC Powerpad before leaving the site. For most inspections, however, handwritten notes entered directly into PRC Powerpad will be automatically converted to text in the “Comments” fields of property record cards.
In short, there are some great tools available to ease the transition to using tablet devices during property inspections. PRC Powerpad enables mobile data collection without the need for a continuous internet connection and provides the ability to “sketch” properties directly onto a PC or tablet screen. These features help assessors overcome the limitations of their CAMA programs without the cost and disruption of switching to new systems. The offline editing capability of Google Docs enables assessment offices to easily monitor hundreds or even thousands of properties in the field, and programs like Microsoft One Note enable inspectors to take extensive “electronic” notes to supplement CAMA system records. Even for assessors who have been doing their work in the same way for many years, the benefits of “going mobile” will quickly become apparent.