The Canadian province of Saskatchewan is a leading agricultural area, generating 54 percent of Canada's wheat crop to the tune of just under $2 billion in annual revenues. But when things go wrong down on the farm -- whether it's drought, flood, insects, or just a low-yield season -- crop providers need help.
To back them up, farmers have Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp. to turn to for assistance. More than two-thirds of Saskatchewan's 35,000 farmers have crop insurance through SCIC, a "provincial crown corporation" (meaning it gets funding from both the federal and provincial governments). SCIC provides insurance for 23 different crops planted across 26 million acres, nearly three-quarters of the province's farmland.
That's a lot of ground to cover for the SCIS sales staff, which is responsible for gathering acreage information needed to calculate premiums at the beginning of each year, as well as for doing claims work when things go wrong. Despite having 21 rural offices and 200 to 300 adjusters on the job, a bad crop year -- and drought in several locations qualifies this year as "bad" -- means a deluge of claims that SCIC adjusters struggle to handle.
"The way they've typically handled claims is [the adjusters] go to the rural office and pick up a bunch of forms that have been printed, and in the field they fill in the claim info and bring them back into the office about a week later," said Terry Dingle, executive manager of SCIC's information technology division. "Clerks would occasionally find out they didn't do enough counts, or got some information wrong, so [adjusters] had to go back out again."
Writing in a Wheat Field
Dingle needed a way to achieve near-perfect accuracy on these remote claim reports, which might be written by adjusters standing in the middle of a wheat field or on top of a grain bin. The first step was to create a character-based application for data entry that would run on laptops and PDAs running on Windows CE, such as the Compaq iPaq. The problem: how to get the data entered in the field back to home base in Melville, Saskatchewa, instantly.
After experimenting with connectivity using satellite phones (100 percent coverage, but the $2 a minute expense was too much) and a mobile radio (too slow, and the connection would drop out unexpectedly), Dingle discovered that cellular data access cards would do the trick. Eventually he settled on the Sierra Wireless AirCard 350 Wireless Network Card for Notebooks, a product he calls "very reliable" that is built for rugged outdoor use.
When the cards are paired with a booster pack that attaches to a vehicle roof to enhance the signal, Dingle said, "Guys inside their trucks have coverage for 98 percent of our province." Better yet, by connecting over the SaskTel phone company's cellular digital packet data network for a flat rate, SCIC is paying very little for the coverage.
The accuracy is exactly what Dingle hoped for: "With our central database [of forms and data], we don't have to worry about taking data offline and then trying to put it online and face the problems that creates. The accuracy of the data that's always online means no doubts in what the numbers are. We don't have to worry about the numbers being created in one application and being rounded to be something slightly different."
Aircards for Everyone
After a year's use, adjusters recommended that the office get Aircards for everybody. Dingle said about 70 adjusters, between a third and one-half of the field staff, have the technology now, with about three laptops with Aircards per office. Even SCIC's auditors, who check the adjusters for accuracy in the field, are using the wireless connections.
If the accuracy rate is so high and the employees love it, why aren't all of the remote staffers using the technology? Dingle attributes that, in part, to the learning curve. The character-based software interface is intimidating, especially for folks used to working on paper forms. But, he continued, "Once they've learned it, they're ecstatic about it and can't understand why any other adjuster wouldn't want to use this."
The biggest setback is price. An Aircard 350 costs around $1,000 Canadian (about $640 U.S.), and SCIC is reluctant to buy too many since usage is seasonal. Also, laptops are tough to use in the middle of a wheat field, and the screens of PDAs are still too small for easy data entry. New computer form factors, including tablet PCs, may help down the road.
Dingle has high hopes for the continued growth of wireless at SCIC. While just 2.5 percent of claims were filed wirelessly in 1999, he estimates that 30 percent came in that way in 2001. By 2003 he hopes to have fully half of all claims filed with cellular connections. Eventually he'll add printing capabilities for adjusters in the field so they can provide documentation to customers.
Even with the downsides, wireless in the field has already turned into an effective sales tool. Remote staff can sit down with a farmer in his or her home and go over records in the online database with accurate numbers that before would have taken days, if not weeks, to receive. Dingle feels this more than justifies the cost investment.
"All the info is available at the fingertips of the adjuster," he said. "Producers are very impressed that we can access their data and answer any questions they have -- for them, it's just like being at the customer service office."