The use of Digital Pens & Mobile Technology within Leeds City Council Social Services

Wednesday 15 February 2006

Ian Jones, Corporate ICT Services, Leeds City Council


Ian provided an overview of the motivation for Leeds City Council adopting digital pen technology. Within Social Services there are around 1,500 community support assistants who make regular home visits, and the various forms used meant that they had to fill in over two million pieces of paper every year.

This leads to duplication of effort and affects the morale of staff, who would rather be doing their job than filling in and filing paperwork. The deployment of digital pen technology within Social Services has led to a saving of about three days a month for each community support assistant.

It was relatively straightforward to equip each worker with the technology; all that was required was a digital pen, a stock of suitable forms and a mobile phone. This enables true mobile working without the need to use PDAs or laptops, which can be intrusive in the context of home visits.

A digital pen looks like a fatter version of an ordinary pen, and contains an infra-red camera that records movements over the dot patterns on the digital paper. It also contains ink, so it does write on the paper. The pen’s movements are stored and transmitted; the pen does not perform optical characterrecognition. Digital pens can be used for signature verification, because the pattern of pen strokes used can be analysed and stored for comparison.

Some pens include a Bluetooth interface and can be used in conjunction with a mobile phone to send data to a central server using secure HTTP. The deployment by Leeds City Council makes use of this facility.

Digital paper is paper that has been overprinted with a dot pattern. The miniscule dots are printed in a colour of ink that is visible to the infra-red camera in the pen. Other colours and types of ink are used to overprint information on the paper that is human-readable but will be ignored by the pen.

The dots are arranged according to a pattern devised by the Swedish company Anoto, and the arrangement of the dots varies across the surface of the paper. The paper is divided into 2mm x 2mm squares, each square contains a particular dot pattern. The specific arrangement of dots indicates the current position of the pen on the page.

Different dot patterns are also used to denote the type of paper or form in use. The Anoto system allows a paper area exceeding 4.6 million square kilometres to be covered with unique 2mm x 2mm dot patterns. This allows a very large number of different forms and types of paper to be in use, with the pen able to distinguish between them.

Digital forms are generated electronically and the dot patterns are stored on the server so that the data sent back to the server from the pen can be recognised.

The data sent back is used to recreate the pen’s movements giving an electronic representation of the form, and this can be made editable on-line (using a secure portal) to allow data review or corrections after the form has been initially filled in. Form fields can be free-text, or can be restricted to limited lists of values (known as limited lexicons) or tick boxes.

Ian concluded by outlining some of the benefits identified from deploying digital pens:-

  • There is a low entry barrier; little training is required and most of the effort is associated with training users in the use of the mobile phone. Using a digital pen to fill in forms printed on digital paper is much like using conventional pens and forms. This minimises disruption and resistance.
  • Data can be sent back from the pen in real time.
  • Removes the overhead of ordinary paper forms having to be keyed onto the system.
  • The mobile phone can also be used as a phone! This aids communication between members of staff; text messages can be sent to social workers who are doing home visits.

The presentation was rounded off by questions and answers, plus an opportunity to try out some digital pens.