Military’s role in COVID-19 response drives forward development and roll-out of robust personnel tracking capability within the Defence Force, promoting greater accountability and Health & Safety in Emergency Response delivered with the help of strategic technology partner Zag part of Accenture.

Aotearoa New Zealand doesn’t have a specialist emergency response unit. When serious disasters like the Kaikōura earthquake of 2016 occur, we rely on our Defence Force to provide critical disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. The Navy, Army and Air Force come together to execute evacuations, implement safety measures, and complete damage assessments for the Government to inform their decision making.

A large-scale response is an ever-moving beast. Obtaining and supplying real-time personnel information to the Prime Minister proves very difficult, especially when internet infrastructure is impacted by the disaster. From the Kaikōura earthquake to the Port Hills fire, Whakaari/White Island eruption to COVID-19, there was an enduring macro need for validated, accurate and robust personnel tracking capability at the Defence Force.

About the New Zealand Defence Force and their role in the pandemic response
The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) exists to keep Aotearoa safe and secure. They advance our nation’s interests through military operations at sea, on land and in the air. Equipment and expertise support people and communities in need at home, across our region, and around the world. A combat-capable force, trained, equipped, and ready to respond every hour of the day, every day of the year.

The NZDF has been contributing to the All of Government response to COVID-19 since April 2020. It is the NZDF’s biggest deployment in recent memory, 4,500 persons involved, 1,500 engaged at any time in the ‘complex domestic operation’.  Personnel working in the Managed Isolation and Quarantine Facilities have a range of duties which include providing information to returnees, coordination between facilities and other agency staff, assisting with security, and oversight and guidance on procedures within the facility.

The challenge and business case for personnel tracking
In the context of MIQ facility personnel tracking, NZDF (and the Government) need to know who was/is at the hotel if there’s an outbreak. When the soldiers were there; their entry and exit times and locations. Not just for COVID-19 tacking and Health & Safety, but correct payroll processing.

“The intent was that NZDF Service Personnel involved in the COVID-19 response would receive their allowances concurrently whilst deployed on 6-week MIQ secondments; improving the employee and their family’s welfare by making allowances payable whilst extra costs and hardship are incurred,” says Alan Rivers-Milliken, Logistics Information Manager for NZDF. Most of the required data set was already known to NZDF; Personnel Details (Service Number, Name, Rank, Unit etc), the only new information that was needed to process pay and allowances was Location and Date Time Group for the Action (march-in/out; shift-start/finish).

To capture the soldier sign-in data at MIQ facilities, NZDF was using an Excel Spreadsheet. With Excel, NZDF was asking service personnel and their commanders to capture information it already had, and that redundant data was giving rise to unnecessary errors.

“You can imagine the human error manual data entry gives way to – all data entry, dates and everything, are subjected to mistakes, with a direct impact on payroll,” says Rivers-Milliken.

HQ was struggling with complex workforce management being run off multiple flaky spreadsheets and identified inaccurate pay and allowances as their biggest issue. They experienced a significant 10% error rate on pay and allowances.

“There was a huge workload placed on the entire chain of command – five sets of hands – to manually check the accuracy of records, yet errors still occurred. Then on top of that, there was additional handling effort needed for the remediation of these errors.”

Personnel tracking solution for MIQ facilities
NZDF decided to leverage its existing SAP system of record and SAP-Certified Neptune Software rapid mobile app development platform, engaging SAP Systems Integrator Zag part of Accenture (Zag) to deliver the Neptune Software application. The solution also saw the roll-out of new mobile devices with built-in scanners.

Deployed personnel are issued a COVID card with a QR code, a unique ID that links to their Personnel details in SAP HR. Upon march-in/out and shift-start/finish their card is scanned by the handheld mobile scanner. Location and Activity are captured by the app on the scanner (with locations options set by the Manager). The data is then transmitted to the HR system in SAP, where a report can be run for payroll processing.

What makes this possible?

The software:
SAP Partner Solution Neptune Software was used for the mobile application as it has vital capabilities to address NZDF’s requirements, including;

    1. works online and offline,
    2. uses SAP as the data repository,
    3. uses the native SAP Fiori user experience,
    4. meets NZDF security requirements, and
    5. has the flexibility of being run on Android or iOS.

Using Neptune Software means SAP remains the source of truth for all personnel data and users have the same familiar interface across all NZDF apps – Fiori or Neptune, you can’t tell the difference.

Uniquely, offline capability is inherent to Neptune Software; it captures scans offline, then when connectivity is available, syncs back into SAP. Although this is not needed in the COVID-19 response, this will be critical for other disasters where internet connectivity is not a given.

The hardware:
With Zag’s knowhow, Neptune Software runs like a normal Android app meaning simplicity and cost benefits for enterprise users as standard commercial devices can be used. Crucially, this opened the door for NZDF to be able to use mobile devices with built-in scanners. This was an important objective for NZDF as scanners were traditionally used separately from the mobile devices.

For its Soldiers, NZDF selected Chainway mobile devices which run an Android operating system and have a robust built-in scanner. Zag used a Cordova plugin to integrate Neptune Software with the physical scanning hardware on the Chainway device to capture scans within the app.

Removing the need to connect to a separate scanning device or open a QR code app greatly increases usability, speed, and reliability as there is no additional requirement for connectivity, no need to align a camera or charge/carry an extra item.

“If I’m perfectly honest, Zag is probably the best company I’ve ever worked with. Professional, good product, delivered on time. I’ve seen nothing but exceptional delivery out of Zag. We’ve got good working relationships with the people in there and it’s been a long-standing partnership.” – Alan Rivers-Milliken, Logistics Information Manager for NZDF

Pilot outcome and roll-out to MIQ facilities
Now that NZDF is automatically capturing march-in/out data from quarantine facilities, the typical errors associated with manual data entry are forgone. The added benefit of this is that the process is now contactless and minimises the risk of COVID-19 transmission between staff in MIQ facilities. From the 6-week pilot alone, there were stellar results and benefits seen.

The Soldiers “just love it”, they find the application easy to use and learn. “Training was provided, but in reality, we probably could have just thrown them the device and they would have figured it out in under two minutes, it’s that easy,” says Rivers-Milken. “Having the app and scanner in one durable ruggedised device that fits in a Soldier’s pocket makes it fast and simple. With the infrared barcode scanner, they just point and shoot, and it’s done in half a second.”

In terms of Soldier pay, errors have been reduced from 10% to 0%. That’s right, no pay issues were encountered (the target was a 2% error rate), so the solution has exceeded expectations. The last pay run for the pilot group was delivered entirely within 2.5 hours. “By eliminating the time previously spent on correcting and remediating payroll errors, the team is saving literally hundreds of hours, and that’s just from the pilot,” says Rivers-Milliken.

“The other great thing with this solution is having a single source of the truth,” and thanks to this, NZDF are experiencing improved, near-real-time, personnel reporting.

“In the past, HR had to contact each quarantine facility and ask for the paperwork for who is and isn’t on shift. Now, HR can see those numbers at the push of a button, as it all sits in SAP, they just pull the report at any point in time and see all the info they need in real-time. If a guy logged off 5 minutes ago, they’d be able to see it in their records,” says Rivers-Milliken.

“Being a simple app with the flow-on effect of saving hundreds of hours, eliminating errors – significant benefits – it’s just gold.” – Alan Rivers-Milliken, Logistics Information Manager for NZDF

Moving forward with Neptune rapid app development
Neptune Software is like SAP Fiori, once you have that platform in place, you can reuse it again and again. All the innovation on the platform is accumulated. “We had previously figured out how to deliver the barcode scanning capability in Neptune Software working with Zag on our inventory solution, so all that IP was already in there and available for us to reuse.”

Other departments of NZDF have expressed interest in the app and want to see the tech rolled out in their area. It’s already gone live in Veteran Affairs. What’s great is that it’s so easy to take this app into other functions and use it for other purposes within the NZDF; you simply set up each new mission as a Functional Location in the app. The same goes for any future disaster responses.

With Neptune Software in its toolkit, NZDF is mitigating risk through rapid app deployment, bolstered by Neptune Software’s inherent offline capability. NZDF can now reliably track response personnel and report these numbers to our Prime Minister, even when internet connection has been disrupted by the disaster. With the recent tragic eruption in Tonga and the devastating impact this had on their infrastructure, the criticality of this capability has never been clearer.