Leveraging the Computer in Everybody’s Pocket

Based on a presentation made originally to the New York FileMaker Developer Group on October 19, 2017.

At one of our higher education clients, managers and volunteers record student attendance at all events whether on campus or offsite. If students are receiving credit for an event based on the number of hours that they participate, we need to capture both the start time and end time of each students’ participation. Until recently, this was done with a printed list and clipboard and it required the additional time-consuming step of entering the attendance record in our student life custom application.

Our challenge was to develop a means of for ad hoc users to take attendance at university events in an untethered way both on campus and offsite using available cellular technology and the users’ personal smartphones. Here’s how we did it.

The Mobile Attendance Concept

University students already have student ID’s with mag stripes. The first route we explored was either dedicated hardware or “sleds” that fit various phones or tablets. The hardware was very costly, the sleds weren’t universal, and then interfacing with a web application had other considerations. Instead, we decided to use a combination of FileMaker WebDirect, barcodes, and Bluetooth barcode scanners. This solution was cross platform (hardware and software) and a native FileMaker Platform application and eliminated the need for any third-party products. We prototyped the WebDirect app very quickly, tested in the field and were convinced that we had a very functional solution for a reasonable investment. The prototype sold the idea to our client.

Development – Security

There were a series of other challenges that we needed to address in addition to the ability to capture barcodes. Security was a primary consideration. Obviously, this solution needed to connect with the main custom application and at the same time be SSL-secured and available to the outside world. A two-machine server deployment (both VMware instances with Windows 2012 R2) was required for both performance and security. The worker machine was placed in a DMZ with a firewall between it and the rest of the network. Since wildcard SSL certificates are now available on the FileMaker Platform, we took advantage of a single certificate for both machines.

The second aspect of security involves how people are assigned to take attendance. The idea was to email attendance takers from within the main application a link that they could click to open the WebDirect app and set the right event and attendance taker. We accomplished this by constructing the link with the program ID, the id of the attendance taker, the ID of the join record between the other two parameters. Someone must have all three pieces of information to use the app, and this was a high enough barrier to provide acceptable security. In addition, we decided to scan student IDs into records in an interim table and not directly into the main application.

Development – Design

From a design perspective, the WebDirect app solution needed to support multiple attendance takers taking attendance asynchronously at the same and/or multiple events. This meant an interface with a UI table as the front end and session globals set at runtime. Another feature request was the ability to invite someone via email from within the app to take attendance “on the fly”. This routine actually adds a new attendance taker to the main app and then sends out an email to them from the server to take attendance at the event. This gives the users the ability to add capacity at will.

Other features include a keypad screen that allows you to key in IDs if scanners are down or unavailable, and check in/check out functionality for events that need to keep track of the total time a student participated. Finally, student ID cards were modified to include scannable Code 39 bar codes.

Deployment

The solution was field tested extensively on both iOS and Android devices and deployed in August 2017.

As we neared deployment, It became clear that this solution was a great example of the convergence of FileMaker’s WebDirect technology with the fact that nearly everyone now carries a relatively powerful computer with a full-time connection to a data network. While on the face of it this may seem obvious, the opportunity for creating solutions that leapfrog existing turnkey technologies is real and compelling. We are fortunate to be able to take advantage of these tectonic shifts when we are presented with the opportunity.

To date, over 10,000 student cards have been scanned at dozens of university events.

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