By Timothy Cox
Apple's iPad has brought customers new ways to play games, surf the web, and check email. Now many states and local governments are investigating whether the computer tablet can help them save paper.
The Fort Wayne City Council is the most recent local government body to take steps to switch from paper documents to electronic ones using iPads, a decision that the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns says is no surprise.
"With Fort Wayne's recent recognition as an IACT Green Community of the Year, we certainly are not surprised at their innovative green thinking," said the group's deputy director, Jennifer Simmons.
The move is expected to save the Northern Indiana city about $10,000 annually and could make it easier for the city to share documents and other information with its residents.
The Indiana General Assembly is considering a similar move, as are governing bodies throughout the country.
The National Conference of State Legislatures does not have a complete list of the states that are using or considering a move to iPads or other computer tablets. But officials at the group said Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia are among those trying them out.
The West Virginia Senate launched its iPad program in August, giving members tablets with applications for viewing bills, resolutions and daily calendars. They were to be updated with programs for email and other applications.
"Not only have the devices proven fiscally responsible, they also will open communications throughout the Capitol," the West Virginia Legislature says of the move on its blog.
In Indiana, Sen. Brandt Hershman and Rep. Linda Lawson are members of a panel that is expected to decide this fall whether state legislators will try going paperless. The panel also has the option to extend its research.
Other states, like Georgia, are considering replacing textbooks in public schools with iPads.
But the most experimentation may be happening at the local government level, where officials are looking for every option to save money.
The city council in Hampton, Va., spent $4,200 on iPads for its six members and expects to save $18,000 per year that would have gone to paper.
The Redwood City Council in California spent about $7,000 on iPads and expects to save $36,000 per year.
And five city commissioners in Coral Springs, Fla., began piloting iPads in May to determine how the technology may be used for the city in the future.
"We've had no problems to date," said Curlie Matthews, director of information services in Coral Springs.
"The issue for us has been training the committee members on the usage of them and how to use annotation software that is new to them in preparing the agenda and reviewing the agenda," Matthews said.
Matthews hopes that the iPads will help reduce paper usage — and help with fuel spending and time management if their use is extended to city employees. Currently, the city's code enforcement officers do much of their job in the field but often must return to their offices several times daily to receive new assignments.
"We hope to use iPad devices to reduce that process so that the code enforcement person can do their job from that field and only spend a day (per week) in the office at the most," Matthews said.
Not everyone, though, is a fan of the proposals. Ken Bunting of the National Freedom of Information Coalition expressed concern last year that the use of iPads in government meetings allows private electronic discussion during public business. He said they shouldn't be used unless states or local governments pass rules that require actions taken on the device during each meeting to be public record.
The Redwood City Council approached Bunting's concern by prohibiting use of e-mail and text message via any electronic device during public sessions.
Simmons, from the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, said that iPads may not be the best choice for all small governments and committees.
"There is rarely one answer or solution," he said, "that works best for every community in Indiana."
The above is one of an ongoing series of reports from the Indiana Statehouse by students at the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism.