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Pushing boundaries: technology streamlines crime-fighting for Australia’s Border Force

Australia’s borders were protected for thousands of years by its sheer isolation. But with technology rendering distance an existential notion, border defence and keeping Australia safe from external threats, is an increasingly complex issue.

It’s the challenge of the Australian Border Force, part of the Government’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Australian Border Force officers are tasked with ensuring illegal goods, including weapons, drugs, biosecurity threats and toxic materials, are prevented from entering.

It’s a complex undertaking given the raft of entry points into the country but no part is more difficult than monitoring Australia’s vast air cargo system. More than 170 million air cargo consignments were sent via Australia Post last year with a further swag delivered by private sector couriers.

Until recently, the process supporting air cargo inspections was entirely manual.

“We have one of the most secure agencies in Australia; this is critical given the central role we play in protecting Australia’s borders,” says Anthony Corbitt, Assistant Secretary for Operational Capability at the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection. “But we’re always looking at how we can improve our systems.”

The Australian Border Force is responsible for checking any air cargo items that are identified as high risk. Officers visit mail depots daily to check these items.

Prior to the implementation of their new platform, officers needed to manage up to 40 printed forms which required meticulous notes to detail the outcomes of their inspections.

After conducting their checks, officers returned to their office and logged the inspection data again into multiple systems.

“This process was incredibly time consuming for our officers,” says Randall Brugeaud, CIO, Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection. “Our mission is to protect Australia’s border and manage the ​movement of people and goods across it, so we are continually looking for opportunities to reduce the administrative burdens for our staff.”

Time wasn’t just a concern for the officers; it also affected consumers. If a decision was made to clear a parcel, officers would have to return to their office and log the details in multiple systems before it could be released for delivery.

“We needed to find a way to speed up the process while ensuring that we maintained the integrity of our systems,” Corbitt says. “We needed to deliver a solution quickly, we needed it to be practical and we needed it to be easy to use.”

Microsoft Technology partner, SMS Management and Technology (SMSMT), had been consulting on another project for the agency when it assisted in the design of a digitised and streamlined solution which leveraged the department’s current investment in Microsoft Surface devices.

The demo app allowed officers to more efficiently manage the inspection process, including enhanced functionality such as imaging using the camera on the tablet. The Australian Border Force recognised the value and swiftly moved from demo to implementation for air cargo inspections.

Working with Microsoft Consulting Services, and with input from officers, SMSMT built a fully fledged app, eBorderForce which ran on the Surface Pros.

Corbitt says, “We leveraged the Microsoft Surface platform to enable our officers in the field.

The devices are light and portable, and they enabled us to connect a range of peripheral devices which supported our officers in completing their tasks in the field.

Before we had the Microsoft Surface Pros with the eBorderForce app, the process was incredibly manual and time consuming. That has now changed.”

Shane Parsons, SMSMT, says, “By using an off‑the‑shelf solution like Dynamics 365, by plugging into Skype for Business that was already running in their infrastructure, and then using the scalability of Azure, we were able to produce a solution in just under seven months.”

The backend of the solution was built on Microsoft Dynamics 365. A highly scalable business application solution, Dynamics 365 could potentially be used across the entire organisation.

Built and tested on Microsoft Azure, the solution delivered on a private network as the agency’s data are classified.

Corbitt says, “We chose Microsoft Azure because it gave us the agility we needed to support the rapid delivery program.”

The solution has revolutionised the day-to-day working environment of Australian Border Force officers. Since officers no longer need to take manual notes which are later entered into systems they are saving up to 100 hours a week.

Danielle, an ABF officer explains, “Before, we used to spend one and a half to two hours just doing data entry, but that has been all but eliminated because we’re able to enter this directly using the Microsoft Surface Pro and eBorderForce.”

The platform also allows officers to use Skype from the same Surface Pro to contact other members of the team while they are out in the field.

Arie, the Inspector of Air Cargo Operations in Brisbane, says officers need just half an hour’s training to be fully competent with the technology. “What used to take 5 to 10 minutes in the office can be done in less than a minute out in the field, so it’s a significant time saver for us.”

An additional benefit has been the ability to use the data collected to establish more comprehensive inspection records which in turn improves future targeting.

“We’ve taken a paper-based process, which was very labour-intensive and created digital transformation using technology,” Smith says.

For consumers, the automation means that parcels can be cleared and released for delivery up to 24 hours faster than when the process was entirely manual.

Corbitt says; “The impact on the organisation has been significant. It’s enabled our officers to spend far more time inspecting goods and far less time on administration. In fact, officers now have up to two hours extra a day thanks to eBorderForce. What’s more, the streamlined approach means cleared parcels are able to be delivered much faster.”

The success of the app has seen it deployed in other areas by the Australian Border Force including sea cargo and seven international airports in Australia.

 “One of the best things about this capability is that it frees up our officers to focus more of their time on protecting our borders,” Brugeaud says.