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Public-Sector RFID

The technology promises to help national, regional and local governments around the world address an array of pressing concerns more intelligently and efficiently.
By John Edwards
Sep 28, 2009—Doing more with less has become a mantra for governments at all levels worldwide. As agencies strive to meet service goals while keeping a lid on costs, radio frequency identification is playing an important role in an array of public-sector projects. Some of these initiatives were funded and launched before the economic crisis hit, while others are being created or enhanced by a flow of stimulus money.

The relationship between RFID and governments is not new. For more than a decade, governments have played a pivotal role in RFID's development, pioneering applications in such diverse areas as military asset management, environmental monitoring and personal identification. Many national governments are employing RFID to track livestock so animals can be identified quickly in the event of a food recall or disease outbreak. And a number of city governments—from Boston to Moscow, Paris and Seoul—have deployed public transit fare-collection systems, which eliminate costly human intervention while providing increased speed and accuracy.

Now, in these uncertain times, RFID promises to help governments perform a wide range of vital tasks more efficiently. Some, such as keeping the food supply safe and fit for consumption, are still in the nascent stages. In Norway, for instance, the government has set a 2010 deadline for developing standards and policy regarding food traceability. The project is part of its eTraceability program, intended to increase food safety by providing visibility from the farm to the store. Similarly, in Hawaii, the Hawaiian Department of Agriculture has launched an RFID pilot designed to help track produce through the supply chain. Its goal is to provide traceability whenever food safety becomes a concern, as well as to create an audit trail that will help farmers, retailers and distributors monitor the movement of fresh produce.

Other applications—from monitoring homeland security to tracking library books—have proved their mettle. They are good examples for governments at all levels of how RFID can help facilitate services during these challenging times. (To learn more about the RFID projects cited here—which are too numerous to cover in depth—you can read the complete news report or case study on RFIDJournal.com.)

On the National Front
Despite tightening budgets, many government-sponsored RFID projects are continuing to move forward. "Unlike most other areas, government RFID is recession-proof," says Raghu Das, CEO of IDTechEx, an RFID industry market research firm. According to IDTechEx, the ongoing growth of the RFID market is due, in large part, to government-led RFID schemes, such as those for transportation, national IDs (contactless cards and passports), the military and animal tagging.

In the United States, most government-sponsored RFID initiatives are focused on two areas: military applications and homeland security. Recently, however, there has been a gradual move toward partnerships between the government and the private sector. In Europe, government-sponsored RFID projects have been widespread for the better part of a decade. These initiatives, often funded by the European Union, are primarily joint ventures between government entities—including universities—and private businesses. RFID ventures between governments and businesses are popular in some parts of Asia as well.

Even with the economy unraveling, RFID Global Solution CEO Diana Hage sees a bright future ahead for RFID and the U.S. government as agencies work to build greater efficiencies into everyday operations while simultaneously attempting to stimulate the economy. This means an expansion from military and security applications into a greater number of civilian-oriented projects, such as medical services and the environment. "I would say with the incoming Obama administration, you're going to see increased uptake of the service technology in some of the civilian-focused agencies because it provides all the same efficiencies, and now we can apply it to our local economy," Hage says. "It doesn't have to just be around military shipping." Monitoring food safety and enhancing public services, such as mail delivery, can also be helped by RFID-enabled technologies, she notes.
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