Commercial Products in the Civil Sector

Brainstorm Tools Advance Alaska's Child Welfare Program

The state of Alaska is developing one of the nation's most comprehensive child welfare systems, overcoming obstacles posed by its vast territory and legacy systems. As part of the effort, Brainstorm Technologies Inc., Cambridge, Mass., was chosen to design, develop and implement the state's federally mandated Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System (SACWIS).

The result is the On-Line Resources for the Children of Alaska (ORCA) system, which provides information tools to social workers and probation officers right at their desks. For 450 users, the new client/server system will reduce paperwork and enable workers in the field to report information into a central database on a more timely basis, said Steve Rice, Alaska's IS manager for the ORCA project.

In order to qualify for funding under the federal program, states must comply with the reporting requirements of the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). "With our previous PC-based system, we were capturing only about 25 percent of the AFCARS data, and expansion wasn't an option," said Ed Sasser, ORCA project director with the Division of Family and Youth Services (DFYS) under Alaska's Department of Health and Social Service.

Alaska's geography also posed a challenge. "Alaska is such a large state. The social workers are spread out all across it," said Rizwan Virk, president and founder of Brainstorm Technologies.

Brainstorm used a three-tiered client/server architecture, which allowed the software developer to be flexible in the choice of tools.

For the presentation layer, or user interface, Brainstorm used Microsoft Corp.'s Visual Basic, a rapid application development environment. Microsoft OLE servers were implemented at the functional layer, where the business logic is incorporated. Rules, such as the amount of welfare payments, can be changed at this layer without necessarily affecting the user interface code.

For the database layer, Brainstorm used Microsoft Access for the first phase of the project and Microsoft SQL Server for the second. Originally, the database was going to be Lotus Notes, Virk explained. But they realized that a relational database would be the appropriate choice. According to Virk, swapping databases didn't significantly affect the proj-ect's schedule. Also, the use of rapid application development techniques-Brainstorm's hallmark-moved the project quickly.

The state also had to deal with the human-factors impact of rapid application development. "Our challenge was making people aware of the technique," Sasser said. "A lot of our users weren't used to seeing something they're capable of changing."

Sasser said he sees Alaska's SACWIS program as more comprehensive than those existing in other states. "Our program deals not only with child welfare but also several facets of youth correction and the payment system." The social worker will have access to more information about the child and family with the integrated system, Virk said.

ORCA basically integrates previous mainframe systems under one graphical user interface.

The first phase of the system is expected to go live April 1. They'll still be testing the financial system for a few months after that, Rice said. Alaska's SACWIS project has cost $5 million, with an anticipated payback period of 44 months.

Pittsburgh Consolidates Financial System With PeopleSoft

In a top-to-bottom review, the city of Pittsburgh identified 46 independent financial applications in use across the city's government offices. The city's financial health therefore depended on developing a consolidated financial information system, said Steve Schmitt, the director of the city's information systems and its chief information officer.

Ultimately, the city decided it needed a client/server-based accounting package and selected PeopleSoft Inc. as the software provider. Pittsburgh has now licensed PeopleSoft Financials for Public Sector, a full suite of financial, purchasing, human resources and payroll software.

The software is customized specifically for government, educational and other nonprofit organizations, the company said.

"Several things are very unique about the financial management structure in public organizations," said Sherry Amos, PeopleSoft's director of product strategy for public sector. Work was done to connect the budget structure with general ledger, purchasing and payables in order to support not only budgeting but encumbrance accounting-the reservation of budget for future buys.

"Also, public-sector organizations use a different form of accounting," Amos noted. "All of the accounting regulations and requirements for tracking financial activity, referred to as fund accounting, are more complex. So we did quite a number of enhancements to support fund accounting."

Schmitt said he sees a number of benefits with the new consolidated system. He noted that it used to take the city four months to close the books at year's end, yet now he expects that process to be almost instantaneous.

Managing change was Schmitt's biggest challenge. Departments will have to disclose and share information. Some people will have PCs on their desks for the first time. And the project budget was slashed from $10 million to roughly $6.5 million. But, all in all, the new system is clear and concise and tells the story, Schmitt said.

ObjectSoft Adapts Internet Tech for Kiosks

ObjectSoft Corp., a Hackensack, N.J., software developer, is harnessing the technology of the Internet to improve the performance and features of information kiosk systems for the public-sector market.

The company, which got its start specializing in object-oriented software development, recently launched five of its SmartStreet kiosk systems as part of New York City's CityAccess program to bring government services closer to the public.

The SmartStreet kiosks offer New Yorkers direct access to information on where to find city offices and services, including health department information, and maps and locations of popular city sights.

The kiosks are essentially intranet systems that incorporate Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer 3 Web browser technology to access the city's mainframe and other servers. Applications for the system were taken from ObjectSoft's existing inventory of Microsoft ActiveX objects. Others, such as receipt printer functions and credit card swipe, were built using Microsoft's Visual Basic. Hardware for the systems includes a Dell Computer Corp. OptiPlex GXMT computer and a Lexmark International Inc. Optra R+ printer.The technology allows updates to be made remotely at all sites or to be locally customized where appropriate.

"The technology we are using is Internet over intranet," said ObjectSoft co-founder George Febish. "Just like a commercial Web site today, the content is separate from all our programs and therefore very easy to maintain."

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