HUD shares address book agencywide

In a move that should help eliminate redundant information and promote information sharing, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is planning to roll out a central electronic address book for scores of HUD offices nationwide.

HUD is developing in house the HUD Communications Manager, which will be shipped out to HUD's 81 offices in the next few months, said Dennis Peacock, senior computer specialist at the department.

Peacock said the application grew out of top HUD officials' need to have better address information for their mailings. By using the common address book, which will be accessed through a wide-area network, HUD offices can create tailor-made mailing lists for special projects and electronically send those lists to HUD mailing contractors, Peacock said. The new system will allow HUD offices to use key words to search across all public lists on the server to find, for example, addresses of all the mayors in a specific state or all the mortgage firms in specified ZIP codes.

Fax, telephone, mail and e-mail information for HUD constituents, such as the mortgage industry, governments and the public, now is largely stovepiped at the agency. HUD offices and divisions operate on proprietary electronic address books, and many of them have out-of-date information or information that can be found in other HUD databases. By creating a central location to store all the information HUD uses, officials hope the agency will save time, money and the embarrassment that can come when mail is sent to the wrong person.

"It's going to save some money by being purely electronic," Peacock said. "Hopefully, [the address information] will be easier to maintain than in the past, so the list will be more accurate."

Maintaining Individual Offices' Data

Offices, however, will still have the capability to individualize the central address book. Although each HUD office will use the common HUD Communications Manager application and store address information on a central server at HUD headquarters in Washington, D.C., HUD offices can keep address lists private if desired. Offices also may designate certain lists as "public" so other HUD offices can use them. Peacock said HUD offices can "shop" another office's list but cannot modify it.

If the product is a success, HUD may offer it to other federal agencies that want to centralize address information, Peacock added.

HUD information technology officials considered commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products to build a central address book, but they opted to create an agencywide in-house application because officials thought it would allow for greater flexibility. "To do some of the things we want to do, we just keep adding data elements and features," Peacock said.

But Carl Frappaolo, executive vice president of The Delphi Group Inc., a Boston-based IT consulting firm, said there are COTS solutions that HUD could have used. "[The products] allow you to define your tracking database anyway you like, so I still don't understand [HUD's] answer," he said.

Securing information stored with the new application, however, should be a concern, said Andrew Sung, a senior analyst at Input Inc., a market analysis firm that follows the federal IT sector. Sung said firewalls and password protection will be key ingredients in keeping the HUD Communications Manager information secure. Moreover, as HUD officials place all their addresses in one database, they should ensure that the information is backed up regularly, Sung said.

But Frappaolo said security should not be a major concern because a lot of the information HUD is gleaning can be found in phone books and other public directories. "I wouldn't worry about security because this is nothing more than contact information," he said.

Kathleen Adams, assistant deputy commissioner of systems at the Social Security Administration, said she sees no drawbacks to centralizing information but said an agency's decision to centralize data should be based on business needs. At SSA, almost all information is centralized on the agency's mainframe because the public tends to move around, unlike the mortgage firms or local governments that HUD deals with. A person may deal with several Social Security offices in his lifetime. "All of our client information is centralized because it has to be shared," Adams said.

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