- By Barbara Depompa Reimers
- Jun 06, 1999
In city work, having as much information as possible on the history of criminal activity at a particular address could be a matter of life and death, especially for police officers, building inspectors and other city workers whose jobs involve entering properties uncertain about the risks inside.
That kind of information often is squirreled away in isolated, far-flung databases. However, at the urging of Mayor Tom Murphy, Pittsburgh has found a solution to database dis-integration, which has plagued city information systems departments across the nation.
Pittsburgh's City Information Systems, working with a local firm, Cerebellum Software Inc., created a Java-based solution that enables police dispatchers to pull information about a single address from city data repositories, including 911 records, building permits, police actions and even complaints that have been filed to the Mayor's Service Center.
In building the application, dubbed Street Smarts, the city has arrived at a solution that has become the Holy Grail of many state and local government IS shops: a consolidated view of all data in the enterprise. Over time, most organizations have added a different system and database for each application.
"We had no cost-effective, time-efficient way to integrate our data or build applications from data stored throughout the enterprise," said John Staudacher, Pittsburgh's chief information officer.
Starting last fall with a $10,000 investment, Staudacher has worked with Cerebellum to implement Street Smarts, which enables police and emergency personnel to access crime history and address information stored in multiple databases. The company, started by two recent Carnegie Mellon University graduates, produces a database-independent programming tool that reduces the data access and integration work that often slows application development.
"We were planning to integrate all databases on Oracle. But we simply weren't pleased with Oracle [Corp.'s] application development tools because they made it difficult to connect to anything other than Oracle databases," Staudacher said. "And they were time-
consuming and difficult to set up and use. We considered it important to find a product that may be used by all kinds of users, not just IT programmers."
Street Smarts includes an internal World Wide Web interface that enables users to perform database searches by selecting specific criteria. For instance, police officers can view information on burglaries that have been reported for a zone or address. They also can view crimes committed in the past 24 hours and search for the history of a particular address. Other types of searches are being added regularly, Staudacher said.
Before the system, police commanders typically had to call to the CIS department to request information about an address. CIS then would write queries to extract the data from several data sources, including an Oracle7 database on a Sun Microsystems Inc. Enterprise 450 Server, an Oracle5 database on an AT&T 3B2 server, a Btrieve database on a Novell Inc. NetWare server and a proprietary network database on an aging Bull system. A request for information about a single address would be merged, sorted and delivered on paper to the police commander. The process usually took anywhere from several hours to several days. The new system turns queries around in a few minutes or less.
"Now we save several hours per week," said John Rowntree, chief of communications for Pittsburgh's Public Safety Department. "But that's only the tip of the iceberg." The system gives his department flexibility in responding to inquiries from police and fire departments, emergency medical services, internal affairs, insurance agents and reporters.
"Before, we had to gather as much information as possible from the caller, and if they weren't sure of the number of 911 emergency calls, the dates or the nature of those calls, the search was that much more difficult," Rowntree said. "Now, our computer-aided dispatch system is tied to police records and the Mayor's Service Center, so we can supply a complete, accurate history of all types of calls made to any address."
Costs and Benefits
Cerebellum's solution provides access to data in any database, on any server. "The new system uses one interface to generate code so that you don't need to understand the intricacies of any single database system," said Eric Boduch, president and co-founder of the company.
According to its developers, the tool helps hold down the cost of maintaining programming resources. "Rather than spending $250 per hour for strong Oracle DB software engineering help, we've engineered this tool to hide the complexities of the database," Boduch said.
CIS now has a more flexible environment to build new applications. For instance, Staudacher said the city can perform trend analysis and create reports that were previously impossible because there was no way to sort data from each database. "In addition to viewing crimes in the last 24 hours, for example, police can look up stolen cars in the last seven days," Staudacher said.
CIS is planning to tie the tax records system into the building permit database so tax records can be checked before building permits are issued, he said.
The challenge is being able to support the system, Staudacher said. "Most users are skeptical, but once they try it, they typically want more." What they want more of is the analytical capability that comes with an enterprise view of data. Rowntree said, "Paramedics are starting to use the tool to discern patterns so that if several calls for minor emergencies are made to the same address, about the same person, perhaps that person is in need of social services help, not just emergency services."
Or, "when a citizen calls to complain about illegal dumping and says he's called 911 or other services 20 or more times, we can verify that," Rowntree said.
Making the Move
Cerebellum 1.1 was in beta testing when CIS implemented the system last year. The development tool is written in Java to enable platform, operating system and data independence. The Cerebellum team installed the software and trained the Pittsburgh IT staff on using the tool to develop applications to access information from disparate data sources.
During the implementation of Version 1.1, Pittsburgh's CIS began replacing older hardware platforms with Sun Enterprise 450 servers. CIS also is migrating older databases to Oracle 7. The shift in servers and database software was easily accommodated by Cerebellum because its database-independent architecture is designed to handle such changes with a few mouse clicks.
Further, no redesign of queries was necessary in the transition to the new platform. "Cerebellum gives us unlimited flexibility for information access and application development," Staudacher said.
This year, CIS upgraded to Cerebellum 1.2. Pittsburgh's CIS will license Cerebellum this year and will pay for training, which will cost about $40,000.
There are about 30 users of Street Smarts in Pittsburgh. But that number could grow dramatically when CIS implements applications in 70 police mobile computers and teaches officers to use Street Smarts in the field. "The goal is to provide each officer with as much information as possible before they reach a specified address," Staudacher said.
Ultimately, Cerebellum's simplicity may be a driver. "It doesn't take a great deal of programming expertise to work with," Staudacher said. "I'd recommend it to any organization with SQL-based data, because it will work," regardless of the database or server, he said.
Barbara DePompa Reimers is a free-lance writer based in Germantown, Md. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.