Use Case: A calculated response to Mother Nature

Prince George’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation required an enterprise software accounting solution that would help manage resources and costs when responding to emergency conditions that were unpredictable, uncertain in duration, unknown in intensity, and could potentially cost the county millions of dollars – all created by Mother Nature. Such conditions include hurricanes, tornadoes, ice and snow storms, all emergencies where being diligent, resourceful and cost effective matter, as they impact the safety of the community.

Our team designed and implemented a custom software solution (StormTrak), that embodied the concept of tracking event related costs and non-event related activities used to manage emergencies. Prince George’s County had a long list of needs, especially after a blizzard in 1996 that exposed serious gaps in service, a shortage of funds, and an inability to collect on potential FEMA reimbursements. The StormTrak accounting software would ultimately impact several thousand employees, keep track of each cost related detail impacting county funds, and deliver emergency services to hundreds of thousands of people in the community they serve. The county could no longer rely on disjointed stovepipe solutions, nor could they risk losing FEMA funds for the sake of the community.

The Challenge…

The county wanted not only a long list of features, but also recognized that there were likely features that would be beneficial that would be mandated by the Federal government (FEMA). One of the challenges was that FEMA could change its reimbursement guidelines at any time. Prince George’s County needed a way to be able to keep pace and remain flexible to support changing FEMA guidelines and procedures.

Another challenge would be the computer skills of the data entry and reporting personnel. Since the software would likely only be used during emergencies, there is the potential for long periods of time to lapse between storms. Consequently, the solution needed to be extremely easy for the user to follow, with built in “Easy button” style features and mouse-over help to minimize keystrokes and maintain a high degree of accuracy.

Then there was a need for the software to share data with other county-licensed databases, such as their personnel system, roadway pavement sensors, Fleet / AVL systems and the public website call center.

During the first of three major platform installations (1996, 2005, 2013), StormTrak replaced a series of paper records or, at best spreadsheet documents.. One challenge would be to convince the many different offices and agencies that the StormTrak software would not remove jobs, reduce job quality, or limit creativity, but would be in the best interests of all employees and the community.

Lastly, the county needed to be able to extract data for reports in nearly unlimited ways without requiring a programmer. They wanted to easily accommodate new accountability reports and have a standard fare of pre-formatted templates.

The Approach & Solution…

For the initial installation, Prince George’s County was using Oracle servers and desired an Oracle client-server solution. Knowing that Oracle development and updates could potentially be an expensive proposition, we prototyped iterative software recommendations using MS Access as a mock-up tool. This gave the county a visual representation of the finished product and allowed us to minimize the impact (costs) of potential changes in the long run during later development cycle(s).

To minimize the end user learning curve, we modeled the design of each data entry screen to use a clean, consistent format. This made it easy for users to learn the keystrokes behind one screen, which parlayed into the confidence that they could navigate any screen. We built in help text (mouse over) and popup help screens, organizing data so that the “required” content was easily recognizable and non-mandatory content could be found on secondary screens.

To address the continually evolving guidelines from FEMA, we made each field available for filter, sorting, and grouping, and summarized all numeric columns. We further took the date and time periods – and allowed the user to define a snapshot in time — which would extract costs for all activity that occurred within that time slice. All columns were exportable – making it easy to share the data for use in desktop applications.

To solve the requirement for sharing data with multiple systems, we allowed connectivity to the StormTrak dataset via XML or an ODBC connection through MS Access. The StormTrak solution shares data with  Fleet / AVL, the call center and with ADP maps, and can be exported to PDF, XLSX, CSV and RTF, allowing ODBC connections where needed.

Fast Forward…

In 2005 a web-based / ASP SQL StormTrak accounting solution replaced the Oracle product. The web-based solution expanded on the original version by offering more filter and data extraction options and extended its reach to any user who was on the county’s network (as opposed to needing an Oracle seat license). In 2013 an ASPX /.NET web-based StormTrak solution was installed, incorporating tools that help the users save their ad hoc reports to a “My Favorites,” and continuing to ease the work effort of users while expanding on capabilities that makes the software an integral part of the county’s emergency management toolset. Critical field functions have been upgraded to work on smaller screens (tablets, mobile devices). We provide hosting and management services on US-based servers, allowing 24/7 reach beyond the county network. We continue to provide consistent and dedicated customer support.

Summary of Solution …

  • Event / project driven
  • Cost accounting – tracking costs clustered by events or projects
  • Web based GUI (ASPX / .NET / SQL) using DevExpress
  • Managed hosting on US-based servers with 99.9+% up-time
  • Map connectivity via Google Map API
  • Weather retrieval via NWS (National Weather System) API
  • Supports unlimited users, currently at 200+ users
  • Combines pre-formatted and ad hoc reports
  • Ad hoc reports are fully customizable to user and can be exported to common formats (XLSX, PDF, RTF, CSV,TXT)
  • Multiple region / county installations
  • Accommodates batch / offline importing of data
  • Exports contacts (people) and organization data to XLSX, CSV, TXT
  • ODBC connection to MS Access
  • Manages multi-million dollar efforts
  • Allows for contact, meeting, and non-project activities to be tracked
  • Initial release 1996 in Oracle followed by 2 major releases in 2005 (web) and 2013 (web hosted)
  • 4 tier user permission hierarchy with different menus for different levels of access
  • Annual training classes provided / user manuals and video reference
 Cycon began supporting Prince Georges County beginning in 1996 as a software solution provider.  Cycon continues to partner with the County provide SME (subject matter expert) services and self-sustainable solutions.

 

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