Use Case: Improving city services

In 2005, we were tasked by the District of Columbia Department of Transportation to create an enterprise software solution that would help manage performance-based contracts to monitor the maintenance of street lights and parking meters.

For years, the city had been outsourcing services such as the regular repairs and maintenance of street lights and parking meters to low-bid vendors, but experienced substandard results. Timely, pro-active maintenance that would ensure safety (via working street lights) and steady revenue (via working parking meters) was important to serving the city’s constituents. The city decided there must be a better way to motivate vendors to become attentive to what mattered most: delivering quality services on time, addressing the need of monitoring vendor performance by building performance metrics into the software.

The Challenge…

The city wanted to be able to monitor contract details, many of which were found in 1000+ page contracts for city services, yet have the flexibility to alter nuances when the contract renewed. Depending on the problems diagnosed by the field technicians, the solution could have different timelines and criteria for penalties, which then had different fees depending on the degree of lateness.

Next, the city wanted report cards, pre-formatted templates that would display performance metrics at the click of a button. Report cards would also be used to assess penalties on vendors who did not meet their work commitments. The report cards must produce any or all of the performance metrics as articulated from each vendor’s contract.

The city wanted the solution to be transparent. The detailed backup of any summary or report card result needed to be available at the click of a button. In effect, all supporting evidence of successes or failures needed to be available at all times to both vendors and the district contract managers. If the vendor exceeded their mandates for a specified period of time, they would be rewarded by the city.

The city also wanted the solution to be web-based and hosted outside of the DC intranet environment. DC did not want to be in the “hosting business” and wanted the contractor to manage a hosted solution, providing all security and operation support.

Furthermore, the city had a long list of feature “must haves,” including the ability to automatically batch and/or transfer daily data to and from other district-owned systems (call center and work order systems) and vendor field work systems. It also needed to display field work activity on a map using Google Maps’ API. The data entry needed to be minimal and easy for a diverse range of user computer literacy. “Easy button” style features to minimize keystrokes, mouse-over help and Q&A style input was needed to maintain a high degree of accuracy. The city needed to be able to extract data for reports – in nearly unlimited ways without requiring a programmer. The city wanted to easily accommodate new reports, and have a standard fare of pre-formatted templates and to have easy access to commonly referenced links – that would link to other websites.

The Approach & Solution…

After a careful review of the contract-based performance metrics for both street lights and parking meters, we discovered several common denominators. These common denominator issues were quick turnaround of work, timelines for completion, penalties for each day late, and overall operability as a percentage of the total inventory. We found that these variables could be constructed into a table, allowing the algorithms to be dynamic. This meant that the city would be able to adjust the performance measures, remove or add new ones without requiring programmatic support. This solved the Report Card challenges, since all algorithms could be constructed based on the values stored in the data.

Next, we evaluated the need for flexible reporting. We concluded that the best route for the city was to be able to search, filter, and sort and group nearly every field and metric from the data set, but in an intuitive way. More data choices could easily translate to more difficulty for the end users, so to alleviate this problem we opted to use what the users were most familiar with. Since users were comfortable using desktop spreadsheets, we provided them with output that simulated a spreadsheet, with columns that could easily be moved, added, or (temporarily) removed, filters could contain, exclude, start with or equal, and complex “if/then” and “and/or” filters, which could be created by advanced power users. Similar to using Excel, we modeled the solution based on what the end users would find comfortable, and any “spreadsheet style” preference could be re-used by storing it as a template. This made the reporting options for users nearly limitless and solved the problem of ease of use.

To allow the application to extend its value, we incorporated links that the city wanted to reference via other websites into the data. With a table driven approach, the city could create unlimited links and make these links available to selected end users.

By the use of web services and XML, we constructed batch services that allowed for the seamless migration of data among city systems and the systems of their prime vendors. Depending on how the contracts were translated, some of the data moved in batches on a daily basis, while other data might be transferred in real time. We created alerts to allow the users to be informed of potential data transfer issues as well as routine successes, then built backup safeguards to allow repeated attempts to migrate data in the event that one of the transfer servers was unavailable.

As each vendor maintained their own “master” inventory of assets (such as an inventory of streetlight poles, or an inventory of parking meters), we provided hooks that allowed these inventories to be maintained “offline” (i.e. by the vendor’s systems) and then batch updated on a regular frequency.

We needed to find a hosting environment that could ensure the city experienced zero downtime, and therefore we knew we needed an ISP that was sufficiently large enough as to offer 24/7 support and be entirely US based. We also needed the servers to be configured exactly as our software specifications required, with mirrored servers, and top-notch security protocols. We found exactly what we needed in a solution that would fit the city’s budget.

Fast Forward…

In 2005, the first version of iSLIMS (Internet Service Line Inventory Maintenance System) was released using .asp / Crystal Reports and was delivered for use by street lights, on time, on schedule and exceeding the expectations of the city. In 2006, iSLIMS for Parking Meters was released and used to track and monitor parking meter repair performance. The iSLIMS solution for both street lights and parking meters shares data with various vendors including Xerox, MCDean and other city repair contractors.

In 2012, we released an upgrade that replaced Crystal Reports with a more device independent version that could be used on tablets, using the state-of-the-art DevExpress data grid functionality and incorporating Google Maps API features, which allow city assets to be viewed geospatially.

Summary of Solution …

  • Work order or project driven
  • Web based GUI (ASPX / .NET / SQL / DevExpress)
  • Managed hosting on US-based servers with 99.9+% up-time
  • Crystal Reports / DevExpress spreadsheet style data grids
  • Data driven links to other websites
  • Map connectivity via Google Maps API
  • Accommodates batch / offline data transfer to/from the city’s work order system, and vendors include Xerox, MCDean
  • Supports unlimited users, currently at 200+ users
  • Combines pre-formatted report card performance measure reports 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 installations: parking meters & street lights
  • Exports contacts (people) and organization data to XLSX, CSV, TXT
  • ODBC connection to MS Access
  • Manages multi-million dollar efforts
  • Allows for inventory, performance measures and non-project activities to be tracked
  • Initial web release in 2005 for street lights, followed by installation in 2006 for parking meters. Release in 2012 to replace Crystal Reporting with DevExpress data grids
  • Four-tier user permission hierarchy with different menus for different levels of access
  • User manuals and quick user guide
  • Continue to provides consistent and dedicated customer support (since 2005)

 

Cycon has been an IT software solution provider for the District of Columbia Department of Transportation since 1996  – supporting various projects with rapid turnaround, expert guidance and a focus on top notch customer service.  Cycon continues to provide software solutions for the District that positively impacts people and budgets in day to day operations.
Posted in parking meters, streetlights, Use Case, Website | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted in Snow & Storm Tracking, Use Case | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Use Case: Training saves lives

How one Utility Company commits to it’s employees

Early in 2001 we were approached by a utility company to design & deploy a software application that would help their employees ‘stay safe’.  The software would have an acronym “TRMS” which meant “TRaining Management System”, and the utility company had some pretty grand ideas for how this new software would benefit several thousand field employees.  They hoped that a renewed focus on training – would have a positive impact on employee safety.   And in this line of business, they could not take risks with employee safety. Continue reading

Posted in Use Case | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Project Management: Paying attention to what matters

Having worked 30 years in software development on projects that range in size from multiple years  — to those that take less than 1 week, I have my share of experience is knowing what works, and what doesn’t.  As it relates to managing projects.   Managing people.   And managing customer expectations.

The concept of project management has roots in engineering, construction and military defense projects.   These PM activities have taken place on an ad-hoc or informal basis for thousands of years.   Nowadays, project management is a buzzword that is all about specifying the best way to initiate, plan and execute projects – all within a date frame and budget. Continue reading

Posted in Agile, Project Management, Waterfall | Tagged | Leave a comment

How is your comfort level with the ‘cloud’?

cloudprocessingAre cloud solutions mature enough to meet the needs of security and privacy, disaster recovery, operational transparency and zero-downtime tolerance?  Can cloud solutions enhance the office environment by meeting the needs of next generation workforce, enhance productivity, and provide better scalable value over current solutions?

From a business owner perspective, we migrated our own business 4 years ago to cloud email and documentation collaboration tools, in an attempt to find answers.   We documented our findings, from the planning stage through final cloud evaluation.   We wanted to better understand the impact based on practical experiences, over research generalities, and share these relevant discoveries.  

Having researched hundreds of documents on cloud computing, we concluded there was a serious lack of operational analysis – necessary for any decision making.  Most of the available research documentation is either too general for guidance, or is biased through corporate marketing.  We wanted unbiased specifics.  We wanted to examine a case-study on “our terms”, one that reflected the questions and concerns from a perspective, before seriously considering how changes to the way IT services are currently operated and delivered. Continue reading

Posted in Cloud | Tagged | Leave a comment