Business intelligence (BI) software is gaining momentum as a catalyst for powerful new automation in a segment not necessarily known for being technologically innovative -- the government.
Evidence of this trend was recently apparent at the annual users conference of New York-based applications vendor Information Builders Inc. Several of the company's government sector customers offered up stories of progress made utilizing business intelligence tools to collect and process large amounts of data.
NASA is already leveraging business intelligence software at its Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA's Shuttle Business Office uses BI applications to track relationships with the numerous contractors it interacts with during the pre-flight process leading up to a space shuttle mission.
"We're dealing with a wide range of data from a large number of sources in many different formats," said Ron Phelps, project manager at NASA. "Our ability to build an accurate picture of how the numerous outside contractors are performing is crucial to future success in the program."
Phelps worked on shuttle transportation system (STS) operations for more than 20 years before taking control of the BI effort for the Shuttle Business Office at NASA. He said the organization has been applying enterprise technologies to the shuttle maintenance and refurbishment process for over four years. Phelps said the first two years of the project, dubbed Insight, were primarily spent developing the complex metrics his department would run to generate BI reports.
He said the biggest hurdle he faced in deploying Information Builder's EDA, WebFOCUS, and Copy Manager applications was getting people in charge of various databases he wanted to extract information from to support the project. Hesitation on the part of potential end users and the intensive system of classified data at NASA also proved challenging, Phelps said.
"Getting the user community to understand their role in the project combined with the reluctance of some data owners didn't make it easy at first," Phelps observed. "IT is only part of the effort. Getting people to buy in when you deploy new technology, to change their practices, that's a tough road to hoe."
Phelps said that BI is only beginning to show its promise in his operation and that other projects are underway elsewhere within NASA. A goal going forward, he said, is to fine-tune the system so engineers can gets answers to any kind of complex query in 15 minutes or less.
Another BI approach
A different sort of BI user can be found on the island city of Richmond, British Columbia, where local government supervisors are using an advanced wireless system to monitor water levels that affect citizens' life on an everyday basis. Located between the Pacific Ocean's Georgia Strait and the Fraser River, the city would be flooded several times a year if not for a complex system of 35 pump stations located around its exterior.
Where maintenance crews would historically deal with problems in the pump system as they arose, today the city's engineering department uses a system based on Information Builder's WebFocus BI application to become more effective. In addition to notifying employees of breakdowns as they happen, the system is also helping the city build a model to forecast future performance. Preventative maintenance typically costs much less than emergency repair, city officials point out.
"You could compare it to home alarm system," said Edward Hung, manager of the city's Advanced Research and Technologies team. "We also needed to collect proprietary files across the system we had in place, to build a picture for the future."
Hung said it only took Richmond two months to deploy the Information Builders application working in conjunction with Hayward, Calif.-based wireless technology specialist AvantGo Inc. The software package cost Richmond slightly more than $100,000, Hung said.
Future goals within the project include planning the replacement of aging pumps and further automation of the city's various water systems.
Beyond its core product group, Information Builderes has developed several offerings aimed directly at the public sector including its iGovernment Suite, a prepackaged set of applications designed to accelerate organizations' ability to generate online transactions and build knowledge management capabilities.
Some of the other high-profile government customers Information Builders has attracted include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the New York City Department of Health and the Pennsylvania State Police.
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