Doing a data round-up

When Allison Smith first met her client in preparation for her biggest job to date, she didn’t expect to be pleasantly surprised.

With several data warehousing projects already under her belt, Smith, an associate director and the head of DMR Consulting Group Inc.’s Ottawa business intelligence and knowledge management group, was ready for the problems common to data warehouse implementations – most of which stem from lack of planning.

And given that the client, the real property department of Public Works & Government Services Canada (PWGSC), was looking at tying together disparate information stored on aging systems on behalf of an estimated 3,000 users, she didn’t go in expecting this time to be different. Luckily, she was wrong.

“For a lot of organizations, it’s really the IT group that decides they’re going to build a warehouse. Or it’s a data mart built by one sector of the organization, and they try to bring in information from other parts of the organization,” Smith said.

But despite some initial “flip-flops” in real property’s plan, three months into the $6.1 million project, Smith said she’s impressed by the federal department’s planning capabilities.

“PWGSC has taken a broad, branch-wide approach to building this thing,” she said. “Compared to other projects, I haven’t seen that broad view taken to the implementation of the data warehouse.”

That includes day-to-day support from the business and IT management, as well as their willingness to look at the big picture and not just at short-term gain, Smith added.

The real property service of the PWGSC oversees all federally-held properties in Canada, including management and sales issues. Alan Trepanier, the service’s strategic manager in Hull, Que., said the department recently decided to “flatten” its management structure. As a result of that change, more employees in a greater number of departments are accessing the same information.

Trepanier said the process brought the PWGSC’s data inefficiencies to the surface, and eventually led to the $1.9 million contract with DMR. The Montreal-based outsourcer signed on for at least the first two phases of the implementation.

“Without a warehouse, each one of these information types would require its own individual inquiry, which would take an hour before one could even make a phone call to a client,” Trepanier said.

“(With the warehouse), before phoning a client PWGSC employees can extract a complete client profile, and know before they make it what the issues are, what projects are underway and what the status of the financial account is.”

Equally important, clients will be able look up their individual account status, something that hasn’t been easy to arrange in the past, given the sheer number of information sources at PWGSC.

But that level of functionality is still some time off; the project only got underway in September of last year, and will not be completed until September 2002. In the meantime, the data warehouse will be built in 120-day cycles, each portion focusing on a particular piece of information or user type. PWGSC’s upper management is the first group to get access to the warehouse.

Logistically speaking, a lot of ground has to be covered. Trepanier said the legacy systems, where most of the information is stored, features “everything from soup to nuts,” including hardware from Data General, IBM and Sun.

Although Smith is trying to work within the current environment as much as possible, she said it’s too soon to tell what can and can’t be kept.

Ultimately, PWGSC’s users and clients will be able to view all the department’s information via the Web. Tying it together involves the installation of a Unix-based Oracle database, the information extraction software PowerMart from Informatica Corp., as well as the entire business intelligence suite from Cognos, including the PowerPlay and Impromptu data tools. As the project evolves, DMR will add Cognos’ WebReport and WebServer tools.

“It truly is a full environment. It’s not just a database. It’s an environment that allows the data to be loaded, maintained, scheduled and then of course browsed and accessed by the users,” Smith said.

Some might view the timing of the project, which got underway only months before the Y2K rollover, as ill-chosen. But Trepanier said it’s never been a concern.

“By far, the vast majority of our Y2K compliance work had already been wrapped up in late spring, early summer of 1999,” Trepanier said. “So although we are in a period of freeze in terms of releasing new software…into the environment, developmental initiatives are still going forward.”