Miami cops track crooks with Web services

Bad guys had better think twice before driving through Miami-Dade County. Police officers there will soon have a powerful weapon in their arsenal with which to identify fugitives. A Web services initiative will provide Miami-Dade officers immediate access to the county’s criminal database as well as to those administered by the state and the FBI.

Officers will be able to run a query from laptop computers installed in their patrol cars to determine whether someone they have pulled over is a mere traffic violator or a more serious offender. This venture into Web services comes as an answer to Miami-Dade’s integration challenges and its goals of expanding e-government services, enhancing county processes with technology, improving management of IT resources, and simplifying and standardizing the IT environment.

“Until we had mechanisms like Web services, almost everything was done in a point-to-point fashion,” said assistant director of e-technologies Ira Feuer, “which is very expensive when you’re talking about integration.”

Expensive and inefficient, as the county’s developers would have to create custom applications to facilitate queries by specific departments. The inefficient processes and lack of standardization engendered by siloed data were the impetus for the county’s IT mandate to standardize and streamline its technology and processes.

Wanted: Integrated systems

For three months, Miami-Dade County CIO Judi Zito and Feuer, together with their IT colleagues, searched for a strategy to integrate the county’s myriad mainframe systems and to improve access to the data and processes that had been encoded into those mainframes over the years. The county had spent far too much effort and expense on its mainframe platform and wanted to maximize its already significant investment. In addition, the stability and capacity of the mainframe made it an invaluable part of the county’s technology infrastructure.

“Believe it or not, the mainframe is the most reliable part of our architecture,” said Feuer, who is leading Miami-Dade’s Web services transformation. “We can predict response times pretty well, and (the mainframe) can handle the additional workload.”

Tracking the bad boys

In March 2003, Zito and Feuer hit on Web services as a potential answer to both the county’s immediate and future needs. Feuer and his staff had been considering approaches to integration, including various middleware components. They were also evaluating a technology strategy for improving county law enforcement’s access to a criminal records database on the mainframe.

“We definitely had a problem in our police mobile project accessing the mainframe,” Feuer said. The county’s criminal justice database was an old system that didn’t permit relational queries, like those needed to access multiple systems to cross-reference county, state and federal databases.

At that same time, the head of programming for Miami-Dade’s criminal justice system reported to Feuer that it would take eight man-years to encode the old database with all the necessary protocols to achieve the desired results. “That’s when we realized we had a big problem,” Feuer said, “because obviously we didn’t have eight years to pull off this project.” Feuer and his team regrouped, reexamined the problem and came back with Web services as a development solution.

The county mandate to streamline services and standardize the technology landscape, combined with the urgency of getting the police department’s database-access project up and running as quickly as possible, helped steer Zito and Feuer more quickly toward Web services. “We were going to (use Web services as an integration platform) in the next fiscal year, but the police access project moved it up,” Feuer said.

The ability to develop applications as Web services and share those applications with multiple departments, to reuse processes and coded logic, as well as to conform to emerging industry standards such as simple object access protocol and XML, were also significant reasons for choosing the technology.

“There are a lot of unique processes that have been coded into the mainframe over many years,” said Zito. “Re-coding logic that we could potentially be using over and over again just wasn’t a prudent approach.” Using Web services to develop applications that support county services is now a key strategy for Miami-Dade, said both Zito and Feuer, and it will be an ongoing process.

The police department’s application came at a provident time, as that type of system had similar technological and process requirements to those being considered by Zito and Feuer to satisfy their county-wide strategy. “We were looking at Web services as an integration point between disparate architectures like .Net and J2EE,” said Feuer. “I was trying to get ahead of the curve to integrate those two architectures, so I was researching Web services. I see it as a mechanism to allow us to share data between disparate systems and get information from multiple sources.”

That’s just how the police department’s information access system will work. Once a police officer has detained an individual, he can use the vehicle-mounted laptop computer to execute a query. That query will spawn another query with Florida’s statewide system and still another to an FBI database, known as the National Crime Information Center.

After checking all these databases, the system will quickly return a consolidated response to inform the officer whether he has detained someone who was simply driving too fast or is a wanted fugitive. The police department application is expected to be up and running by March 2004.

The first Web services application that Miami-Dade put into service was an application for issuing storm-panel permits, prepared for the building department. This was another speedy development effort, taking slightly more than three months, as Feuer and his developers pushed to get the application online before hurricane season kicked into high gear, which is when the county sees a high demand for these permits.

To get the application into service as quickly as they did, Feuer and his staff used ClientSoft Inc.’s ServiceBuilder software and worked with a consultant from ClientSoft, following a straightforward process. First, they loaded and configured ServiceBuilder onto the mainframe that housed the legacy database. Next, they created a Web services application using ServiceBuilder’s development toolkit.

Then, they developed the storm-panel permit application that would consume the Web service. Finally, they developed a front end that tied into XML transaction process data and put that application out through the existing Miami-Dade Web portal. This basic procedure is what Feuer’s developers will follow for forthcoming applications.

After the permitting application went live in July, the building department processed 24 contractor permits that month and 20 more in August, generating more than US$2,000 in revenue for the department. Those numbers may seem somewhat small for a county the size of Miami-Dade, but Feuer admits that once the hurricanes start rolling, many contractors don’t even bother applying for permits.

“They just put up panels and hope for the best,” he said. Feuer added that he considers the application a success, and credits its rapid availability and ease of use with encouraging contractors to follow procedure and apply for permits before battening down the hatches.

In line to go online

During the next six months, Feuer said he expects to have up to four applications under development using Web services, possibly including the background integration for a 311 county information call centre. It will feature numerous integration points, or connections, between the Web-based front end and the mainframe, said Feuer, as each call must be routed not only to the appropriate agency but also to the appropriate legacy application within that agency.

For example, if a resident wants to contact the county to schedule a bulky waste pickup, he can access a request form, available through Miami-Dade’s Web portal. But the scheduling and tracking application for sanitation department vehicles resides on the mainframe. Establishing a reliable, efficient connection between those two points is where Feuer said he plans to put Web services to work. “We’ve got a Web-based front end and an old legacy application, so that integration point will be done through Web services,” he said.

To determine which applications to develop next, Feuer and Zito have been meeting with IT staff members and department heads from other county agencies to hear which projects they will be requesting and to determine whether Web services would be the appropriate tool for the job. “We expose the technical staff from those departments to the concept of Web services and what it could do for them,” Feuer said.

After department leaders have presented lists of potential projects and those projects are approved and funded, they go through a technical review with Feuer and his staff. “If Web services is the best fit, we’ll recommend that for a project,” he added.

Feuer said he is also looking across all county departments to determine the functions and applications for which there is the most widespread need, such as a property tax application that could be used by numerous county agencies. He said he also expects some of the next applications to be focused on facilitating county employee self-service, including access to personnel, payroll, and time and leave systems.

To enable this ongoing development, Zito said she plans to reallocate staff and establish select developers for a special Web services group to provide development support. So far, Miami-Dade has invested approximately US$400,000 in its Web services development. Of that, US$150,000 came from the police department database-access project budget, and US$250,000 from existing training and consulting budgets.

Feuer and Zito reported that there haven’t been any major technological obstacles. The greater issues have been and will continue to be retraining and reallocating staff and responsibilities. Those issues will play a major part in their efforts to bolster the Web services development. “The approach is bringing people in for projects and training them,” Zito said. “It’s going to take place on a project-by-project basis.” She added that she plans to strengthen Feuer’s staff so that it can serve as a support unit to other developers within the county’s IT department and at other county agencies.

As the county gets deeper into Web services development, Feuer said he also plans to deploy Web services monitoring and testing tools. “We want to know when things are breaking, why they’re breaking and how they’re breaking so that we can troubleshoot them quickly and fix them,” he said. He expects to have such tools in place by the end of this year.

While integrating the county’s legacy systems and more efficiently merging data are the primary motivators for Feuer’s move to Web services, he is determined to examine every step closely before taking it. “We’re not just accepting on face value that everything is hunky-dory with the mainframe legacy systems,” he said. “If we see there’s a problem and it might be beneficial to just do away with the mainframe, then we’ll make that recommendation.”

Still, Web services is proving to be the most efficient and expedient platform with which to get existing data and processes online. “A lot of these agencies have a lot of legacy systems, and they want to expose (data) to the Internet, and we think Web services is the fastest and most efficient way to do it,” Feuer said. The ability to develop once and use many times is another compelling aspect. “A lot of the Web services created for one department can be used and shared with other departments,” he added. The property tax application is a good example of one with appeal to numerous county government agencies.

Using Web services to extract processes from its mainframe systems is helping Miami-Dade County get more bang from its mainframe bucks. “It extends the life of legacy systems. There are a lot of business processes embedded in those legacy systems. To rewrite those would take many years,” said Feuer. “We have a lot of very good legacy systems, and we want to leverage those as much as possible.”

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