Langford licks data challenges with online collaboration tool

Roll out of Web-based document storage and collaboration tool is helping the City of Langford effectively resolve its data management challenges.

The new system has helped eliminate backlogs, accelerated document searches, speeded up tracking of repeat offenders by enforcement personnel, simplified data access for remote workers – and much more.

The need for such a system became acute as Langford’s population grew – along with its data management needs.

Once considered a quiet bedroom community, the city has experienced a sharp population growth, with the number of residents surging to more than 25,000 in recent years.

The city – located some 15 kilometers west of Victoria, B.C. – also had to cope with explosive growth in another area: data.

From council meeting minutes to bylaws and correspondence, to plans for creating a sustainable community, the municipality had amassed more than one million pages of documents.

Most of the information was in “hard copy” format, and Langford was quickly running out of space to house all that data.

A massive campaign to electronically scan and digitize information in the late 1990s, hit a few snags, according to Mike Palmer, IT manager for Langford.

To handle these “growth pains” the municipality decided to deploy a Web-based document storage and collaboration tool.

So two years ago, it installed Microsoft Corp.’s SharePoint Portal Server 2003 with a view to helping civic employees perform various functions over the Internet and quickly find information from across the organization.

The idea was not to enable municipal workers “find everything, but rather to help them narrow down their search,” according to Chris Radcliffe, senior information architect for Habaneros Consulting Group, the Vancouver-based integrators who configured and installed the system for Langford.

The new system enabled “uniform distribution of information” across municipal offices and to remote workers as well, Radcliffe said.

He said scanned data is loaded on to a “desktop-based search software product” that indexes the information using an alpha-numeric method that mimicks the physical filing system the city uses for its hard copy documents.

As the system was searching through a huge alpha-numerically indexed file, searches often took long and did not always return accurate results.

“As the volume grew, we found the indexing tended to break, and the users often received wrong answers to their queries,” the IT manager said.

From 2001 to 2004, Langford examined a number of storage systems but eventually settled on SharePoint primarily because of two key considerations.

• By 2005, the municipality had already scanned tens of thousands of pages of documents into tagged image file format (TIFF) and was determined to purchase a system that supported TIFF and;

• The city had other expenses to consider and didn’t want a system that required the purchase of auxiliary products in order to operate properly

“SharePoint indexed TIFF files very well and contained all the features we needed in one box,” Palmer said.

One critical problem the product solved was the absence of a unified data source. For instance, Langford’s planning department frequently experienced documentation challenges relating to re-zoning applications because documentation often came from multiple sources.

The documents were not well organized and personnel were often bogged down when they conducted searches.

Palmer said Habaneros helped them configure SharePoint to create a Web-based team site that planning personnel can quickly access to search for rezoning documents.

Through a “desktop dashboard”, users can also keep tabs of tasks and projects and track the various versions and changes that a particular document has gone through. SharePoint also helped Langford eliminate its backlog of municipal tickets and enforcement files. Prior to the implementation, tickets and by-law violation notices were manually filed.

Transferring the file to an online site accelerated searches and has enabled enforcement personnel track repeat offenders and keep on top of new cases.

The tool’s Web capability also lets remote workers access data on bylaw infractions on their tablet PCs while working in the field reducing the need to carry bulky files or a drive back to the head office.

“The chief of our bylaws office told me he was so happy because he got rid of his backlog and even managed to free up one hour everyday,” Palmer said.

According to one Canadian analyst, data search and indexing are the strong key strengths of SharePoint.

“The selling point of this tool is its ability to effectively index data and enable quick searches,” said Michelle Warren, research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.

She said the software product allows administrators to easily set up key word searches specifically suited for their operations.

SharePoint is also designed to enable simultaneous searches and team work, said Warren. “The software tool allows users to create team sites where they can search for data and work on projects together.”

The Info-Tech analyst said SharePoint is ideal for large enterprise deployment. The Microsoft product continues to be the leader among collaborative applications but there are other notable players such as IBM’s WebSphere and Grove Network Inc’s. Groove.

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