July 7, 2005

N.C. non-profit helps the disabled with LAMP software

Author: Tina Gasperson

Employment specialist and open source advocate Robert MacEwan changed his career plans after doing some "temporary" work at the Beaufort County Developmental Center (BCDC) in Washington, N.C. Now, instead of pursuing a degree in computer science, he's pursuing a path that makes a difference in the lives of developmentally disabled adults.MacEwan's career path may have veered in a different direction, but he hasn't abandoned his first love, technology -- specifically open source technology. In 2001, while attending a community college in Greenville, N.C., MacEwan and his wife had to move to Washington to care for her mother. To help make ends meet, MacEwan took a job with the BCDC as an employment specialist -- someone who assists clients in finding a suitable job. "We help someone find a job and learn the job," MacEwan says. "We work with them as they learn, and then you sort of back away and let them do more and more of it until they feel comfortable with everything."

MacEwan felt good about the impact he was making. He tells about finding a job at a local Target store for a client who wanted a job as a stocker. MacEwan even showed up at 3:00 a.m. to help his charge learn the ropes. Now, he says, the government does not have to spend as much to assist this client. "This client," MacEwan said, "is quite capable of working. He'll be participating like the rest of us."

After working for the center for over a year, MacEwan realized that helping people was more important to him than working with computers, and he decided to switch from a technology focus to a human services focus. But he wasn't leaving all that technical wisdom behind. Instead, MacEwan began using his computer knowledge to help the BCDC operate more efficiently and still remain within its budget constraints.

"As a nonprofit agency, we need funding and we just don't have the money for extras," he says. Since the center is partially funded by the government, it has to provide information and statistics for reporting purposes. According to MacEwan, "Gobs of basic information they have to extract by hand from a file cabinet."

MacEwan received permission from his supervisor to set up a pilot program. He used Ubuntu Linux and Apache, MySQL, and PHP software to create an intranet and a database of client information. MacEwan and his fellow department staff members could soon retrieve reports based on any statistic the government wanted to see.

"Now when we get a phone call and they want to know how many people we have from a certain county, or how many females of a certain age, I click a couple of buttons and get the information, instead of grabbing several people to start yanking files and counting," MacEwan says.

He created the database in WordPress and coded all the plugins he needed at home on his own Ubuntu box, and then transferred them to the server at work. "I wrote new fields for the database and started to populate it with the info from the files," MacEwan says.

In addition to the Ubuntu servers, MacEwan has an Ubuntu desktop. A co-worker in the employment department who is thrilled to be entering data instead of pulling files is running a Windows computer that MacEwan would love to migrate to Linux. "His computer always crashes and the email problems I've witnessed both here and in other locations... it's unnecessary."

MacEwan says his boss, the adult services manager, is pleased with the results of his trial and wants to implement his system in the production building, a larger area of the center where clients work to manufacture items for defense department contracts or orders from large businesses. According to MacEwan, "She was impressed that there is no extensive training required to use the system since the client software is simply a Web browser."

MacEwan plans to use another Ubuntu server to set up the production area, where the system will serve about 80 people. "We'll have to go with something really cheap. If we can't get a local company to donate the server, we'll spend $300 and buy one from Dell."

And when it comes to workstations, if MacEwan has any say in the matter, they will be running Linux there as well. "The GNOME environment is easy for people to deal with. I've had people sit at my workstation that are not Linux people, and they sat down and just did it," MacEwan said.

MacEwan says the new implementation should be complete sometime within the next six months, barring unforeseen budget cuts.

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