August 31, 2004

Oklahoma non-profit finds open source OK

Author: Anthony Papillion-Saffer

Non-profit organisations are always looking for ways to better serve the public. But, with ever-shrinking budgets, it can sometimes be hard for them to even stay alive, much less expand services. This article discusses how one agency, ROCMND Group Home in Miami, Oklahoma, met that challenge through the use of open technology.

ROCMND Youth Services is a small, not-for-profit agency located in Vinita, Oklahoma. The agency runs a number of group homes and shelters for at-risk youth in five Oklahoma counties, as well as offering outpatient counselling and intervention to more than 200 children within the community.

ROCMND Group Home for Boys is located in Miami, Oklahoma, and serves at-risk male juvenile offenders from age 11-21. Through a seven-month in-place treatment program, the staff of the group home teaches life management and coping skills, stress tolerance, and work within a positive peer culture to move the residents away from a life of crime and negativity.

Because the agency and group home function in a highly regulated environment, it is necessary to keep extensive documentation on every resident, staff, staff-resident, and staff-staff interaction. This has been done through an antiquated and bulky paper-based system since early 1985, when the group home opened.

Each record must be handwritten, copied, sometimes in triplicate, and either faxed or delivered to the group home's executive office on a daily basis. Additionally, shift paperwork such as shift notes, resident sanctions, treatment plans, and other necessary paperwork is manually passed off from staff to staff and shift to shift. This makes keeping accurate records and sharing information among staff, administration, and treatment teams especially difficult, and drowns both administration and staff in reams of paper. It also makes effectively tracking resident behaviour trends and interactions over a period of time nearly impossible, given the volume of notes and other paperwork that would have to be sifted through to accomplish such a goal.

In early 2002, I approached the administration of the group home about reinventing their document system. I realized that we would need a system that overcame the inherent limitation of the current paper-based one but didn't overwhelm the staff with new technology. It also had to have a low learning curve so that staff wasn't wasting time learning the technology instead of using it.

In addition, my original goals for the system were:

Eliminate the need for nearly 100% of the daily and weekly paperwork that staff was carrying around and filing.

Allow information to be passed between staff members, the administration, and between shifts seamlessly and securely.

Better allow the treatment team to spot behavioural trends within resident-resident, resident-staff, and staff-staff interactions so that corrective action could be applied.

Empower the treatment team to effectively collate information from a variety of sources and from a range of times into an easy-to-read, easy-to-interpret format.

Allow documents to be "living" and changeable by administration with changes being immediately reflected to line staff.

I knew immediately that in order to accomplish any of those goals we would need a strong software system. It would need to incorporate the functions of a document management system, a statistical analysis program, and a data-reporting tool all into a single, easy-to-use interface. The interface would also have to be non-obtrusive so that staff would use it without having to lug around bulky laptops or tablet PCs.

Through several meetings with administration, the treatment team, and line staff, I learned that most of them were open to the potential of breaking the chains of paper bondage that they'd endured for several years. They expressed concerns, however, in certain areas:

Cost: It was obvious from the start that the system would cost several thousand dollars in hardware and software. The agency was unwilling for me to use so much of its yearly budget assembling the system that it hurt other areas of the program.

Savings: Everyone agreed that the system would be a great idea, but they were also concerned about how much money it would save. The agency was willing to allocate several thousand dollars to the project, but it needed solid evidence that the system would not only pay for itself but also continue to be an asset in the future.

Usability: Everyone expressed concern about having to learn a new computer system. Most of the staff had PC systems at home but few had worked with anything more extensive than a word processor, spreadsheet, and Web browser. The fear of something new definitely was present and needed to be resolved.

Portability: The last issue that had to be dealt with was one of portability. The staff was used to carrying around a clipboard, pens, pencils, and stacks of paper. The new system had to be no more cumbersome, and preferably much less so, if the staff were to use it on a regular basis. In essence, the technology had to "fade into the background" and not be obtrusive in any way.

After this series of meetings I was left wondering if such a system were actually possible and, if it so, at what cost?

Enter open source

By this time, I'd been interested in the open source world for a long time. Having been an early devotee of the Linux operating system, it was a natural choice for me to begin looking to the open source world to provide a solution to the problems we were facing. Perhaps a solution was already there and I didn't know it? At least I knew the tools definitely were there.

After nearly a month and a half of research, I finally decided and settled on a platform that consisted of entirely open software as the platform of choice:

  • Commodity PC hardware There was no need to go with expensive systems from big-name vendors. PCs that were adequate for this solution could be purchased for about $600.

  • Linux operating system I could either recommend that the agency spend more than $5,000 just for the OS and necessary software, or I could use a free, more robust system that was successfully driving much of the Fortune 500. It was a no-brainer.

  • PHP scripting language Over the past several years I've watched the development of PHP from a small, hardly used system into one that powered e-commerce systems worldwide. Even though I had very little experience with PHP (I was a C/C++ and Perl guy) I understood the value of the language.

  • MySQL database software Again, this was a no-brainer since I'd already decided on using PHP. MySQL and PHP are tightly interwoven in the open source world and PHP already has functions built in for access and manipulating MySQL databases. Round that out with MySQL being one of the most popular databases in the world and it being free and I was almost frothing at the mouth over this choice.

  • Dell Axim handheld computers Dell has a reputation as a technology leader and I'd used several of its products before (namely PowerEdge servers and Inspiron notebooks) so I turned to Dell when seeking an access solution. The Axim is a new PDA that includes 802.11b and Bluetooth technology already integrated into a lightweight, portable system that weighs about 6 ounces. They run the Windows Mobile operating system but are reported to be stable and rugged. Their $400 price tag was also attractive.

Now, my next challenge was to find a way to deliver the information and allow staff to manipulate and share it in real time. For this, I turned to a technology that was already partially implemented in the system and one I'd long been interested in: Wi-Fi network access.

I purchased two Linksys WAP11 access points and went about setting up a wireless network within the group home. The signal would need to cover about five acres so that staff could have access to the documents when they were not inside the group home, so I purchased a wireless booster which gave me the distance I was looking for.

I was now ready to deliver the information, but I had no software in place to actually do that!

Welcome to PATTS

Early on, I'd decided that the easiest way to deliver the content to staff was via a familiar interface: a Web browser. This, of course, kept costs down.

I set about sketching out a basic web application in early March 2004 and began actually programming the system my mid-March. Our deployment date was July 1, to coincide with the start of their fiscal year.

The software was completed, tested, and ready to deploy in about two months. It was fondly named PATTS, which stands for Paperwork Analysis and Trend Tracking System which, I believe, adequately describes what the system does. We are behind schedule in our deployment only because the PC system vendor has held up our server shipment and we are waiting on this last component to complete our full deployment.

When PATTS is deployed it will be a complete data tracking system. Staff will be able to track resident behaviour patterns over time, set behaviour thresholds so that when a resident does something more than X number of times, staff are automatically notified, create specialized reports visually graphing resident behaviour and progress, and have all paperwork about a resident at their fingertips for review, processing, and cataloguing.

The system can also recognize trends in "house" behaviour so that treatment team and staff can identify developing trends within the house as a whole and more quickly take corrective action and the system will be historical so that staff can identify trends over years or decades based on the systems analysis of the information contained in it.

After we do the official deployment of PATTS and have developed a track record through ROCMND Group Home, we are going to approach both the Oklahoma Juvenile Authority, the agency that contracts these type of group homes, and the State of Oklahoma, in an effort to standardize reporting and information sharing between juvenile facilities and state and federal agencies. So far, we have had a very positive response to those we've spoken to within the state system and are excited about what is to come.

Lessons learned

From this experience, we learned that cash-strapped agencies don't need to spend a lot of money to create or purchase systems to streamline their operations. The entire PATTS system will cost less than $5,000, including the software and all necessary hardware.

We've also verified how valuable open source technology can be to non-profits and government agencies that want to move technologically forward but find the cost prohibitive.

A system such as PATTS would have cost well over $100,000 to develop using proprietary software, operating systems, and database software. This would have placed such a system far out of the reach of most agencies and shortchanged both their employees and the clients they served.

Lastly, having access to pre-written source code for a number of functions drastically cut down our development time. Designing such a system without open source probably would have taken us eight to 10 months. Using open source code we cut that down to five and have a stable system that will hold up under even the most rigorous conditions.

In my opinion, it is foolish for an agency in need of a new software system or other technology to purchase those systems from proprietary vendors such as Microsoft, Oracle, Sybase, or any other large company. These companies, and most others, cannot cater to the needs of the non-profit because they are fully focused on the mass market. Agencies that purchase these products are forced into a continuous upgrade/pay/upgrade cycle and have to wait months to have feature requests addressed. Using open source solutions takes the power out of the hands of the vendor and places it squarely in the hands of the agency, where it belongs. That just makes good business sense.

Anthony Papillion-Saffer is a freelance programmer based in Miami, Oklahoma, and the owner and lead programmer of Open Source Strategies, a firm specializing in creating quality open solutions for non-profit and government agencies.

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