In-Depth

OneFamily, one connection layer

When officials at the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) decided it was time to get the agency's IT act together, they knew they would need to connect 59 different systems to do so.

In the 15 DCF districts statewide, there were a "lot of different solutions" to the same 30 functions or so that each district performs, recalled Glenn Palmiere, IT director. Some used off-the-shelf packages for things like human resources; others used home-grown software. The DCF is a 24,000-employee agency, one of 25 major agencies in the state.

A big reason for the mish-mosh of IT systems was the way funding worked; about half the agency's budget came from the federal government earmarked for one task only. The dollars were allocated to a certain function so that enough IT manpower and machine horsepower would be dedicated to it and not scattered among many other needy projects at the same time.

This was the situation until about a year ago, when the DCF started outsourcing many of its front-line services -- counseling, case work for family safety, intake and monitoring of foster children, and so on -- to third parties. The idea is that the Boys and Girls Club, for example, already in the business of providing day care and after-school activities, could do that for DCF clients, too.

As more tasks have been outsourced, the DCF has needed to open its information to these third-party providers, so a counselor working at a mental-health facility, for instance, could help figure out if a family was eligible for federal financial aid for therapy or medications.

"One choice was to give providers full, direct access to the data layer, but then we couldn't control what they saw," Palmiere said. That would not work, since some of the information is sensitive. The next choice was to give the providers access to the app layer, but then they would have to know where the information resided on DCF systems, what it was called and how to access it. That was too complex.

So the DCF opted for a third plan: providing access via a Web services-based, data-exchange layer. The way it works is that the provider requests a certain type of information about DCF clients, such as financial information or consumers' histories with the state's mental health system. Once the request is approved by DCF, the IT group sets up an XML-based data stream and delivers that information when anyone within the provider organization requests it.

It is up to the provider how it is handled on their end, Palmiere said. The XML stream can appear on a separate screen in an electronic intake form, for instance, or as a pop-up field in another type of application. The beauty of this approach is that once the information stream is set up, the provider has the power over what to do with the data and how to incorporate it into their IT setup.

At first, XML was not part of the plan, Palmiere said. The DCF chose their tool, Ensemble from InterSystems, because it could help them connect quickly to their legacy systems. "We want to be as slow as your Internet connection," he explained. "We don't want you waiting on us to get your information," and Ensemble provides that speed. It also allowed for persistent real-time connectivity and allowed the agency's hierarchical IMS database to be viewed as relational by requests coming in.

As they were figuring out the architecture of their new application --dubbed OneFamily to connote one family of services and one family of data -- IT staffers happened to come across Ensemble's XML development features. In fact, XML was not even part of the initial list of functions the agency wanted its tool to include. But when they found it, "we said 'Wow, we have another function here -- let's try this out and see if people like it,'" Palmiere explained.

Another plus was that Ensemble can connect to either .NET or Java on the back end.

Now, when a third-party provider comes under the DCF umbrella, it takes about an hour to set up the initial data stream. Right now, about 10 of the databases are connected.

"We know that computers can't save someone's life or provide better service," Palmiere said. "But it can grab all the data that's relevant to a client, pull it together through a single interface and then allow the front-line worker to make informed and timely decisions based on accurate information."

Please see the following related story:
"XML tools: Who knows where or when?" by Johanna Ambrosio

About the Author

Johanna Ambrosio is a freelance writer based in Marlborough, Mass., specializing in technology and business. Contact her at jambrosio@earthlink.net.

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