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JBuilder Helps Mercy Ships Stay Afloat

With a four-person development team spread around the world, the IT department of global medical charity organization Mercy Ships (www.mercyships.org) turned to Borland’s JBuilder 2005 and Together 2005 products to modernize its IT architecture and to take advantage of Web services and open-source systems.

Mercy Ships uses a fleet of hospital ships to deliver free healthcare services to the poor, primarily in the regions of West Africa and the Caribbean Basin. The organization has relied on volunteer help to provide world-class services to more than 5.5 million people since 1978. Mercy Ships also offers clinics and training in primary healthcare and has delivered more than $21 million in medical equipment and medicines.

Like any modern development team, Mercy Ships’ IT department is expected to do much with limited resources. Its responsibilities include processing volunteer applications, managing the Mercy Ships Web site and supporting fund-raising activities in more than 16 countries.

The IT department had utilized Informix 4GL for years for development, but as it began looking to the future, realized 4GL wouldn’t take it very far. “We pretty much made up our mind that Java was the way we wanted to go,” notes Kelvin Burton, CTO.

The team considered C++, Visual Basic and even Server-Side JavaScript from Netscape. “Our developers are often volunteers,” Burton points out. “Almost all of our staff are volunteers. When we’re getting someone off the street, what skills are they going to arrive with? No one came knowing 4GL.”

Mercy Ships needed an application that would provide a graphical environment and portability of the code. Java was attractive, Burton says, largely because of its machine independence.

“We like the way that the project can be shared with multiple developers,” Burton notes, an area, he adds, that is new to his team. “It means we have to get a lot better at documentation...It’s a pretty steep learning curve. The UML climb is the steepest one for us. It seems like learning how to document is harder than learning how to program,” he adds.

The use of JBuilder and Together has helped Mercy Ships develop PartnerShip, its distributed database application that manages all key donor relationships. Converting this to Java has made it easier for volunteers around the world to access and use the program.

“Everything we do is relationships with people,” Burton notes. “So we decided to have this core database that we plug all of our modules into.” Mercy Ships added human resources to the database as well. “We’ve got to ensure that we have the right skills at the right time,” Burton explains. The database helps Mercy Ships track who’s working when and what their qualifications are, as well as whether volunteers are up to date on their vaccinations and things like that for the country they’re working in.

“If anyone wants to come and help us, they’re welcome to contact me,” Burton says. “We’re always looking for help. It’s exciting what we’re doing.”

About the Author

Lana Gates is a freelance writer based in Mesa, Arizona. She can be reached via e-mail at freelancewriter@gates-works.com.

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