August 9, 2009 By Merrill Douglas
When a government agency needs a new business application, it can meet that requirement in several ways. It might buy an off-the-shelf product. An in-house IT professional might develop the software. Or the agency might outsource the job to a custom software service. Which of those options works best is a matter of debate.
There's also a fourth option: the informal route. Consider the Surveying and Mapping section of the Real Estate Department in Hillsborough County, Fla. That organization boasts several employees who, although they aren't trained programmers, know their way around Microsoft Access. Previously when one of them needed to track projects, staff activity or other administrative details, he or she would whip up an ad hoc Access application.
Those databases and related queries worked well for specific needs. But as managers raised increasingly more questions, even when all the required data was available, staff had a hard time retrieving answers.
A manager who needed to report on staff utilization, for example, might not know that Employee A had been tracking exactly the data she needed. If the manager turned instead to Employee B, who had developed his own Access applications, the two of them might end up pulling information from two or more databases, moving the results to an Excel spreadsheet and then performing further calculations. "That used to literally take us a couple of days before we could crunch out an answer," said Jose Sanchez III, manager of Surveying and Mapping.
When Surveying and Mapping finally took stock of its Access applications, it found that employees had been busily reinventing the wheel. "I think there were 23 different databases. There were a total of 230 different fields of data, and 85 percent of them were common to each other," Sanchez said. In other words, most of the fields contained duplicate data.
Hoping to transform these disparate solutions into a more useful, integrated tool, two and a half years ago, officials in Surveying and Mapping presented the problem to Pat Cosgrove, manager of distributed processing in the county's Information and Technology Services Department. Cosgrove is responsible for business application development and enterprisewide support.
When a department needs new software, Cosgrove's team first evaluates what's commercially offered and buys it if the right product is available. That strategy didn't work for Surveying and Mapping. "We did not find anything out there that was off the shelf that met this department's particular requirements," Cosgrove said.
The usual alternative is to write the software internally. Unfortunately Cosgrove couldn't take on that project. "I didn't have the resources to address it, in view of other program requirements that were going on," he said.
A third option arose from developer Vision Genesis. Based in Reston, Va., the company says it can produce custom software in half the time a traditional shop would need to do the job, and therefore at a much lower cost. The company has largely been marketing its services to the federal government; the U.S. Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative conducted a review of its work this spring. Company officials were looking for a chance to demonstrate their services, so they offered to develop a new application for Hillsborough County free of charge.
Cosgrove doesn't know the mechanism Vision Genesis uses to develop applications faster than other software shops. "They didn't provide that information to us," he said.
To a large extent, that's proprietary information, said Mark Pomponio, CEO of Vision Genesis. But the secret has to do with the fact that the company's programmers don't develop a comprehensive, abstract design before they write code. "We start coding, and then our tool generates those other abstractions that are needed," he