Exploit the cloud, but save your data

Indiana agency uses cloud platform for search, but keeps its data in house

One of the big concerns government agencies have about cloud computing is the idea of their data being stored in the cloud, under the control of a third party. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources has avoided that situation with a cloud platform that makes information and records available for search online without giving up control of the data itself. Only the search takes place in the cloud.

The department’s Oil and Gas, and Water divisions needed to quickly and inexpensively develop online databases that let the general public, landowners, and oil and natural gas contractors search for information about well records.

Data-entry operators were scanning records for oil and gas wells into PDF and TIFF files and putting them on storage servers, said Scott Davis, senior Web manager with Indiana’s DNR. 

“I’m talking about thousands of well records,” he said.  “We needed a way to let people search for those records.” 

People who wanted access to the records had to call the Oil and Gas Division, and employees then had to research the information and send out paper copies or CDs. Otherwise, the public had to make a trip to Indianapolis to retrieve the documents.  

Before he came to work for Indiana, Davis was employed at a media organization that used Caspio, a platform-as-a-service provider that helps organizations rapidly create Web applications.

Caspio’s wizard-driven framework lets users build online applications, databases and forms easily without a lot of programming, which is why Davis recommended that the Department of Natural Resources use the company’s products and services to quickly build databases.

After a pilot program test, DNR transferred into a regular account with Caspio.

DNR put the records on a server, indexed them and put the index into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, which is routinely updated, so people can search and view records.

“Now, the records themselves are still on our own servers,” Davis said.  “We don’t store the records on the Caspio server. The only thing we are storing there is the index, which we have a backup of.” That makes for easier management of the index, he said.

Basically, people can search by permit numbers, the Indiana Geographic System ID, county, the name of the operator of the well or township range. The information resides within an iFrame on the Indiana DNR site, so it looks like it is part of the site, Davis said.

“A lot of databases that are developed individually don’t look like part of Indiana’s site, and we have to work with developers to get them to match or link accordingly,” he said.

DNR pays about $190 a month for the account, which includes 50 applications. Hiring a software developer to build a database would cost around $200 per hour, Davis said.

DNR’s Forest Division also approached Davis about building a database for its Classified Forest and Wildlands Program, which encourages timber production, watershed protection and wildlife habitat management on private lands in Indiana.

Forestry wanted a database in which people could search for information about where to buy certified timber.

“I sat down with the program director, who told me what she wanted to search for,” Davis said. Caspio interfaces with a lot of the data being entered into a Microsoft Access database and Excel, he said – a lot of the DNR’s data is already being entered into this database and spreadsheet package, he said.

The biggest hurdle is not launching a new application but data entry and updating information into Access or Excel.  As long as information is properly entered into the database and spreadsheet, wizards – which walk people step-by-step through the process of creating Web forms or complex applications – work fine, Davis said.

So the program director sent Davis a spreadsheet with the information needed to develop a directory, and within an hour had set up a classified forest directory, he said.

Things can get a bit hairy if they need to work with a site that has an image map, he said. The platform is good for directory information. Davis’ team has developed a database for the Division of Entomology and Plant Pathology, which is a directory that lists beekeepers who can move swarms of bees to designated areas.

Farmers want beehives on their land because their pollination helps agriculture.  However, to some people these swarms of bees are a nuisance. So the database connects people with beekeepers in their counties who can come and grab the swarms of bees and transport them to another location, Davis said.

With the system, instead of having a search interface, users have an image map. As you click on a county it pops up and gives a name of the person, phone number and contacts, which are updated frequently. The information in the database was built with Caspio, he said.

Previously, DNR would have just created a long list. The image map adds a bit of interactivity to the search, he said.

“These are just simple projects that we haven’t done before because it was cost-prohibitive,” Davis said.  “The Caspio platform is capable of far more interesting stuff than what we are using it for,” he said.

The Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) used Caspio Bridge to create an online application for grant funding in a matter of days, said David Milliron, vice president of government services with Caspio.

CJCC needed a database solution that would allow the agency to quickly develop an online grant application permitting state agencies to apply for new funds just released under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Programming from scratch would have taken too long, given time and budge constraints. 

Caspio Bridge automated the entire process, letting the CJCC team design, integrate and launch the application on its Web site, he said.

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