STATE & LOCAL

Alabama at your fingertips

There's data, and there's information. Information is data that can be used. And if the data doesn't get to where it can be used, it's just…well…data.

That's the philosophy behind the Alabama Resource Management System. ARMS was designed to connect the data collected by various agencies — primarily at the state level but also from the private sector and other sources — and put it into a form that is easily accessible by all organizations concerned with child welfare.

"It is just good practice for local communities to have access to really detailed demographic data so they know where in their communities to put programs and to target their services," said Chris McInnish, deputy commissioner of the Alabama Department of Children's Affairs and a founder and project manager of the ARMS program.

ARMS delivers that data via a Web portal that allows users to access information from an array of state departments and agencies — including Education, Mental Health and Retardation, Administrative Office of Courts, Youth Services, Public Health, Human Resources, and the Secretary of State — in addition to the United Way and several private data providers.

Users can generate a variety of reports, including tables of data and thematic maps that display data geographically.

McInnish said the ARMS system, which is based on Microsoft SQL Server 8 and ESRI ArcGIS Server, has been a success in the year or so since it was launched. "We've had a really good response from across the state," McInnish said. "There's a hunger out there for information."

McInnish also credits the geospatial tools for making the information quickly and easily digestible by users.

"Our target audience is totally non-GIS, non-computer-literate folks," he said. "We had to find something that would work in Alabama with a population that we have who are very smart and really want to work together but who may not know what GIS means. And honestly, they don't need to know."

One way McInnish's team has made the application more accessible is by supporting different levels of expertise. Indeed, the first thing that users will see when they come to the ARMS home page is three buttons: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. If you click on the Beginner button, you're guided to prefabricated reports and maps. If you click on the Intermediate button, you're directed to tools for constructing charts from available data. And if you click on the Advanced button, you are directed to the tools for creating custom data maps.

Because of the easy-to-use GIS interface, he said, "we can show them, for example, not only where those people who are more typically going to volunteer to be foster parents live but also information about them — how they think, what kinds of cars they drive, what kinds of stores they shop at. It's stuff that businesses have been doing for a long time, but we've never really applied those things to social services."

McInnish said there was some initial dissatisfaction on the part of users with the slowness of the system, but he expects that disappointment to disappear with the recent introduction of new server software, ESRI's Flex API, which will cut the time required to draw a map from about 13 seconds to about one second. What's more, he added, "the functionality of not just allowing people to see one layer at a time but to actually get in and flip from layer to layer really quickly and be able to change the number of classifications in that thematic map, the coloring, the different processes for making breaks, is just incredible.  It's night and day."

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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