Users get immediate access to FERC documents

Between two databases, the
commission has close to 2 million files available online.





The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is putting rulings online within hours of a
commission decision.
“People who want this information really need it badly,” said Bo Pierce,
software engineering team leader for the project.


FERC employees, law firms, energy industry officials, environmental groups and
universities seek out the documents, which include commission actions, rulings and
agendas.


Two databases let users access the documents via the Web. Previously, FERC gave users
limited access to documents and commission information through an electronic bulletin
board system that required users to dial into FERC headquarters.


Between the two databases—the Commission Issuance Posting System (CIPS) and the
Record Information Management System (RIMS)—FERC has roughly 2 million files
available online. FERC started making documents available on the Web in November.


For CIPS, the commission created a database of unofficial versions of the documents so
staff members can add meeting notes, agendas and other background materials.


FERC stores the 90,000 CIPS documents both as ASCII files and in their original Corel
WordPerfect format on a 166-MHz Compaq ProLiant 1500 with an 18G hard drive. CIPS’
Web server is a Compaq Computer Corp. ProLiant 1500 with 100M of RAM that runs Microsoft
Visual FoxPro to search and retrieve files. Users can search for documents by company
name, docket number and date ranges.


“We get about 1,200 users per day,” CIPS administrator Judy Martin said.
“And we update CIPS with new information three times a day.”


The commission is adding old documents to the database. Some date back to November
1994, Martin said, and FERC plans to add even older documents on an as-needed basis.


The RIMS database is similar to CIPS, RIMS project manager Ellen Brown said, but its
documents are copies of original official commission records. RIMS also uses heavier-duty
hardware than CIPS, she said.


FERC captures RIMS documents as .tif files and stores each page image in an Informix
database from Informix Software Inc. of Menlo Park, Calif. The database resides on an IBM
RS/6000 Powerserver 990 with 2.5G of RAM. Older documents reside in an optical jukebox
from ATG Cygnet S.A., a French company. The jukebox can store 1.2 terabytes of data.


In all, Brown said, RIMS gives users access to 1.8 million documents, or 5 million
image files.


RIMS had limited access through the BBS, when FERC stored documents on microfilm. Users
would find basic descriptions of documents, but they had to go to FERC headquarters to
pick up copies or request that FERC mail full-text documents to them. RIMS now makes
complete documents from as far back as 1981 available online.


For the RIMS Web server, the commission uses a Dell Computer Corp. 333-MHz PowerEdge
2200 server with 128M of RAM. As with CIPS, the server runs Visual FoxPro to search and
retrieve documents. When a user wants to retrieve an image file, the server converts the
image to a .gif file for viewing on the Web.


The RIMS database grows at a rapid pace. “We add between 200 and 1,500 new
documents per day,” Brown said.


Brown said the RIMS’ printing function needs improvement.


The TIFF-to-GIFF conversion lets users view and print only a page at a time, she said.
But the commission will soon fix the problem, Brown said.


Web access has already saved FERC money, even though it is just getting under way,
communications officer Kathleen Sherman said. The BBS required FERC to maintain a
toll-free number.


The Web system is easier to use, so fewer users call the help desk, Sherman said. The
same people who put the documents online run the help desk, she said, so they get
immediate insight into RIMS’ shortcomings.


The bottom line is service, Pierce said.


“Our job is to make these records easily available to the public,” he said.
“That has always been our priority.”  

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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