For customizable apps, try getting vendors to take some of the risk

It’s a
common scenario: An agency needs a custom network application, but up-front development
funds are limited.

So the agency persuades a systems integrator to foot the development bill in hopes of
selling the result to other users in the future.

It has worked many times for many government departments. But when an application is
highly customized, the idea is a tough sell.

A project manager’s best bet for enticing a commercial integrator to share
development costs is to design the system from off-the-shelf parts, using open Internet
protocols for connectivity.

The Gwinnett County Judicial Circuit in Georgia went this route. The court got a custom
arrest-warrant system for just $10,000 more than the cost of the hardware and software. It
lets judges and police officers exchange, examine and digitally sign warrants during

Georgia requires that a police officer visit a judge after making an arrest to present
a warrant. The judge reviews the warrant and evidence and decides whether to sign the
document. Georgia law permits counties to handle this remotely if they can combine video,
audio, document management and signature capture capabilities.

In Gwinnett County’s case, Federal Data Systems of Marietta, Ga., developed the
electronic warrant interchange system. A company spokesman said the county paid some EWI
development costs, but Federal Data Systems picked up most of the tab in anticipation of
sales to other counties.

The delivered price was roughly $2,500 per seat for five precincts, the county jail and
the county courthouse. The total budget was about $45,000.

The video portion travels via a video link from PictureTel Corp. of Andover, Mass., to
video cards in PCs running Microsoft Windows 95. Client forms are stored on a server
running Windows NT and a Sybase Inc. relational database management system. An Oracle
Corp. RDBMS is also available.

Judicial signatures are captured via software from PenOp Inc. of New York and digitizer
tablets from Wacom Technology Corp. of Vancouver, Wash.

The video connections are point to point, meaning participants connect to each other
instead of through a central server. Arresting officers sign on with passwords and fill
out the necessary forms before connecting to the judges’ systems.

For the development version, Gwinnett County chose not to videoconference over the
Internet because of the sensitive nature of the information. Instead, it put in dedicated
Integrated Services Digital Network lines. Now the county is talking with the local cable
company about using cable modems.

Federal Data Systems also could set up such an EWI system for the Internet using Telnet
and data encryption. It could replay video evidence taken by a police car camera into the
videoconference and store the video for future use.

Federal Data Systems plans to market the EWI system to rural counties in southern

“When I was handed this project and saw the tiny budget, I wasn’t sure it
could be done,” said Allen Camp, a Gwinnett County computer project manager. He said
negotiating with contractors and letting them keep ownership of the code is the key to
getting a custom system affordably.

“In private industry, when you pay a contractor, you own the code. But I
didn’t think the county needed to be in the software marketing business,” Camp

Here are some tips for government offices interested in building a similar working
relationship with a vendor:

Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for
Cahners Business Information Inc. E-mail him at [email protected].


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