CDC's database project pays off in fast, paperless searches

In not much more time than it takes to read this sentence, an employee at the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention can find a record using the agency’s records
database.


In the past year, the agency turned the corner on a seven-year effort to improve
records management. It saw the time it takes an employee to find a record, or figure out
if it even exists, drop from three days to 20 seconds, CDC officials said.


“We have been in a paper world of managing records for a long time,” said
John Burckhardt, a branch chief in CDC’s Management Analysis and Services Office in
Atlanta. “We wanted to improve the process and automate the management of documents
that govern the management of records.”


In the 1950s, CDC developed a paper catalog to track records packed away in boxes and
stowed at federal records centers across the country. CDC employees used to call or visit
MASO and fill out a form. MASO’s staff would sift through stacks of index cards or
loose-leaf binders to locate records. A search took two to three days, and then employees
had to wait for a document to be shipped to them.


CDC employees now log on to the agency’s intranet from their Dell Computer Corp.
and Compaq Computer Corp. Pentium and 486 PCs, and they fill out electronic forms that let
them do full-text searches of 10,000 files via Netscape Enterprise Server 3.0.


MASO officials had realized in 1991 that they needed to do a better job of managing
CDC’s paper documents, Burckhardt said. “We relied too much on paper,” he
said. “So we decided to build a database and begin to use electronic forms.”


MASO said it could build the database in-house but was not sure which software to use.
It took three tries over seven years to come up with the right application.


First, MASO used Paradox from Inprise Corp. A six-person team by late 1992 created a
database and entered abstract data on CDC records stored at federal records centers and
the National Archives and Records Administration.


MASO developed an electronic search form using software from JetForm Corp. of Ottawa.
By late 1994, the system was able to handle searches for information on documents listed
in the database. But Paradox had its drawbacks, most notably that only MASO personnel
could access it, Burckhardt said.


So in 1996 MASO converted the index records to a Microsoft SQL Server database.


SQL Server still did not meet MASO’s goal of making the database documents
available to all CDC employees, Burckhardt said. “Employees also could still not
review or search box lists, and the JetForm software did not match up well,” he said.


In November 1997, MASO again began converting documents. It chose Basis, a Web-enabled
database management system from Basis International Ltd. of Albuquerque, N.M. CDC hosts
the database on a Sun Microsystems Sparcenter 2000 server running SunSoft Solaris 2.51.


Finally, last year MASO had a system that CDC employees could use to quickly locate a
record via the agency’s intranet.


“Basis lets employees get all the information they need in less than 20
seconds,” Burckhardt said. “They tell us they love not using the paper
forms.” 


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