Park Service turns to animation in the flash

The National Park Service's Chris Marvel, a self-taught programmer, has been a pioneer in adapting Flash to business information sharing.

Macromedia Flash, largely known as a Web page animation tool, is delivering lightweight Web applications for a regional unit of the National Park Service.

Chris Marvel, lead planner and webmaster with the service's Intermountain Region, has found Flash animation effective for sharing information with 3,800 employees spread across 89 locations.

Marvel designed one Flash application, the Park$ Budget Reporting System, to display the annual budgets of the different parks and offices. With only a browser, a user can log in to the agency intranet and call up a viewer showing the budget information. It displays a snapshot of what money is allocated, what adjustments have been made, how much has been spent and how much remains for the current fiscal year.

'I was able to replace 16 templates with one Flash movie,' Marvel said.

That data used to be difficult to access, Marvel said. Often users would have to phone the individual in charge of the budget to get a spreadsheet or make a database query, which quickly become outdated.

Live data

The Flash app draws live data from Structured Query Language databases, so offices can see a more accurate picture of their finances.

'Our budgeting is very complicated,' Marvel said. 'This helps everybody at each park look at the same numbers.'

A self-taught programmer, Marvel said the Macromedia environment was easy to use.

Flash Remoting MX, an application server gateway, connects Flash clients to a ColdFusion server, also from Macromedia Inc. of San Francisco, which packages the database figures.

The Flash environment keeps things to a minimum size, Marvel said. The budget reporting application is only 59K in size and requires no client software other than a Flash player in the user's browser'a 300K file.

The application is one of many that Marvel has built for the InsideIntermountain Intranet Portal with ColdFusion or Flash. Marvel also developed software for tracking the progress of various projects that locate expert divers or recruit volunteers.

'We would like to move a lot of our stuff into small widgets that really home in on individual apps for people,' Marvel said.

The applications and ColdFusion server software run under Microsoft Windows 2000 Advanced Server on dual-processor Dell PowerEdge servers.

From Macromedia's viewpoint, marketing Flash as a business tool is still a novel approach, as Flash is mostly known for short animations on Web pages.

'We made 'Skip Introduction' famous,' quipped Paul Madar, Macromedia general manager for server products, referring to the large number of Web home pages with fancy Flash-animated graphics that many users avoid. The company is now pitching Flash for business visualization, he said.

Through scripting, Flash can invoke methods from Microsoft's .Net, Java2 Enterprise Edition or ColdFusion-based application servers, which serve as middleware tiers to back-end databases and legacy applications.

Madar said the use of Flash in conjunction with ColdFusion simplifies development of Web apps. Agency developers tend to be 'more steeped in traditional coding,' he said.

Flash leverages the browser, which cuts down on coding time for user interfaces, Madar said. And ColdFusion can quickly build lightweight applications that don't require more complex frameworks, such as J2EE or .Net.

Macromedia itself uses Flash as the basis of other products such as Breeze'a multimedia training app that can show slides in Microsoft's PowerPoint format, among others. The advantage of using Flash over the actual PowerPoint software is that the files of Flash reproductions of PowerPoint slides are smaller than the slides themselves. Smaller files can be transmitted to remote locations more quickly.

Macromedia late last year introduced three suites specifically for government. They deal with rapid application development, policy compliance and simplification of Web updates.

Marvel said he is now soliciting ideas from park employees to use the intranet for other custom, distributed applications.

'If someone comes in with an idea, we can deploy a Web application and hang it off one of our pages,' Marvel said. Such small applications may play a large role in the government of the future, he predicted.

'Most of the things we do in government involve working with pieces of information,' Marvel said. His office alone collects and reconciles data from 89 different parks. 'A small widget designed in Flash can take care of that,' he said.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.


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