The lost, found

Software sifts clues to find POWs, MIAs

To make sure its records aren't missing in action, a Defense Department command that tracks down lost military personnel is using archive management software.

More than 60,000 U.S. personnel remain missing from World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and various Cold War skirmishes. The Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, formed in 2003, seeks their remains for return to their families.

A searcher who knows a soldier's last location has a good chance of pinpointing the remains, said Heather Harris, a command historian who evaluated automated archival systems.

DOD documents, including service and medical records, military unit histories, photographs and maps, often can pinpoint the person's last known location. A forensic team then can travel there to pursue more clues.

The command finds an average of two missing service members per week.

Starting point

'Everyone who died in the course of a war had a file created for them,' Harris said. 'That file would contain pertinent medical and dental information, and information about their original loss. We rely on those files as a starting point.'

Keeping the files in order, however, proved to be a challenge for the 400-person command at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. They received more than 50,000 files on missing individuals. At first they kept a written record book to sign files in and out, and some files got lost.

Harris and her team began to examine specialized software to automate both archiving and checkout. They looked at programs for warehouse inventory tracking, library cataloguing and museum collection management. None quite fit the bill.

'There aren't very many software solutions for archiving,' Harris said, and they are better suited to, say, 'universities with 25,000 students. We had about 100 people checking out records, so we didn't need that large a solution.'

The fact that the command had to look at so many packages did not surprise Judy Wanger, executive vice president of Cuadra Associates Inc. of Los Angeles, whose product was selected.

'There's no standard definition for the word 'archive,' ' Wanger said. 'It's used in many
different ways. Anyone who has materials'it doesn't matter if they are files in boxes or things on shelves'will use the word 'archive' to reference them.'

Harris said she chose Cuadra's Star/Archives because it was scaled for a midsize enterprise. The software also could check materials in and out, a relatively rare feature .

All inclusive

The total system, including onsite training, cost just under $40,000, Wanger said.

A bar code on a badge will let personnel check files in and out by scanning with a reader from Symbol Technologies Inc. of Holtsville, N.Y. The full system should be running by the end of the year, Harris said.

The command's researchers currently are categorizing the 50,000 files by conflict, region, specific battle and other facts. More details can be added as time permits.

Wanger said that Cuadra had designed Star/Archives to fit the way archivists usually handle large volumes of material. Archivists tend to keep adding more descriptions to the same basic records, she said, and generic databases are not optimized for that kind of work.

The command doesn't have time to go through each file and record every piece of information before the system goes live. Instead, archivists will supply a basic description and go back later to fill in the details. Researchers will use a Star browser search tool to find documents outside their own file sets.

The archival application resides on a dedicated Dell PowerEdge server under Microsoft Windows 2000. Client software that checks files in and out runs on standard PCs.

'The software is running very smoothly, though I could always use 15 more people to input the information,' Harris said.

About the Author

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


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