Alaska streamlines legacy system for background checks

Alaska is a place of extremes: vast expanses of Arctic tundra, the highest mountain in North America, and areas that boast a monthly average temperature of -21.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Employees in Alaska's Health and Social Services Department also had to go to extremes to conduct background checks: a 75-page fax for each case.

To investigate a case of child neglect or the credentials of a prospective employee, caseworkers and field agents need to consult records of the Alaska Public Safety Information Network, which runs on a legacy mainframe, said Steve Williams, an analyst-programmer with the department.

APSIN workers had to print out captures of about 75 screens per case and fax them, page by page, to the caseworkers, Williams said. Sometimes it took four hours to send the information. And the department runs about 20 background searches each day.

Not only was the delay frustrating, but the cost was huge in time and paper, Williams said. Sending a four-hour fax is dicey at best, and the harsh Alaskan climate made the situation nearly intolerable.

'In Alaska, people lose power all the time,' he said.

Williams decided to apply business logic to the cumbersome process. He used OC Visual 3270, a mainframe-access development tool from OpenConnect Systems Inc. of Dallas, to capture the APSIN records by screen-scraping and attach them to ASCII text files.

The files are written to a central, secure server and the caseworkers receive e-mail with the file numbers, directing them to the server.

Williams also wrote a background reader application in Microsoft Visual Basic. He and a team of four programmers developed the client-server app over about eight months. The savings in time, faxing and paper have been tremendous, he said.

'We wanted to keep it simple,' he said. 'Originally we designed it for Microsoft SQL Server, but text files were easier.'

Within a half-hour of setting up OpenConnect, he said, 'I was working with it, capturing screens and putting in the logic.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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