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12/27/2005
09:06 PM
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App Integration Will One Day Help Houston's Storm Recovery

But city officials wish the IT overhaul had been in place before hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast in August and September.

The City of Houston was five months into updating its aging procurement, asset management, and time and manpower tracking applications when hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast in August and September.

Mayor Bill White announced in August that the city would be one of the first to integrate its financial accounting systems with other city functions, including procurement, asset management, and payroll. The move would allow data sharing across departments and make it easier for the city to report on how it spends taxpayers' money.

The city started mapping out a mySAP integration project, called HoustonOne, with applications from SAP. As planned, the applications would swap data back and forth through shared Microsoft SQL Server databases. The first phase, including financials, procurement, and materials management systems, is due to launch July 1, 2006. When Rita appeared headed for a direct hit on Houston in late September, many city officials wished the implementation were further along.

"It would have saved a lot of work going back and setting up documentation of those storm preparation costs," says Earl Lambert, citywide chief technology officer.

After Katrina, Houston set up an emergency services call center and hosted 25,000 refugees displaced from New Orleans in city shelters, such as the Astrodome and the Reliance Center arena and convention center, and 200 private shelters. Houston officials decided to get them out of Rita's path and evacuated them to such places as Beaumont, Texas, and Lake Charles, La., to the east. When Rita hit, it caused moderate damage in Houston but devastated cities like Beaumont, knocking out electricity and creating a nightmarish set of problems for city officials as they sought to bring the refugees back.

"We had convoys bringing refugees back to the Houston convention center, then taxis to take them home," says Lambert.

The accounting for these expenses was buried in the city's 1980s-era asset management system software running on a mainframe. Its arcane reporting capabilities made it hard to summon up data. Yet the city was required to do so to meet federal emergency assistance requirements.

"Some key personnel have spent a lot of time and energy pulling out that information," says Lambert. One was Gary Gray, assistant director of Houston's finance and accounting department, and a key member of the HoustonOne mySAP implementation project. "Trying to get reports from legacy asset management systems hampered [Gray's] involvement with the SAP steering committee," Lambert says.

SAP Public Services Inc., an SAP consulting subsidiary, has a $15 million contract to implement the HoustonOne system and support it over a 10-year period. Many of the city's 23,000 employees will have access to the applications.

With the second phase of the application integration project, the city will implement mySAP payroll/human resources, and project accounting applications, which also would have made storm expense reporting easier. But that phase won't be ready to launch until Jan. 1, 2007.

While Houston officials say having the new system in place this year would have helped with post-hurricane management, some refugees might still be living in Houston in 2007 when the new software is in place. "With project accounting, it will be much easier to document what the city is spending on refugee housing. All the storm preparations and people's time could be logged into the system" and be available through standard reporting mechanisms, says Lambert. About 425 city employees are dedicated to providing refugee housing and the bill is running into the hundreds of millions of dollars, he says. And FEMA wants proper documentation for all of it.

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