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11/11/2003
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Integrating The Disparate To Find The Desperate

Here's how the state of Florida is integrating dozens of systems to help caseworkers better track children in their charge.

The Florida Department of Children and Families faced an integration hurdle on the heels of the case of Rilya Wilson, the child under its supervision who turned out to have been missing for 16 months. It needed to get more information into the hands of its caseworkers fast.

But doing so meant integrating information from drastically different databases. Florida has the largest mainframe IMS databases in the world, holding 40 terabytes of data, says Glenn Palmiere, director of information technology.

At the same time, it has key data outside IMS and in a different relational format. The department uses numerous Oracle and DB2 relational databases containing information that's also vital to caseworkers and child-protection investigators, he says.

Beyond the department's internal mix of 59 legacy systems and databases, there are 4,000 third-party vendors to the department's clients, from psychiatric workers to doctors and the Catholic Charities, all of which use a further mix of systems and databases. Without their input, caseworkers were unable to develop a current picture of their clients, Palmiere says.

The department tackled the problem with new integration software from InterSystems Corp., until now known primarily for the Cache database. One of InterSystems' specialties is taking data from hierarchical IMS or relational databases and casting them in a neutral format.

InterSystems' Ensemble goes a step further, taking the neutral format and treating it like a software object, a discrete module to which specific processes may be attached. Once generated, a data object may be moved easily from one point to another over the network and thus used as part of a Web service, says Trevor Matz, InterSystems' managing director for enterprise-app integration.

Palmiere says the data-handling capabilities combined with the Web-services approach was what the department needed. "Ensemble provides connectivity at three layers: from an application to a legacy application, at the data (database) layer, and the Web-services data-exchange layer."

The latter was particularly important for opening two-way communication with the third-party providers. About 420 of the vendors associated with Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services have been linked to the department so far. Some use point-to-point database updates and some use Web services to forward a form they have filled out, Palmiere says. Once received, the form becomes a software object that can be forwarded to another system. Such a two-way system was more difficult to achieve than simply pulling data out of disparate systems for reporting purposes.

The department, for example, is in the process of building connectivity between its child-protection-services legacy systems and school districts. The districts report attendance once a month to the state Education Department, and Palmiere's department can access those figures. But if a caseworker wants to check on a particular child, it can poll the attendance database in a particular district and get a response.

Thus, Ensemble is being used to build a data-handling system, called OneFamily, that sits atop the legacy databases and between the department and the outside vendors. The information they submit will be made available through OneFamily to caseworkers and child-protection investigators. The department is still in the early stages of extending OneFamily with five or six projects under way for Family Safety programs.

OneFamily was written in an InterSystems proprietary scripting language, Cache Script. The department's programmers were already familiar with Cache script because they used it with the department's Cache database. They met a tight legislative deadline to get the Mental Health and Substance Abuse programs of the department reorganized by reusing portions of Cache Script apps already built, Palmiere says.

As OneFamily is developed, he says, the result "is persistent, real-time connectivity, not just a data dump" to a reporting system.

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