SBA SLAMDUNK: Michael Sorrento says his agency’s move to portable technology let field workers speed disaster assistance to businesses at a rate that’s several orders of magnitude swifter than the former manual process.
May 18 2009

He Shoots, He Scores!

Feds share how taking risks on IT — eliminating manual processes, reducing steps and delivering vsibility to strategic data — can deliver radical ROI.

All IT projects present risk, but quite often the risk of not moving forward is worse than the potential roadblocks.

Federal IT staffs understand this all too well, but don’t let it stop them from moving forward on deployments. A look at IT projects at three agencies shows how data consolidation paired with revising the back-end server infrastructure that supports users helped reduce the steps feds had to take to get their jobs done.

The Small Business Administration faced many risks in rolling out its new credit management system, but the biggest one by far was changing from a paper culture to an electronic one.

“All of a sudden, several departments that had little or no technology were now equipped with significant automation, so this was a major adjustment,” says Michael Sorrento, director of SBA’s Disaster Credit Management System Operations Center in Herndon, Va.

The agency met this challenge, he says, through comprehensive training, a phased rollout and realigning its offices.

The Disaster Credit Management System (DCMS) replaces a paper-based process in which field agents from SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance (ODA) would file paper reports and use mail or FedEx to send emergency loan applications to four offices around the country. SBA makes loans to homeowners, renters, businesses and nonprofits to help defray the costs of recovery and rebuilding after disasters.

Today, using Toshiba Tablet PCs with cellular modems, field agents calculate estimates and execute loan applications on their portable computers and transmit them to the central data center in Northern Virginia on the same day.

Assuming field agents have Internet access, a secure connection to the centralized database can be established, which lets field inspectors receive assignments and submit completed inspections of properties damaged by a disaster. The system also supports credit reports, queries of the status of an applicant’s federal debt and tax information, and verifies property ownership with title companies and courthouse records.

“The tablet also has a stylus that lets the field reps sketch a property and enter the exact dimensions of the drywall, carpeting and doors,” says Charlie Price, director of ODA’s field inspection team.

Worth the Risk

While rolling out new technology that the field agents never used before posed certain risks, the rewards were great: Instead of taking up to three weeks to receive and process loan applications, ODA can now approve loans in a matter of hours. Sorrento adds that with DCMS in place, SBA’s disaster loan program agents find themselves better prepared to get federal money into the hands of people who really need it.

SBA can now receive in excess of 10,000 loan applications a day. The most the older system ever received was 2,500 in 1994 following the Northridge earthquake in the Los Angeles area. Efficienices from the new system helped SBA approve more than $12 billion in loans in about a year — with fewer people — following Hurricane Katrina.

Explaining how the application process was going to change and delivering training were critical to SBA’s success, says Lauren Jones, an analyst with Input, a research group that covers the federal government.

“Software glitches can cost millions, but lack of adoption can make or break a project,” she says, especially on federal projects where the workforce tends to be older and can resist changing longstanding processes.

Months to Minutes

Improvement in turnaround time gained from a new system deployed by
MedVirginia and the Social Security Administration for processing medical records to evaluate disability benefit requests

Other agencies that balanced risks with rewards on IT projects include the Transportation Department and the Agriculture Department.

A series of back-end servers teamed with VHF receivers helped the Transportation Department gain greater visibility into commercial shipping traffic worldwide, and web and database servers helped streamline the Agriculture Department’s ability to track the inspection of agricultural products exported to foreign countries.

In the case of DOT’s Maritime Safety and Security Information System (MSSIS), the agency was initially responding to a Defense Department request for a way to track commercial ships in the Mediterranean at any given time. Not having a system that delivered that information presented both safety and security risks.

USDA meanwhile simply needed a way to streamline the application process that previously could only be done by manually filling out paperwork and sending it via mail to the agency. In some cases, the process could take up to two weeks to get all the paperwork submitted and the certificate issued, says Christian Dellis, a senior export specialist at the USDA.

With the Phytosanitary Certificate Issuance and Tracking system, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service can issue a “phyto” certificate via the web after an applicant submits a request online, Dellis says. PCIT also lets users track their applications.

Heavy Tech

Bryan Long, a computer engineer at DOT’s John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass., says MSSIS was first deployed by eight nations in 2006. Now, 53 countries participate. “We have 300 users at any given time and plan to spread MSSIS to Central America and South America,” Long says.

Through MSSIS, the government now has an Internet-based system that lets it view commercial shipping traffic in real time in the world’s most strategic waterways. Since 2004, ships weighing 300 or more in gross tonnage had to have a transponder that connected to an Automatic Identification System (AIS).

“While all the ships were required to broadcast AIS signals, there was never a way to bring all this information together so it could be easily viewed,” says Long.

Volpe’s team deployed three servers each at the Volpe site in Massachusetts; in Norfolk, Va.; in Naples, Italy; and at a NATO site in Italy. Shore-side VHF receivers capture the signals from the transponders and stream the data via the Internet to the MSSIS network. The servers aggregate the numerous data streams into a single real-time picture. Users connected to the MSSIS network can visualize vessel movements overlaid on nautical charts that use software developed by the Volpe Center.

Both SBA’s DCMS and USDA’s PCIT are based on more mainstream technology. DCMS runs on 37 servers supported by two Sun Fire E6900 servers hosting Oracle databases. SBA uses WebMethods for data exchange and a storage area network.

The USDA system relies on Windows Internet Information Services web servers and a Unix server for the database. Data is stored and retrieved from a SAN. JavaServer Faces technology creates web pages, and the Java modules (supported by Oracle Application Server) process user input. Users can retrieve data stored in the Oracle database and create phyto certificates as Portable Document Format files via Oracle Reports.

While quantifiable benefits in time saved and missions accomplished validate the investments these agencies made in IT modernization, both Sorrento and Dellis point to the buzz and good will the efforts created with users and citizens as equally satisfying.

“I’ve got e-mail from people asking me why we didn’t do this years ago,” Dellis says. They keep him thinking about ways to deploy technology to improve PCIT and create more efficiencies.



Photo: Darko Zagar