by Laurianne McLaughlin

How One CIO Performed Database Magic in 6 Weeks

Jun 12, 20076 mins

Alec Palmer, CIO for the Federal Election Commission had a clear mandate from his business side: Our database presentation tool doesn’t serve the public well. Fix it. And he did, in-house, with no extra staff, for $12,000, in 6 weeks, using a map-based tool from Corda. Doesn’t fit your existing perception of government IT? Maybe you can learn a few things from his approach. And thanks to his project, any citizen can now learn who’s funding what presidential campaigns — much easier than was previously possible. The new interactive tool launches publicly today, take a peek here.

The FEC administers U.S. law regarding campaign funding, including limits and rules regarding donations by individuals, political action committees, and campaign groups. It also shares the relevant campaign funding data regarding presidential and congressional campaigns with the public. Prior to this effort, the FEC already had a database of donation data online, but it wasn’t pretty, says Palmer. If you wanted to do research, “you could do it but it took many, many steps,” he says.

The revamped database tool achieves a goal that many CIOs would like to emulate: Take key data for business side or external customers and present it in an attractive, useful way on the Web. The new database tool lets you click on a map of the United States to drill down on presidential campaign contributions by candidate name, state, or even zip code. You can sort the data in numerous intuitive ways.

So if, for example, you want to research how Rudy Giuliani’s contributions are stacking up against Mitt Romney’s in your home zip code, this tool is just the ticket. It’s also a good choice if, say, you want to see who your town’s mayor is supporting financially. All the data cuts and pastes to Excel. (Previously, all you would have had available was a list of contributors for each candidate, in alphabetical order, but not sortable by geography.)

In the late summer or early fall, the FEC will roll out a second tool, using the same technology, with congressional election funding data.

What’s interesting about this project? It’s not data that’s been buried. Several public interest groups, namely the Center for Responsive Politics are tracking 2008 presidential campaign dollars. Also, the New York Times has a similar campaign funding map, (coincidentally, built using tools from Corda, the vendor the FEC chose.) But the FEC wants to be the primary source for this data and now it’s presenting it in a much more useful way. An Oracle 10g database fuels the interactive map project, which was developed using Java (J2EE) and Corda for the flash-based map interface, the GUI piece of the project.

How did Palmer and his IT staff get successful results with the project? Here’s his advice if you’re doing a similar project, with the goal of presenting mounds of data:

1. Do lots of prep work with your business side. “We’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of brainstorming. You have to take the time up front to think how you want to present it.” The FEC got three new commissioners about 18 months ago (a 50% infusion of new blood) and Palmer kept in touch with them closely enough to know that they all were eyeing the public database as a candidate for improvement, to further the mission of the agency.

2. Get your database house in order and dump legacy systems that will slow you down. Palmer’s team was already upgrading from an earlier version of Oracle and dumping the last equipment from a “massive legacy overhaul,” to move the agency from aging DEC machines to blade servers, when Palmer’s business side decided to move on revamping public access to the database. He had also ensured that he had Java developers on hand among his staff.

3. Know what work to keep in house. “If I were to outsource this, it would be three to four months before the developers even stated working,” Palmer says, since he would have had to wade through an RFP and bidding process. In fact, the project could have taken 9 months start to finish, and cost in the high six-figures, if he didn’t do it in house, he estimates. “Get a core group of developers (in-house) and partner with people who understand the data from the business side,” he says. (By the way, the project required one full-time and one half-time developer, plus four other staffers gave it 25% of their time.)

4. Focus on core desires and skip the frills. The Corda OptiMap product was key, Palmer says, because it was simple and maintainable in-house, unlike other tools that he considered. But Corda can get more expensive if you buy many add-ons, he notes, so his team had to resist being lured into buying add-ons to support graphical touches that would have been appealing, but weren’t essential.

Architecure-wise, the presidential map application uses J2EE as a middle tier to process data based on business logic, then call a Corda API to pass processed data to Corda’s OptiMap tool and generate the map interface.

“We could have purchased the whole package, which would have required less development in house, but it would have cost around $800,000,” he notes.  “Instead we choose to develop the application in Java and we just used a small portion of Corda as a plug-in for the Map presentation.  The in-house development also allowed us to customize the application and this gave us more flexibility in presenting the data in a new and exciting manner.”

5. Identify ways to extend your project for the business. Palmer’s group is already working to extend this project to a new tool to help people search for images on the FEC site, including scanned images of campaign contribution forms. He’s also planning to use the tool to help people search for relevant advisories and opinions (documents the FEC publishes regarding legal decisions on campaign contribution questions and disputes.)

  6. Don’t be hemmed in by people’s perceptions of you or your industry. Government IT largely is not known for moving fast, but Palmer made it his business to encourage speed in his group’s IT projects. “Wherever it’s feasible to do things faster, I have tried to do that,” says Palmer, whose FEC stint is his first public-sector CIO role. Prior to joining the FEC, from 2000 to 2003, he served as CTO for Ciraden, an ASP serving dental practices.