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Database saves needy folks shoe leather: Salvation Army, Goodwill among groups joining Central Indiana Community Network

September 26, 2005

Central Indiana boasts hundreds of altruistic churches, agencies and not-forprofits. On their own, they each manage to lend needy folks a helping hand.

But advocates for the disadvantaged know service providers could do much more working together. That's why four years ago they began planning the Central Indiana Community Network, an online system that allows human service and work-force development organizations to securely share information.

CICN launched in 2003 and recently added two not-for-profit heavyweights-the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana Inc.-bringing the number of participating organizations to 17.

"We have just started now to reach the point where the snowball comes down the hill and starts taking off," said Joanne Joyce, CEO of the Indianapolis Private Industry Council, which helped organize the CICN. "We're not at critical mass, but we're starting to move into that phase now."

The CICN was conceived by a diverse collection of advocates for the disadvantaged: United Way of Central Indiana Inc., Mayor Bart Peterson, the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, and almost a dozen other groups.

Backed by a variety of grantmakers, the project has a budget of $1.4 million, with about $800,000 of that already spent. Future grants are expected to underwrite continuing operations.

The concept is simple. To help determine what aid to provide, most human service organizations already gather a lot of information about the people they assist.

That information would be more useful if it were shared among many organizations. A person who needs food and shelter this week on the east side of Indianapolis may require work-force training next week on the south side. But it's a waste of time and resources to run through the same questions again and again at each stop along the recovery track.

The CICN minimizes that kind of waste and hassle. What's more, it can maximize the efficient use of resources. When one provider's available assistance runs out, it can look up another source of aid. Without the CICN, disadvantaged folks have to rely on shoe leather to find new open doors.

"You don't run people around town as much," explained Matthew Rager, who consulted on the project's development through his firm Rager Management Solutions. "You know where people are going, and they're expected when they show up at your door."

Execution of the concept was the difficult part. Most churches and agencies couldn't overcome technical hurdles. Nearly all of them operate their own internal computer databases. Few were compatible with one another.

Ron Brumbarger, whose Carmel-based Web development firm BitWise Solutions led the project, said linking the network's "last mile" to the various human service organizations was difficult. It required adjusting the interface for every new system.

"This has not been done successfully anyplace else but here," Brumbarger said. "To our knowledge, we're it. The other [attempts] have all gone down in flames."

Howard Green, social service director for the Salvation Army's Indiana division, is hoping the CICN makes life easier for the people he serves. But Green doesn't expect the improvements to happen overnight, in part because many service providers are used to paper processes.

"We've had to overcome that kind of resistance," Green said. "But if we stick with paper, in five or 10 years down the road, we'll be in the Middle Ages. We just have to bite the bullet."
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