Hillsborough County, Florida, Outsources Application Development/Illustration by Tom McKeith Hillsborough County, Florida, Outsources Application Development Illustration by Tom McKeith

When a government agency needs a new business application, it can meet that requirement in several ways. It might buy an off-the-shelf product. An in-house IT professional might develop the software. Or the agency might outsource the job to a custom software service. Which of those options works best is a matter of debate.

There's also a fourth option: the informal route. Consider the Surveying and Mapping section of the Real Estate Department in Hillsborough County, Fla. That organization boasts several employees who, although they aren't trained programmers, know their way around Microsoft Access. Previously when one of them needed to track projects, staff activity or other administrative details, he or she would whip up an ad hoc Access application.

Those databases and related queries worked well for specific needs. But as managers raised increasingly more questions, even when all the required data was available, staff had a hard time retrieving answers.

A manager who needed to report on staff utilization, for example, might not know that Employee A had been tracking exactly the data she needed. If the manager turned instead to Employee B, who had developed his own Access applications, the two of them might end up pulling information from two or more databases, moving the results to an Excel spreadsheet and then performing further calculations. "That used to literally take us a couple of days before we could crunch out an answer," said Jose Sanchez III, manager of Surveying and Mapping.

When Surveying and Mapping finally took stock of its Access applications, it found that employees had been busily reinventing the wheel. "I think there were 23 different databases. There were a total of 230 different fields of data, and 85 percent of them were common to each other," Sanchez said. In other words, most of the fields contained duplicate data.

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Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer