Digital Lure Bags Fishing, Hunting Licenses

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources developed a system to efficiently distribute hunting and fishing licenses and collect valuable data.

by / October 31, 1995 0
Nov 95 Level of Govt: State. Function: Natural Resources. Problem/situation: Issuing hunting and fishing licenses in Michigan was an inefficient, paper-based process. Solution: A point-of-sale device that saves time and automatically enters data into a database. Jurisdiction: Michigan. Vendors: Eltron International, EDS, VeriFone, Microsoft. Contact: Douglas Jester, State of Michigan. 517-373-3787

By David Aden Contributing Writer In some parts of the country, the beginning of hunting or fishing season is an annual ritual, a community event shared with family and friends. But something new, at least in Michigan, has entered the classic image of the small country store selling hunting and fishing licenses - the computer. Until March of this year, purchasing a fishing or hunting license from any of Michigan's 1,800 retail agents or state-run offices was a paper-based affair. "Under the previous system," said Douglas Jester, information systems manager for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) "the customer would buy a passbook - an ID card with a number of peel-off bar code strips on it containing the unique ID number for that passbook. The customer was required to buy that for one dollar when they got their first license. All types of licenses were prepared as self-adhesive stamps that came on sheets. When the customer purchased a license, the agent would take the stamp and put it in the booklet and then take a bar code strip from the booklet and put it onto the sheet where the stamp had been. This would give us a link to the person buying the license." The sheets with the bar code strips on it and a carbon copy of the passbook itself were sent back to the state. Collecting money from agents was also largely a manual operation. "We collected funds from agents based on the pieces of paper we sent them," Jester said. "They would remit based on what they said they sold and then at the end of the year the agents had to either buy what was left or send back what they hadn't sold. Accounting didn't happen until the end of the year." The average time from purchase to entry into DNR's computer system was about 73 days. That spoiled any possibility of using the data for law enforcement purposes, or for surveying to estimate annual harvests. "When I started looking at this problem 10 years ago," said Jester, "I was looking primarily at the survey problem but I concluded there was no way to handle our problem without capturing the data at the point of sale."

POINT OF SALE DNR developed a detailed functional specification for the system it wanted and put out an RFP. The contract was awarded to EDS in June 1994 and work started on the first of July. According to Guy Fucci, EDS' director of business development for state and local government, developing a reliable system for Michigan has not been a trivial matter. "There are about two million people who hunt and fish in Michigan and the state sells about four million licenses," said Fucci. "That equates to $50 million in revenue which is probably one of the top five states. Most states are probably in the $12 - $18 million range." The EDS system consists of a point of sale (POS) device with attached printer. Customer information is captured off-line by the POS device and licenses are printed on label stock. Since Michigan has 57 different types of licenses, printing them on site saves a tremendous amount of time that used to be spent printing and controlling a large distributed inventory. "We went to a single kind of stock for all kinds of licenses," said Jester. "It's basically just blank label stock. So we went from roughly 50 inventory items for each agent to seven, which includes pamphlets we give out." After normal business hours, the POS devices call an 800 number and download the day's sales information. At the end of the week, the state compiles a report of sales and prints this to the retailers' POS device. The retailer has 48 hours to verify the figures and call DNR to report any discrepancies. If no problems are reported, the state debits the amount from the retailer's bank account by EFT.

Saving Time Although the system is still in a shakedown phase, Michigan is already seeing improvement. "It's reduced the average time to sell a license from five minutes to one minute," said Jester, "and eliminated about six hours a month of inventory control for the agents." According to Fucci, it has reduced the state's collection time from 60-100 days down to seven. Although retail sales acceptance of the system has been generally good, some monetary issues did pose a problem early in the process, according to Loren Hersey, DNR's supervisor of retail sales management. "Where the resistance existed was in the cost structure," said Hersey. "When we started this out [under the paper system] the agents didn't pay anything and earned eight percent. We wanted the agents to lease the terminals and take a cut in commission. The lease is about $400 per year, and we wanted to drop the commissions to about five percent." The DNR did eventually drop the commission to 7.5 percent for existing retailers but absorbed the cost of leasing the hardware. The retailers picked up the charges for equipment maintenance which totaled approximately $200 of the $400 annual lease. New agents will pay the full $400 for the lease and will earn only five percent commission. Despite these changes, Hersey doesn't anticipate any major loss in retailers and the DNR continues to receive applications from new retailers.

Training Another problem encountered during system implementation has been training. Hersey feels DNR should have kept the agents better informed throughout the process. "One of the big problems with implementing a system like this is agent training," said Hersey. "We went around the state doing training seminars and we have user's manuals but I don't know if you could ever spend enough time training agents." Most of the problems don't come from the small tackle shops where agents have been selling licenses for years, but from large outlets with younger staffs that tend to turnover quickly, such as Wal-Mart or K-Mart. But despite these problems, which are common when implementing a large, distributed system, the system is opening up new possibilities. "Our conservation officers - the guys who enforce hunting and fishing laws - in the past basically had no useful information about the sale of hunting and fishing licenses," said Jester. "Now we have a lot more information about our customers and agents than we did before. We also expect to do some work with direct mail marketing such as sending mail to people who have bought licenses in the past, promoting for them to buy a license again."

Helping Law Enforcement Law enforcement is another beneficiary of the system. As data is pulled in every day, DNR looks for certain patterns of suspicious transactions or trends and prints a report of those to law enforcement. Soon the DNR data will be immediately available to law enforcement and will appear as an option on the statewide Law Enforcement Information Network. While access to the data by state agencies has improved, the system also promises to make licensing services even more accessible to citizens. "Today we have telephone order for licenses and we will soon be adding mail order," said Jester. "We hope by next year to complete arrangements for support for sale of hunting and fishing licenses by way of the Internet and/or the commercial online services. We're also considering computer kiosks in some locations." Although buying a fishing or hunting license in Michigan has obviously changed dramatically, this may only be the beginning. Jester envisions a possible scenario in which paper licenses wouldn't even be issued. "If you call by telephone, we'll give you a confirmation number and you can go and engage in the licensed activity," Jester said. "If people behave appropriately without a piece of paper, then we'll just be selling a place in the database." If this happens, your favorite fishing hat may no longer sport that prized and tattered piece of paper. But that won't mean no one will be checking up on you. Instead of showing your hat to an inquiring field officer who happens to stumble across your favorite secret fishing hole, you just give the officer a number that is verified with a push of a button on a handheld field unit that's connected electronically to the state's licensing database. So much for the excuse that you "forgot your license at home."

----------Technicals----------

The retail agent set up includes a VeriFone OMNI 395 retail POS terminal and an Eltron International thermal transfer printer. The database system is built on a client/server platform with Windows clients, and a Windows NT/SQL Server. Most agents do not use a dedicated line since the only online time is scheduled overnight, but use one of the retailer's existing lines. The transactions are sent over a public X.25 network to the central site for processing. Citizens wanting to register for a license or get more information about hunting and fishing licenses can call 800/898-MDNR, available throughout the United States and Canada. DNR's World Wide Web server is located at http://www.dnr.state.mi.us





David Aden
David Aden DAden@webworldtech.com is a writer from Washington, D.C.