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CHIPS Articles: Fleet Hometown News Center: The "News" Center for the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard

Fleet Hometown News Center: The "News" Center for the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard
By Mary Lou Hoffert - October-December 2001
Fleet Home Town News Center (FHTNC) is the collection and dissemination point for news articles on achievements and activities of service personnel in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. This cooperative effort of the Information Technology (IT) engineers at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWARSYSCEN) Charleston with the Navy professionals at FHTNC and their parent command, the Department of the Navy Chief Information Office (CHINFO) demonstrates the synergistic effect achieved when skilled folks work together to a common end. Information is collected from a variety of sources, screened and edited, and then distributed to news media in the hometown of service personnel and their families.

The center; with a staff of journalists, copywriters, and proofreaders; processes approximately a million articles per year. FHTNC maintains a large database of biographical information, ship deployment schedules and media connections. They operate an automated system to manage both the data and the collection/dissemination process. Early in 2000, it became evident that their application and hardware had become antiquated and was increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain. They asked SPAWARSYSCEN Charleston, Code J413 to provide a state-of-the-art solution.

In addition to providing an application that was cost effective to develop and maintain, our system engineers had to ensure data security and ease of use, and had to develop the application as soon as possible. A client-server approach was chosen with a Microsoft Visual Basic application using open database connectivity (ODBC) connections to a Microsoft Structured Query Language (SQL) Server relational database. The system was rapidly prototyped against a Microsoft (MS) Access database. This easy to use software, allowed the engineers to work directly with FHTNC personnel to develop a pleasing, user-friendly interface and to ensure that the application met functional needs of the command.

Once the graphical user interface (GUI) and system flows were operating to the satisfaction of FHTNC, our system engineers converted the database connections to the more robust SQL Server. Software development began on April 3, 2000. Installation of the operational system was accomplished in late summer. The conversion from MS Access to SQL Server took less than two weeks.

FHTNC also took this opportunity to upgrade their hardware. With both new hardware and new software the center is again operating at full production speed. We have continued to "tweak" and upgrade the application for our customer. A bulk e-mail distribution feature was added and several other improvements are under consideration.

SPAWAR's software development engineers in the J413 Decision Systems Branch have found the methodology used for the FHTNC application design and development to be very effective for mid-size business systems and Web-enabled applications. The Microsoft tools are not only cost effective and easy to use for the developer, but migrate smoothly to the more robust databases, such as SQL Server and Oracle, when the applications move into production operations.

The Fleet Hometown News application is constructed into nine modules: BIO, Media, Units, Stories, Batch, Releases, Merge, Zips and Messages. The business process of FHTNC is well-defined after many years of operations. The center receives standard reporting forms from units on special achievements/recognitions or standard files of information, called "hold files", on the unit's personnel and activities. These are given an initial, cursory review, are sorted by type, are collated into batches, and are entered into the system by the DISPATCH department.

Next the SCREENING department performs a thorough screening of the information and assigns individual biographies to the batch. "Hold files" are added to the database, as new files or as replacements for outdated ones. Editorials are submitted to the EDITORIAL department for story drafting, review, and release approval. With batches and stories in place, media releases may be processed. The NEWS RELEASE PROCESSING (NRP) department sends a batch for release to PROOFING where the story templates are merged with biographical information and proofed one last time before release. CENTRAL PROCESSING accepts the proofed releases and distributes them by hard copy or e-mail to the appropriate media—newspaper, radio, television, magazine, etc.

The new software was built around this existing business flow—it wasn't "broke", so there was no need to fix it. What the new software did improve was ease of use for FHTNC personnel with a point and click interface. It also provided a stable system on a modern IT-21compliant platform that is adaptable and easily expandable. It is a cost-effective solution that should serve the needs of the command for five or more years. Good software is up and running, and the ability of FHTNC to meet its mission has been enhanced.

Lt. Cmdr. G. A. Mendez, FHTNC Director said, "Production numbers increased substantially after the new system was installed. It not only speeds up the input and merging process, but has many built-in features to help reduce human error. In this era of reduced manning, the new system at Fleet Hometown News Center has helped us work more intelligently."

Mary Lou Hoffert is the head of the SPAWAR Systems Decision Branch.

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