One of the most common problems in today’s world is information management. Thanks to the growth of the Internet, an avalanche of data is constantly circling the globe 24/7. Still, this sheer amount of information has sometimes made it difficult to separate necessary, needed data sets from unneeded ones. Spam filters and security firewalls have further complicated the picture.
For an organization such as The Asmark Institute, Owensboro, KY, this state of the world has made for an especially challenging situation, particularly when it came to sharing information with its clients. Charged with checking and storing huge amounts of security and regulatory information, including driver qualification files, the Asmark Institute needed to get this important and timely data to its customers without having any of it “fall through the cracks” of today’s electronic security net.
“The number one request we get from clients is to provide a list of what they have to do to be in compliance with all the regulations required to do business in agriculture,” says Allen Summers, president. “Everybody wants electronic reports, but nobody wants to use standardized e-mails to make it happen. If you mail a letter using the postage service, chances are it will get to its destination 99% of the time. With e-mails, however, you get bounce backs because of security filters or have bad addresses pop up, meaning your percentage of successful deliveries is much, much lower. For our service to work efficiently and effectively, we had to find a way to increase our successful delivery rate somehow.”
An Informational History
As Summers explains, much of this provided information is critical to ag retailers doing their jobs and running their businesses. Although the Asmark Institute was formed in 2005 as a nonprofit resource center, its history stretches back to 1990. The institute acts as a national center for compliance materials and services to help retailers comply with Department of Transportation (DOT), Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and EPA requirements.
For instance, at any given time, the Asmark Institute will have 14,000 driver files in its electronic database, along with hard copies of these forms in concrete vaults and fireproof cabinets. Monthly status reports on these files — such as reminders that physicals and licenses are about to expire and need to be renewed — are sent out to participating facilities on the 15th of each month. The institute also performs annual reviews and obtains all state driving records for its files. “We even keep terminated driver records for three years, per DOT requirements and in case these individuals end up rehired as active workers in the near future,” he adds.
To solve this problem, Summers asked Asmark Institute associates Amber Duke, Dustin Warder, and Dena Rhodes to come up with a solution. “I wanted them to figure out a way our clients could access our databases as if they were in our offices themselves, which meant using the Worldwide Web and our Web site as an access platform,” he says. “To do that effectively, we needed to determine three things: what databases we had available; how these could be accessed in an all-encompassing way; and come up with a design that accomplished this.”
Duke, Warder, and Rhodes started working on this project in January 2007. By September of that year, the trio presented a working concept for an electronic dashboard called Snapshots to the Asmark Institute board and both prospective and existing clients. From this feedback, a few final refinements were made. The final version of Snapshots became available for client use in mid-2008.
As Summers describes it, Snapshots is designed to serve as an electronic dashboard, providing users with access to real-time data in a colorful, visual, and organized fashion. Using Snapshots, clients can quickly glance at such information regarding their facilities as workplace injury summaries, which of their drivers are qualified under DOT regulations, and how long before their current, filed fire prevention plan expires, among other details. Best of all, Snapshots is available to customers continuously, regardless of day or time.
“All this information is consequently being updated as our people enter new data into our existing databases,” says Summers. “For example, if you look at the entry for training participation at 10 a.m., it might show that 12 employees at that facility had completed their training for the month. But if the manager checked back at 3 p.m. that same day, the number could be updated to show that two additional employees had completed the training program in the five hours since the first check took place.”
Since it needs to be available 24/7 to customers, the Asmark Institute has gone to great lengths to ensure Snapshots is always accessible. “Since it’s a Web site that’s being used by someone all the time, we don’t have the luxury of being down for any reason,” says Randy Lawrence, vice president.
For this reason, the Institute has a catastrophic backup building at the back of its offices located in a bunker. Every 15 minutes, the data kept in the Asmark Institute’s main databases is automatically sent to the backup server, providing an exact duplicate of all the precious information. “This way, even if our building was destroyed in a tornado or other disaster, our data would be current, up to 15 minutes before the destruction took place,” says Summers.
Besides ensuring data is safe, the Asmark Institute has also gone to great pains to protect the data kept on Snapshots from unauthorized eyes. To access their individual information, customers are provided with user names and passwords, which will only allow them to look at the data for their particular facility. “For further protection of our customer, we never post Social Security numbers on our Web site, and only print them when we are providing new hire kits to clients,” says Summers.
In the coming year, the Asmark Institute hopes to further expand the usefulness of Snapshots. According to Summers, an Environmental, Safety, Security, Health, and Insurance Index is in the works. “This would be a method of scoring each individual facility based on everything we have in our databases, looking at levels of risk associated with that outlet,” he says. “This information could then be used by insurance underwriters, showing them the track record of compliance for that facility and ultimately lowering their insurance premiums.”