George Mason University

Cornerstones Unified Database Design Project

SYST 699: Fall 2014


Problem Definition

The Client

Cornerstones is a nonprofit organization that promotes self-sufficiency by providing support and advocacy for those in need of food, shelter, affordable housing, quality childcare, and other human services. To complete this mission, Cornerstones provides various services that address these needs. To make the services readily available to their customers, Cornerstones has organized these services into various program groups. Of the various divisions within the Cornerstones organization, the focus of this project will be on the Neighborhood Resources division programs. The Neighborhood Resources division programs focuses largely on providing food and community-based initiatives to the local area of Reston.

Neighborhood Resources makes up a large portion of the clients seen by Cornerstones. The figure below, taken from Cornerstones’ annual impact report, shows that Neighborhood Resources accounted for approximately 80% of the clients seen in fiscal year 2014.
Neighborhood Resources Pie

Through early scope definition meetings with Cornerstones, the GMU Team determined that limiting the scope of this semester’s project to the Neighborhood Resources programs would be the most effective use of time and resources to complete the project within the semester’s time frame. Focusing on this division would provide enough complexity to require a thorough analysis of the program artifacts, and provide a solution that would make a significant impact to the largest portion of their business.

Within the Neighborhood Resources program, there are two main focus areas: (1) Assistance Services and Pantry Program (ASAPP) and (2) Community Based Initiative (CBI). ASAPP operates as a local food pantry and provides packaged food products to those in need. It operates out of one facility located near Lake Anne in Reston. CBI provides services through local community resource centers. The focus of the CBI program is to address specific needs of the community such as building leadership, self-sufficiency, skills development, child development, and meeting urgent needs. CBI operates out of five locations in Reston – Cedar Ridge Community Center, Crescent Community Center, Stonegate Village Community Center, Southgate Community Center, and Westglade Club House. The figure below shows the location of each of the Neighborhood Resources facilities, as well as the central location of the Cornerstones main corporate office.

Neighborhood Resources Map

The Legacy System

A major mechanism for managing the operations that Cornerstones performs and for reporting results of their efforts is through the tracking of client data. Cornerstones records client information, demographics, history of services received, and household information in order to understand the needs of their clients. The main objective of client tracking is to answer the following high level questions:
•    How much services did we perform?
•    How well did we serve our clients?
•    Has any of these services improved the overall well-being of our clients?

It is important to capture this information so that Cornerstones can understand the impact of the work that they do and report it to their financial sponsors as well as to local and federal governing bodies. Also, by accurately determining their effectiveness in improving the community and its residents, Cornerstones is able to generate more funding, staff appropriately, and optimize their business functions.

In the existing system, Cornerstones relies on two main methods for tracking client data. The first method is pen & paper recording keeping. Physical applications, or “intake forms”, are used at each of the program locations to collect client data. These are either filled out by the clients or completed with the assistance of a Cornerstones staff member. Depending on the program location, the type of service received, or community event held, different subsets of data may be collected. This can range from a simple name and address sign-up sheet to an in-depth application including personal, household, and employment history. The pen & paper records are stored in filing systems at the program location or at central offices. The information on these forms can also be transferred to an electronic record.

The method of tracking client data is through electronic spreadsheets. Much of the data in these spreadsheets comes directly from the paper forms. The level of completeness of these records vary greatly given that each location, program, service, or event collects different subsets of the client data.

From the individual spreadsheets for each program office, a master spreadsheet is generated and maintained by Cornerstones staff at the central Cornerstones office. This master spreadsheet is used to derive all of the performance, demographic, and statistical analysis that Cornerstones requires for their reporting processes. The master spreadsheet is used to calculate specific figures required in their reports to sponsors and governing agencies.

This overview of the existing system can be summarized in the diagram below:


Problem Statement

Due to the distribution of their programs, varying levels of data collection, and utilization of multiple and independent spreadsheets, Cornerstones has experienced difficulty in their client tracking process. The existing system allows for significant tracking issues. For example, when a client visits multiple community centers to receive different kinds of service, Cornerstones may not be able to track reliably that the same individual is using multiple services.   Reasons for discrepancies in tracking include: (a) there may be variations in the way the staff member spelled the clients name, (b) the client may have changed addresses since their last visit, or (c) the client’s household structure may have changed. When the records cannot determine the uniqueness of individuals, the accuracy of the reports may be compromised (i.e. one individual may be counted as many, or different individuals might be thought to be the same person). Currently, Cornerstones relies heavily on the staff members’ familiarity with repeat clients and also on the investigative abilities of their back-office staff to correct such issues.

In addition, it is difficult to track a client’s service history.  Cornerstones is interested in knowing how much service is being rendered to a single individual or family in order to gauge their level of need.  With better tracking, it is hoped that Cornerstone would be able to identify clients in greater need of service and pro-actively provide that service. For example, a client who has increased their need for food pantry services may also need job-finding services or additional child care assistance. Also, being aware of this history could prompt Cornerstones staff to recommend nutritional seminars and counseling to the client. With the current system, this level of monitoring and response is difficult.

Lastly, the distribution, inconsistency, and insufficiency of client tracking in the current system prevents Cornerstones from being able to realize many additional reporting and analysis capabilities that could greatly improve their ability to monitor their performance. With a unified, central database of client records, Cornerstones would be able to generate many types of reports about their clients, services rendered, and trends over time.

Our Proposed Solution

The objective of this project is develop a robust data strategy and a unified database design for the Neighborhood Resources division programs that can help track clients across programs to generate more effective and accurate reports. The envisioned, final system is a unified database that can be accessed by all Cornerstones staff from all locations to support their daily operations. This system will also support automation of the standard reports that Cornerstones generates on a periodic basis, and allow the customization of reports for trend and performance analysis. The unified database will also decrease the amount of human intervention required to accurately determine client uniqueness. Instead, each client will be assigned a unique identifier – developed by this team – which is a combination of their personal data.  The team has determined that collecting three additional bits of information: the client’s birthdate, the client’s city of birth and the client’s gender coupled with the information already asked on the forms (name, address, number of household members, etc.) can be used to uniquely identify each client.

To develop a quality system within the time constraints of the semester, the GMU team will deliver an intermediate phase of this envisioned system. The intermediate phase will provide a strong foundation needed to realize the envisioned system. The design and implementation of the unified database will be completed to support full functionality of Cornerstones requirements within the Neighborhood Resources division programs. The figure below displays the transition from the existing system to our delivered system and then the future work of the envisioned system.

Proposed Solution

To complete this project, the GMU Team followed the systems engineering lifecycle phases of definition, analysis, design, development, integration, test, validation, and operation. The definition and analysis phases consisted of review of the existing forms and reports used in the Neighborhood Resources division programs, analysis of the data collected, generation of use cases, and development of requirements. The design phase was focused on design of the database. This was divided into three main phases of design – conceptual model, logical model, and physical model. The integration, test, and verification focused on the installation of the database and ensuring that it met all the requirements we developed. Showing successful adoption of the database by the Cornerstones staff completed the validation stage. Lastly, delivery and operations of this project consisted of providing all planning, definition, and design documents and to the customer so that they will be able to continue operating the system and prepare for any future work to be completed by the next GMU team to inherit this project.

SE Life Cycle

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