Database Software

Dear Management Doctor:

I am looking for database software that is capable of the following tasks:

  1. Relational database for tracking various types of development applications.
  2. Acts as a document repository for Word Documents, PDFs, CAD files, etc. associated with applications.
  3. Has workflow features for use in plan review and permitting.
  4. Has shared calendar and resource scheduling capabilities.
  5. Has some possibilities for GIS integration (not essential, but preferred).
  6. And last - but most importantly - the software needs to be somewhat inexpensive, without ongoing subscription or maintenance fees.

Looking at several systems, it appears that Microsoft SharePoint does all of these things for a fairly low price, although the GIS integration isn't very strong. Also, it appears that someone from a non-IT background might be able to configure and customize much of it after IT does some initial setup. Have you had any experience with SharePoint, or do you know of any municipalities that have used it for similar purposes? Or do you have any alternate suggestions?

Thanks so much.

Sincerely,
Matt Brady
Mapleton, Utah

Dear Matt,

If you were only looking at your points 1 through 5 you could buy one of the package permitting products. However, they won't meet your cost criteria in number 6. I notice Mapleton has a population of around 5,800. As such, I assume your program and volume of activity is relatively low. While I am a big supporter of the paperless office and technology, you may not need all the bells and whistles.

I am personally not educated on SharePoint but did ask a friend for his observations as follows:

  • Think of SharePoint as an environment, not a computer program. It is intuitive, flexible, and free. But it is not an "end-all." At its base, it is one step better than having a high-capacity shared hard drive for everybody to store their files.
  • As with an iPad, smart phone, PC, or any computer; SharePoint needs a second tier of user-friendly applications to actually do anything with it. Microsoft offers a number of free applications or application templates. There is also any number of apps available for purchase from third-party developers, and there are many developers who can build custom software that runs under SharePoint. (For instance, a company called Bamboo Solutions offers a web-based team calendar app for about $1,000.) I don't know of anyone who uses it for permit tracking.
  • SharePoint also allows users to build their own applications. This requires a moderate level of technical expertise and experience.
  • SharePoint should be managed day-to-day by a reasonably competent technical person with good user skills.
  • Just like bringing any other new software product into an organization, you need a requirements definition and an implementation plan.
SharePoint, in itself, is no cure for silo-ing. It won't solve your non-technical organizational issues. As an example, implementing a SharePoint document management solution will fail if you don't have established document cataloging, sharing, and retention policies in place. Without these, SharePoint will become "the place where documents go to die."

Hopefully some of our emailers have experience with SharePoint and can help us. I suggest you make certain you have maximized the potential and use of the Microsoft Office Suite. You should also take a close look at what Google is offering. I know they have a free calendaring program.

The Management Doctor


Reader Responses

We were in a similar place a few years ago. After looking at what is available out there we took the following steps:

  • We purchased DocStar as our electronic document management system. It was a large upfront cost (about $25,000) for the server, scanners, and software but well worth the investment. We have an intern scanning in the old documents as well as keeping up with the current paper flow. This is so helpful to find documents or to send information to people. But it is a big step that not all small municipalities can afford. We have a population of just over 22,000.
  • Second, and more to your point, we are having a consultant developing an Access database. After looking at many of the commercial packages out there, they were too expensive and would still need to be modified to meet our needs. With Access, we didn't need to purchase additional software since all our workstations have the Microsoft Office. The cost of this is only the developers time. Starting the first of January, we will be tracking all permits we issue. Starting in Jan or Feb of next year, we will develop the Land Development portion of this database. In the end, this is becoming a much more cost effective solution. And being that it is Access based, anyone with adequate experience and knowledge can modify the program at minimal to no cost.
  • We use Outlook to schedule appointment. Calendars can be shared.
  • We do have ArcView for our GIS applications.
I hope this helps. Management of public files is a big portion of what we do. Being able to do it well can save a lot of time and frustration!

Mark E. Stivers
East Hempfield Township


There is another interesting option worth exploring, and not terribly expensive: Personal Brain. It's brain mapping software, but it integrates with Office, allows files to be linked, calendared, and will accept links to GIS. The latter works if the maps are saved as images, not as SHP or geodatabase files. The program is freeform. Training is free, and it doesn't require programming ability to make it work. It is essentially digital brain mapping software-and more.

Thebrain.com is the website. They also are pretty darn patient and accessible for tech support and have staff that can help you make the program work for your needs. The "pro" version costs about $250; I don't know what licensing costs would be. They are a good company to talk with.

Eric Jay Toll


We use the LAMA system from the Davenport Group. It was quite reasonable and has all the features you indicate that are needed, including GIS. It is not intuitive, but once you are familiar with it, it works quite well. Most importantly the company, which is owned by Jerry Davenport (a former planner) and his son Ben (the software guy) is very responsive and easy to work with. They continue to add features without charge when new clients are added, or when they just improve the product. We are a relatively small city (26,000) with a moderate amount of activity, but the system is capable of integrating code compliance, plan review, inspections, planning and engineering case management, work orders, and other functions. I would recommend contacting them for a proposal on your specific needs. The Davenport Group's website is davengis.com.

Jerry H. Swanson
City of Batavia