Saturday, November 28, 2009

Disciplined Protection of Customer Data

We meet our customer's demand for reliability by combining redundant technologies, sophisticated monitoring, and highly skilled staff. Here are the 9 disciplined practices we follow:

1) VisionLink uses open source and otherwise standard-based software at all levels of our server environment. We do this so that we are not overly dependent on any one vendor, or any one platform, or any one coding environment. We can mix and match leading solutions, deploying the right capacity at an appropriate value point.

2) We use standard network and server equipment in our racks as well; again, so that should we need to rapidly replace or expand equipment, the solutions are neither unusual, nor in short supply.

3) We deploy both horizontally and vertically scaled network systems. The technical wizards that run our server racks can explain this in engaging detail; from the CEO perspective, this means that we can isolate bottlenecks to very small focal points. Because the focal point is small, our adjustment can be precisely (and cost-effectively) targeted. Clear the bottleneck and the rest of the system simply hums at a powerful ROI.

4) We pay attention to the secondary systems. Case in point: we have learned more than we ever wanted to learn about both power and cooling. These days, watts per rack and cooling capacities seem to have as much to do with up-time as the primary server solutions.

5) We test our failure recovery procedures. Too many software providers don't actually do this; dangerous.

6) We trace down every possible single point of failure that we can identify. A case in point: some years ago one of our monitoring systems generated an alert that we never received because our paging network (large, national provider) was temporarily down. So, now we have multiple paths for alerts and messages; just as we do for power, cooling, servers, network switches, routers and on and on.

7) VisionLink staff (not a third party), monitor every part of our network, server, and backup systems. I'm not going to say here how many pieces of this puzzle we watch over, but it numbers in the hundreds. The technical team knows the operational parameters of just about everything--all the time.

8) This point is the most important and it's about the people. We have a technical team wise enough to understand that reliability and data integrity is everything to our customers. Our staff can actually hold at bay the glitz and glamor of the newest and fanciest solution. They do not deploy new technology into our production environment, just because it's new. Sure that would be fun. Until it fails.

9) I should close, however, by saying that while number 8 above is completely true, understand that VisionLink releases new software enhancements every 10 days, and that we regularly and fundamentally improve our network and server technologies. Change is necessary to give our customers the best technologies available. We just do change in a disciplined and careful manner.

Douglas Zimmerman
President & CEO
VisionLink

Friday, November 27, 2009

Auto Taxonomy Updates for Call Centers

We have released an updated version of our auto-update solution to ensure that the categories through which you manage your resource directory are aligned with the ever improving AIRS taxonomy.

For more information about activating this feature switch on your VisionLink CommunityOS system, please contact our help desk.

This is part of a wide range of efforts to ensure compliance with the AIRS standards. We were the first to endorse and implement the AIRS Resource Exchange standard (to allow the exchange of resource data between systems). We were the first to support both the auto-update standard and the sixth level of the taxonomy. We were the first to support both the 2.07 and 3.0 versions of the Exchange standard as a "one-click" module, and we continually update our software to match new and evolving standards.

We believe that it is keenly useful for organizations to share a common method of categorizing community, state, and national resources, as this supports common and evolving best practice, comparable reporting and needs analysis, and the exchange of information when time is of the essence, as when a disaster may strike a community.

One of the past presidents of the AIRS board said it well: "The AIRS/211 LA County Taxonomy is to the information and referral field what the Library of Congress catalog system is to libraries, nationally and internationally. It allows all information and referral providers to speak the same language, classify information consistently, and share data locally, statewide, regionally, nationally and internationally. It is the crucial element in creating a national database in the future, that will both help identify gaps in service as well as make it faster and easier to get people connected to vital resources. It is a tool that maximizes access to community resources and actualizes the mission of information and referral."

For more information about this classification system, go to: http://www.211taxonomy.org/.

Douglas Zimmerman
President & CEO
VisionLink

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Coordinated Assistance: 400 Members Strong

More than 400 disaster relief agencies, making up the nation's first and largest partnership of independent relief organizations, uses VisionLink technology to support their work. Is your community prepared? You can join today.

Born of the lessons from 9/11, the Coordinated Assistance Network helps disaster survivors gain access to coordinated and coherent support services. Before CAN, long-term relief support was more fractured, and donors had reason to worry about fraud and duplicated services.

Now, every CAN partner can work from a coordinated resource directory, and coordinated client intake and case management tools which appropriately manage information within and across communities and states.

Each partner remains focused on their particular mission and deploys their particular expertise as needed. The CAN partnership simply allows these organizations to work together as never before. The result is magnified and more coherent services, better information about met and unmet needs, and a growing body of professional practice created by the expert practitioners who make disaster relief their life's work.

After Katrina, the public has little patience for charitable and governmental leaders who have not prepared their communities to respond to possible disasters. CAN, funded by the American Red Cross and led representatives from leading disaster relief organizations, is the ideal solution if your community has not already joined.

VisionLink's Community Operating System has won the respect of these national and state leaders, for providing reliable, flexible and advanced technology. During Katrina, we became known as "the one national system that did not fail."

CAN offers a technical platform--but also partnership support, best practices, case management standards, data exchange support and much more. If you would like to learn more, go to www.can.org. When disaster strikes, you will be thankful you did.

Douglas Zimmerman
President & CEO
VisionLink

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New Quarterly Progress Report for HMIS

We are pleased to announce the release of the updated and compliant Quarterly Progress Report (QPR), the newest addition to the CCM/HMIS reporting tools.

The QPR is designed to meet the new reporting requirements for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The QPR was built in compliance with the standards and documentation released by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

We have gone beyond the "specifications" and included a number of tools to make the QPR more user friendly and useful across a broad set of HMIS applications. The best part, perhaps, has to do with the ease with which authorized users can access and edit the individual records which make up the summary report. Report managers will love this time save capacity.

Douglas Zimmerman
President & CEO
VisionLink

Monday, November 23, 2009

Powerful Portal Permissions

We've released new tools to control user access by Portal. Now you have even more tools to control who can see what, when, how and why.

Using VisionLink's portal technology, you can create entire systems for particular stakeholders--perhaps it's your board of directors, or those working on a literacy project, or for a group of housing specialists.

Now, it's easier to distribute access to the correct portal(s). With only a click or two you can determine which users or group of users can access any particular portal. And more--one person can have different permissions for different portals. And more---; well, for that, you'll need to sign into our Customer Resource Center. But you get the point.

As partnerships become more dynamic and comprehensive, leaders across the field ask for greater flexibility. Contact Help if you would like this feature turned on for your site.

If you are a prospective customer, talk to us about the partnership and revenue generating capacities of portal-based technology. You've not seen anything like this.

Douglas Zimmerman
CEO & President
VisionLink

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Positive Correlation: Development Sprints

We use the Agile methodology of development known as SCRUM. From the CEO's perspective, this is all about quality work on schedule. I have to play by the rules, too, however.

Our developers work in 8 day sprints. With a planning day before every sprint and a review and approval process at the conclusion of every sprint, it means we release enhancements every 10 business days. [We do this with switches so our customers are still in charge of which new tools they use, and when.]

These sprints develop a pacing of their own, as the development staff learns how to work well with one another. From the CEO desk, I have learned to flow with this same pacing. Sure, I can stop a sprint and insert some "critical" task, but these requests have become more naturally balanced with our SCRUM process, as to stop a well planned sprint has its own costs that ripple across the calendar.

On the other hand, a new sprint is always just around the corner, and thus, almost anything can wait a few days for the beginning of a new sprint; or for less critical needs, for a few sprints.

And so, I have learned I can get more of those "critical CEO" requests done, if I insert them into the sprint schedule, rather than just as I'm back in the office from a recent trip. It's a great correlation: the more I'm patient, the more I get--and faster, too.

Douglas Zimmerman
CEO & President
VisionLink

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Evacuation - Special Needs Registries

We are working with IBM Global Services and United Way of America to offer sophisticated evacuation and special needs registries---read more; be prepared.

Working alongside 2-1-1 operations, the good folks from IBM Global Services are available to work with stakeholders in your community or state to discuss, plan, and implement a special needs registry using VisionLink's Community Operating System software.

Depending on your needs, these registries can focus on special needs, transportation, or more general evacuation registries. The point is that after Katrina the public will have little patience with an unprepared response to any significant man-made or natural disaster that impacts your area. Thus, one of the very useful steps is to launch a registry to pre-capture information about those who will have particular needs should disaster strike.

The best part of course, is that current CommunityOS customers need do nothing but add a Portal to their existing system (or perhaps even nothing more than a new tab on your current client intake forms--your call.)

If it would help your local efforts to engage IBM Global Services or the United Way of America, let us know and we will make the introduction. We also have example templates of the kind of data you would want to collect. Don't be surprised next time when disaster strikes your service area.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Contracts & Revenue

In this economy, generating revenue to support your organization's mission is job one. As a VisionLink customer you don't have to force a solution, rather you can demonstrate complete readiness to take on that new contract and gain the revenue when you need it most.

It's all built in. Launch a new portal and create the web site, navigation, permissions, content, file libraries, intake forms, resource directories, and simple and advanced reports that are specifically appropriate to that new contract.

Or, if the contract is similar to your existing work, then you can make only minimal changes, and build on everything else you have already done.

You can also support these new contracts completely privately, or collaboratively with other initiatives already in progress, all from your main VisionLink solution. The choice is yours, and no programming is required.

The point: you can explicitly and specifically manage the workflow and capture the information required of the new contract. Even better--you can mock up these tools as part of the proposal to win the contract. You can prove your capacities, as others using less capable software cannot.

And if we can help, contact your account manager for assistance. We have implementation coaches ready to support you with anything from a strategic discussion to a comprehensive contract support package for that new contract.

Douglas Zimmerman
President & CEO
VisionLink

Friday, November 13, 2009

Sharing the Work

Managing multiple portals for multiple partners is even easier. It's grounded, however, in the art and science of true collaboration.

This is a public blog, so the proprietary technical details are available to customers in our Client Resource Center, and of course via the Help Desk. But we have released Single Sign-On tools that let you manage access to multiple portals across an entire network, administrative tools to control access better, and sub-sysop tools to distribute management tasks by portal.

The concept here is important. As multi-agency and multi-sector partnerships grow across a region, state (or for some of our customers nationally and internationally), system administration tasks can grow considerably. So with these enhancements we make it easier to share the work load.

What this assumes, however, is a true sense of collaboration. This is not "cooperation;" this is about working with other organizations who share common objectives. Doing so requires focusing time, money, and expertise from each partner.

As a former grants officer, I tried to spot efforts along a continuum. If grant applicants wrote in their narrative about how two or more organizations shared common objectives, they were probably describing cooperation. If they were conducting common training for their staffs, for example, they were probably aligning their work (although both organizations were probably doing the same work...).

What the foundation's board was trying to find, however, were partner organizations dividing up the work or taking on distinct aspects of an integrated whole. In other words, two organizations were collaborating well when each organization took on an important and related, but different task. As a grants officer if I could see this in their budgets; it became real at that point and we had a success story to tell the donors.

So it is with VisionLink's Community Operating System; we are working to build systems that truly allow each partner to do the work they need to do confidentially, and to work collaboratively with another partner organization where appropriate. It's nearly magical when it works.

Douglas Zimmerman
President & CEO
VisionLink

Monday, November 9, 2009

Take Down This Wall!

On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, it's appropriate to pause and think about the walls between services in our communities....

Much as the fall of the Berlin wall was a world changing event, the fall of barriers between services can truly change communities. The conversation is shifting however. In the past, we protected information such as the profiles of community resources--we found silos to be useful. Over the last several years, however, I see more and more willingness to collaborate and exchange data in the name of client service. Never happy with the status quo, however, what's the next frontier?

At a recent gathering of The Independent Sector, Brian Gallagher, United Way of America, "warned against getting stuck in "collaboration silos," in which similar groups never venture beyond talking to organizations that share their particular causes. [As reported by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.] The point is that collaboration is now of value--but the cutting edge is around collaboration across sectors.

Indeed the core design of VisionLink's Next Step, PathFinder and Tapestry--all now woven into our Community Operating System (CommunityOS), is all about integration across education, workforce, and social services. Add readiness to respond to disasters and you gain a successful, resilient community. I want to live in one of those!

Douglas Zimmerman
President & CEO
VisionLink

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

2-1-1 Legislation

Major initiatives require funding--and 2-1-1 is no different. Help the campaign to fund 2-1-1 nationally.

Right now, thanks to work from AIRS and the United Way of America, significant progress is being made collecting co-sponsors for legislation to fund 2-1-1 across America.

In the US House, the legislation is H.R.211, and in the US Senate, it goes by S.211. It's important that you and others contact your representatives and senators and ask for their support.

It seems to me that investing in systems that improve the public's access to existing resources is a good thing for our economy, now and as it improves.

VisionLink's Washington DC staff are doing their part as well--on behalf of all of our customers to work with key legislators to endorse and move this forward. Join the campaign! (And of course you don't have time for this--but think of how much time 2-1-1 funding would save you!)

Douglas Zimmerman
President & CEO
VisionLink

Monday, November 2, 2009

Staying Healthy

Here is what we are doing to promote a healthy staff, particularly during the flu season.

Because we are in the business of providing mission-critical technology to our customers, staying healthy becomes a core business objective.

We have launched a health policy that essentially instructs staff need to work from home if anyone in their household has any symptoms of ill health (even just aches or sneezing). Further, they cannot come back to work unless everyone member of their household is symptom free for 48 hours. Yes, this does require us to make sure that our staff can in fact work from home, but if it helps us stay healthy it's all for the good.

We are also sterilizing the office every day, shifting to paper plates and cups (don't tell anyone--with an office in Boulder, CO that is not very environmental of us), and changing how folks use the water cooler, as this turns out to be a key source of germs.

We have discussed this policy with a number of health experts and we'll continue to review and refine. If you have suggestions, please share!

Here's to a more healthy fall and winter!

Douglas Zimmerman
President & CEO
VisionLink