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CIO Joseph Edward: In-house app ties parishes together

Our Parish Family, an application developed by CIO Joseph Edward and his IT team, helps the Diocese of London keep tabs on its flock.

As director of information systems services at the Roman Catholic Diocese of London, Joseph Edward has converted parishioners and priests alike into believers in the value of marrying technology and religion.

Developed in-house, the Our Parish Family application lets parishes keep and share information on the faithful as both congregants and priests move from church to church. Edward's organization shares the application with other dioceses across Canada to help get the word out. Here, he talks about the necessity for the application and touches on his broad-ranging plans to further the diocese's reach via a Web portal and telecom improvements.

The best advice Edward ever got came from his mother and had nothing to do with technology. In 1983, she urged him to leave Sri Lanka for Nigeria to escape the coming race riots. As a youngster, he wanted to be a priest but abandoned that dream, first to teach high school chemistry and then for IT. He left corporate life for the Diocese of London, Ontario, to fulfill his own religious mission and spread the church's message using technology.

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CIO Joseph Edward: In-house app ties parishes together

Sarah Varney:  I'm Sarah Varney, technology editor for the CIO Media Group. We're here today talking to Joseph Edward, one of this year's winners of our 2008 Midmarket IT Leadership Awards. First off, Joseph, congratulations.

Joseph Edward:  Thank you.

Sarah Varney:  You're welcome. You won this award in your role as Director of Information Services for the Diocese of London in London, Ontario. Can you start by a little bit of information about the scope of your responsibilities, how many churches, that sort of thing?

Joseph Edward:  Our diocese consists of 140 parishes and other religious communities, as well as other offices, which comes around 170 locations, remote locations. We are in southwestern Ontario. Our area of service goes from somewhere from Woodstock, Ontario up to Windsor, out west, as well as we go from - on the north sides we have to go up Old Ridge and, on the south side, we go up to Simcoe. So, we cover a huge area in terms of geographical area.

Sarah Varney:  Right.

Joseph Edward:  We have close to 800 employees and we have about 400,000 parishioners in all of our parishes.

Sarah Varney:  All right. Wow. Can you give us an overview of your project?

Joseph Edward:  We did many projects. One of the major projects we implemented is standardizing our parishes with one parish information management tool. We wanted to use the technology in our diocese for business process improvement, as well as business objectives advancement. Not only did we want to standardize and improve some administrative processes such as printing sacramental certificates, mailing labels, merch letters, year-end tax receipts, recording mass intentions, except we also wanted to provide some valuable information to the parish leadership and to the diocese and leadership about the parish communities in the diocese, their demography, their needs, their involvement in the parish life.

Standardized data collection, storage and maintenance, in every parish, became very critical to success of this project. It was 1998, the Year-2000 bug was looming, and, at the same time, our diocese was embarking on a new model called "parish clustering." The timing was perfect for a new solution. We needed a tool which could be used for a long time and be flexible enough to be adapted as our requirements changed, especially with the clustering of parishes we needed a tool to manage multiple parishes in one single database, to allow the secretary and the pastor to manage effectively between these parishes, without doing a lot of manual data entry when parishioner information moved from one parish to another.

Sarah Varney:  I see.

Joseph Edward:  We researched, but we couldn't find any tool which is capable of meeting our needs, at that time, and for future growing and ever changing needs. This is why we decided to design and develop our own parish information management system, known as "Our Parish Family."

Sarah Varney:  Right. Now, did you have to integrate this with applications that you were already using?

Joseph Edward:  Yes. Our parishes were using some applications from various vendors, at the time. So, we had to not integrate them as much. We had to, actually, convert the data from the old legacy systems to our system, and, in addition to that. What we also did - we integrated the whole application with other productivity tools, such as Microsoft Word, Excel, WordPerfect. For that reason, we wrote our own application using Visual Basic Access and SQL 2000. So, it was built on a client/server model.

Our application had several applications, or you can call it "modules." They are known as "family and member modules, sacraments records module, contributions module, facilities and resources management, fundraising management, volunteer management, mass request management." So, we integrated about 12 submodules into one integrated application and we created a two-information management system.

We also integrate the Canadian banking system, at the present time, to allow the parishes to give parishioners an option to donate to the parish, using a preauthorized payment system.

Sarah Varney:  I see. So, in terms of client/server, the servers are located in... are they centralized or...?

Joseph Edward:  It depends. Some parishes use it as a standalone in the standalone system, or, if they have a local area network, they use it - they install this - install the database on the server, and they install the applications in the individual workstations.

But, lately, what we're doing, right now, since we have established a SQL data center, we are connecting all our parishes using the Internet and virtual private network to our data center, so that they can run these applications using Microsoft terminal services. So, this way, we are storing all the available data in a SQL environment, so that these parishes do not have to worry about security and backup and fast recovery and all those things, which they don't have any experience with.

Sarah Varney:  Right.

Joseph Edward:  So, this way, what we are doing, we are taking the technology complexity out of the parishes so that they could focus in their core objectives as being a parish.

Sarah Varney:  Right. Did you have to buy any hardware for this?

Joseph Edward:  Yes. We basically started this data center from scratch, which means we bought firewalls, we bought servers, we bought network attached storage. We had to buy a tape library to do all our backups. We also bought spam filters, wireless filters. So, basically, we bought everything a datacenter needed to have a SQL environment for parishes to store their data and use the application from anywhere at any time.

So, we wanted to allow the parishes to do work from their home or from another parish, because, in the clustering environment, parish staff go from one parish to another, sometimes. Especially the priests move from one place to the other. So, we want them to have access to all the information, regardless of where they're working from.

Joseph Edward:So, basically, that's what we did.

Sarah Varney: I see. How did you train those people?

Joseph Edward:  Basically, when we established this data center, we sent out our training specialist to on-site so that we give one-day orientation as how they use the data center securely and effectively in carrying out the functions, but, as far as the applications are concerned, we have held several training - classroom training, on-site training, and, lately, we're using teleconferencing and web conferencing, and, more and more, we are doing all of our training using online training methodologies.

So, this way, the parish secretaries or pastors, they could learn from their office, without leaving their desk, and, also, we are finding it is more effective for them to only learn for a few minutes, rather than coming to a class and sitting in for six hours or seven hours, and we find it was not really effective.

Sarah Varney:  How many people have trained so far for this?

Joseph Edward:  Oh. We would have trained - especially in this application alone, I would say we would have trained over 500 people to date. As an office, we do training on all our applications, like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher, Internet accounting tools. We do provide lots of training. So, I would say we would have easily trained, between our diocese and other diocese, we could have easily trained over 1000 people to date.

Sarah Varney:  Now, will you - not perhaps resale, because of your nonprofit status, but will you share that application with other diocese across Canada?

Joseph Edward:Yes. Our model, from the very beginning, we call it a stewardship model. What I mean by the stewardship model is we decided when we developed this tool and we said, "We are going to share our time, talent and treasure with other dioceses, to help them out, to use the technology effectively in the ministry."

We always tell them that our being the diocese, we are one diocese among many dioceses, and we all work with one goal in our mind - the mission of the church. So, we always tell them, "We don't compete with one another. We always complement one another." So, in that sense, we share this tool.

If the parish or diocese have very limited resources, financial resources, we give them - sometimes we even give this tool free of charge, but sometimes we charge them a very nominal fee, because we want this tool to be maintained, and improved, and changed as technology and needs change. So, we don't want this tool to become outdated. So, for that purpose, we need some revenue, but our motto is not making any profit.

Sarah Varney:  Right. Now, in light of that - there is no profit motive - how do you demonstrate the value of that project or this project to the people that you work for?

Joseph Edward:  Basically, in a business sense, they always say, you know, they look at the return on investment.

Sarah Varney:  Yes.

Joseph Edward:Right. In our sense, we didn't really do a formal return on investment analysis, but we can see benefits which we have brought to the diocese and to the other diocese at large.

On a financial standpoint, we have saved probably hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last 10 years by not paying any software maintenance fee or a support fee. So, we have been doing that internally, so it has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars to our diocese and to our parishes, but that's sort of tangible side.

In the non-tangible side, what this has allowed the parishes and to the diocese, for them to come together and to work together for common good. Because, before this software was introduced, these parishes were primarily in their own silo culture, but bringing this tool and standardizing them...

Sarah Varney:  Right. And, finally, what's the next sort of innovative, sort of leading-edge, technology coming along that you envision incorporating into the data center, say, within the next three years?

Joseph Edward:  One of the things which we wanted to build on, the collaboration among our parish staff, or priest, our volunteers, because we wanted to improve - build on this collaboration we already started. So, what we are starting to use now - the SharePoint services as a tool to enable this collaborative model among our parishes.

So, we will be using this tool to promote and educate our users how they could use this more effectively in their ministry, . . .

Sarah Varney:  That's interesting. What did you . . .

Joseph Edward: . . . for the purpose of spreading the news.

Sarah Varney:  I see. Good. That make sense. All right. That's all I have. Thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.

Joseph Edward:  Thank you.

Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.

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