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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Charities in northwest Alabama had a problem after Hurricane Katrina blasted the northern Gulf Coast in 2005: They didn't know how to keep track of thousands of people who were suddenly on the move and seeking help far from their homes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
A collaboration between community workers and computer programmers resulted in a system that is now being used to keep track of thousands of charity recipients in about 680 cities nationwide this Christmas season.
Developed by Simon Solutions Inc. in Florence, CharityTracker is one of about 30 software tools used by U.S. homeless shelters, services agencies, soup kitchens, faith-based groups and community organizations to keep up with the thousands of needy people who seek assistance every day. An agency can sign up and use the Web-based system for as little as $15 a month.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires agencies to share information electronically if they receive government funding, and other software systems have wider use in certain areas than CharityTracker. But Cathy Easley, a United Way administrator in Charleston, S.C., said CharityTracker is simple enough that even occasional users can work it and robust enough to let agencies share detailed information that helps people.
For example, she said, someone might ask for utility assistance at an agency that doesn't pay for power bills. Once a client signs a release allowing information to be shared, the agency can upload a copy of the power bill, which can then be seen by another organization that can help out, Easley said.
"It has really transformed how our community, agencies and churches work together and how we are better able to serve clients by using it," said Easley, director of integrated community systems for Trident Unite Way. About 90,000 names are in the Charleston-area database, which is used about 200 organizations, she said.
Simon Solutions President Mike Simon said his company tries to differentiate its system from others with good customer service and a user interface that's so simple that an elderly church volunteer could pick up the basics in a few minutes of training.
"It is very, very volunteer friendly," he said.
Part of the reason goes back to the way the system was born in the months after Katrina.
The hurricane inundated New Orleans with floodwaters after levees failed, and thousands of people lost their homes in Mississippi and Alabama because of the high winds and storm surge. Many people fled north after being left homeless by the storm, and some of them wound up in northwest Alabama.
Small-town church volunteers and charity agencies that were using notebooks or index cards to track aid recipients suddenly were faced with large numbers of people seeking assistance, and they needed a way to keep tabs on what type of aid individuals were receiving to avoid duplication. They also dreamed of an easy way to communicate with workers in other organizations to help determine what sort of assistance may be available for specific needs, like someone who needed transportation or a job.
"They were pretty perplexed," said Simon. "They were worried that the right resources were not getting into the right hands."
Simon Solutions already was located in the Shoals area of northwest Alabama, and agencies asked the company for help in developing software to help track people and to make it simpler to get aid to the needed. The goal was to build a computer database in which agencies could store information and share it, a key requirement for avoiding duplication of services.
The company developed a regional system called SEANtracker, or Shoals Emergency Assistance Network tracker. Word spread and software engineers used it as the basis for CharityTracker. Large groups of users are now located in cities including Charleston, Joplin, Mo., and Austin, Texas, said Simon.
Michelle Farley, director of a Birmingham-based consortium of assistance agencies called One Roof, said her agency and most others in Alabama use a larger, competing system called ServicePoint, which functions similarly to CharityTracker and other software systems that let organizations store and share information about aid recipients.
To improve its product, CharityTracker has added technology that will allow assistance agencies to add information into their databases by simply scanning a recipient's identification card.
Charity groups need some sort of database to avoid the drain of providing duplicate assistance, Farley said, but they also need information that can help them operate most efficiently.
"Churches don't want to continue giving people money for utilities monthly if what they really need is weather stripping," said Farley.