Ottawa Food Bank improves distribution databases

The Ottawa Food Bank hopes to do a better job of feeding the hungry, thanks to help from Ontario’s Trillium Foundation, the Social Planning Council of Ottawa and four technology companies.

The Trillium Foundation has given the food bank a $75,000 grant for a two-year project called FoodNet, designed to improve the flow of information among more than 100 agencies that work with the food bank to distribute free food throughout the capital region, and to improve the way people in need are assigned to the appropriate agency in their area.

Cognos Inc., Adobe Systems Canada, Cisco Systems Canada Co. and Rogers Telecommunications Inc. are all helping with the project.

The first phase of FoodNet is to develop food ordering and information sharing systems so that a city-wide network of missions, food cupboards and other food distributors can better communicate with the food bank, said its executive director Peter Tilley.

Tilley said his organization works with 112 agencies, ranging from fairly large downtown missions to volunteer-run food cupboards operating out of suburban church basements. Rogers will provide Internet access for those organizations that don’t already have it, and those groups will also be given computers – most of which Tilley hopes will be donated – to provide them with access to the systems. The Trillium Foundation grant will help pay for some of the PCs and for central servers.

The ordering and information-sharing systems will mean agencies will be better informed about available food. For instance, said Tilley, a few years ago the United States temporarily closed its borders to Prince Edward Island potatoes, and shipments of surplus potatoes were sent to food banks across Canada. This system would have allowed the food bank to notify its partners quickly and easily that a large supply of potatoes was available, “instead of scrambling to place 112 phone calls, sending out faxes, leaving messages on answering machines,” Tilley said.

Volunteers from Cognos and Adobe are helping build the systems. Gardner Buchanan, a solutions architect at Adobe in Ottawa, said he and a colleague are working on applying Adobe’s electronic forms technology to allow the food agencies to fill out food orders and statistical reports offline. Initially the system will use online Web forms, he said, but the goal is to provide automated forms in the PDF format that can be filled out offline and then submitted.

Volunteers at Cognos are working on the back-end code that will take Extensible Markup Language (XML) data submitted by the Adobe forms and turn it into a database that the food bank can use to pull food orders and statistics, said Barry Gervais, project manager at Cognos. Cognos is not using its own software in the project, but is building the system using the open-source PHP development language and a SQL database. The company is donating money to buy hardware, however.

Gervais said the volunteers are working partly on company time and partly on their own time. The Adobe and Cognos developers are also working together to integrate the pieces, Buchanan added.

In the second phase of the project, the Food Bank will work with the Social Planning Council of Ottawa on an agency boundary-mapping system and a rapid agency look-up utility.

Food Bank users are assigned to one outlet to prevent double-dipping, Tilley said, and today this is usually done based on postal code. This can sometimes mean that people living within a block or two of one agency must travel a longer distance to reach another agency to which they have been assigned. The boundary-mapping project is meant to do a better job of matching people with the food sources closest to them.

The Social Planning Council will help by adapting information it already has to the Food Bank’s needs, Tilley said.

Tilley said the Food Bank has wanted to improve its systems for some time, but has been reluctant to direct money away from buying food, so the Trillium grant made it possible to go ahead.

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Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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