Freedom from Torture, the human rights charity, has developed a case management system that it said could be used by other mid-sized organisations.

Freedom from Torture, the human rights charity, has developed a case management system that it said could be used by other mid-sized organisations.

The charity believes that the system – built with software developing company LShift as part of 'Project Daylight' – fills a gap in the market that the charity discovered when it first started looking for a solution that would help it pull its many data sources into one place.

"Initially when we did research, we wanted to see if we could buy a system off the shelf," said Freedom from Torture's ICT manager Seth Harman.

"There wasn't one. Many companies had systems that were too big for what we wanted to do, for example, tailored for larger NHS organisations."

Even those used by GP practices were too big, said Harman, as the charity only currently has 2,000 live client cases. An average GP surgery has around 6,000 patient cases to manage.

Meanwhile, the problem with other vendors of CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems was that the charity would still need to re-engineer the systems to tailor them to the charity's specific needs.

Open access database

"One of the key things was that we had open access to the database, to have reports where we could directly query SQL database, so that we would not have to go back to the vendor and pay them to make changes," said Harman.

"Because we had an open access database, we can do all the reports in-house. We don't have to go back to the supplier to get a report."

He added: "At the moment we have a [six-month rolling] support contract with LShift, but the long-term idea is we want to be operationally independent."

Freedom From Torture therefore owns the source code to the case management system, as well as the intellectual property rights.

It based the IT infrastructure on the standard Microsoft architecture for building internal and external web applications, and adopted Microsoft.Net and SQL server technologies. It uses Microsoft's ASP.NET MVC 2 framework to build the applications for the project.

It already uses Microsoft's Active Directory to manage security and user authentication across the organisation.

Historically the charity, formerly known as the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, has provided support, therapy and long-term care services to 50,000 asylum seekers coming into the UK.

It has around 200 staff users based across centres in Birmingham, Glasgow, London, Manchester and Newcastle, who were storing and accessing data on clients in about 20 different ways.

"Prior [to the new system] we had a number of different ways for people to capture information, from [several disconnected] databases to Excel spreadsheets. It was very difficult to get information out, so we needed to have everything in one place," Harman explained.

It used to be very hard to extract information such as how many clients were from which country, he said, which would be useful to support emergency fundraising efforts and focus the organisation's campaign work.

Freedom from Torture's independent documentation of torture also often pay a critical part in Medico-Legal Reports (MLRs) in asylum seeker legal cases.

The new system allows the charity to access this data more easily and to respond quickly to events. For example, in February, the charity needed to know how many of its clients would be affected by the UK government's plans to send a plane full of Tamils back to Sri Lanka.

Freedom from Torture also wanted to develop a system that would allow users to input data directly themselves, instead of staff writing information by hand and typing it in later.

Data challenges

The charity started building the system in December 2010 and went live with it in May 2011. It has completed the first phase of the work, which included capturing client information, such as their names and addresses.

This was not without its challenges.

"One of the big problems we had was migrating the data from the old system to the new system. We just underestimated the amount of work that was involved," Harman admitted.

It is now looking at the next stage, which involves looking at how notes made by staff are recorded, and how staff can make appointments with the system.

The system, which is hosted internally, also had to deal with the fact that client information – given the asylum seeker status – is built up in chunks. To work around this, LShift built a bespoke validation system that allows the system to store 'pages' with incomplete data over unpredictable periods.

"The information is built up in an iterative, non-linear fashion. That was technically quite difficult to deal with. [With the new system] you can put things into the system which are not complete.

"The next step will be tracking a client's progress," Harman said, which is large task as cases can last for many months, often years.

Call for help

While the new system has helped to deliver significant benefits to the charity – which does not get any government funding – it is keen to develop the system further with any interested third parties.

It is actively seeking investment to support ongoing development, via partnerships, grants and technology sharing with similar organisations.

"If someone out there wants to help us, we'd be very keen to work with them," said Harman.