The EMS Energy Institute at Penn State

Coal Researchers Get Much Improved Online Access to Samples Data


The EMS Energy Institute at Penn State is a leading research and development organization focused on energy science and engineering. Located within the university's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS), the Energy Institute was first established as The Combustion Laboratory in 1949, and today is committed to the development of clean energy technologies that will assist the nation in meeting its growing energy demands. Since 1950, the Energy Institute's Coal and Organic Petrology Labs has maintained coal samples from states across the country, with the current samples numbering over 1,400 from 26 states. Along with the samples are hundreds of data points on each to provide coal researchers and students with vital details on this natural resource and to assist in the selection of coals for their research.

The Challenge

Prior to contracting with IT Solutions, the Coal and Organic Petrology Labs maintained a Microsoft Access database with a Web site interface for searching. But the system was very slow and didn't allow for searching on multiple sample values. The software had become out-of-date and no one at the Institute was familiar enough with the platform to make modifications that might improve performance. Following a 3-day training session with the Energy Institute staff on the latest version of database software FileMaker, authorized trainer and custom development consultant ITS was contracted to build a replacement solution. The solution needed to be easy for director of the Coal and Petrology Labs Gary Mitchell to maintain and update, as well as provide a stable, faster back-end to a publically accessible Web site. The sample database included more than 400 measures for each sample, which provided an extra dimension of difficulty.

The Solution

By building the database in FileMaker 8.5 and programming the dynamic Web pages in PHP, the IT Solutions FileMaker team determined they could speed up the searching of the coal bank data and create a more dynamic system for the client.

The solution was difficult from a development perspective. The PHP API for FileMaker was still relatively new and required extensive review and testing prior to implementation. The large size of the database presented some other concerns: how to best display over 400 points of data, and also how to give the client the versatility to make adjustments to the Web site should certain data points become necessary to display. Speed of searching was important, but fortunately the data itself was quite static, so storing sets of data was a viable solution.

Management of the project required remote reviews of progress due to a relatively long distance between consultant and client. This proved to be only a minor obstacle as screen sharing software and conference calls allowed for productive remote interaction that provided valuable feedback to keep the project on deadline and budget.

The Return

Following completion of development and a smooth deployment on the Energy Institute's network, the Coal and Petrology Labs now has a much faster, more agile Web interface for researchers to access the data they are looking for, including the ability to search on multiple measures in a single search. Similarly, Dr. Mitchell has the ability to review access to the system so that appropriate follow-up calls to users can be made.

"Client accessibility to the data has reduced consultation time considerably."

Gary Mitchell, Ph D, Director, Coal & Organic Petrology Laboratories

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