BazLa: Improving the Way HELP Serves Students

In addition to our students’ latest activities and accomplishments month, we’d also like to tell you about a behind-the-scenes project that is coming to fruition after nearly two years of work.  We talked to Eric Goldhagen of Openflows Community Technology Cooperative who told us about his experience building “BazLa,” HELP’s brand new, student database.

How did the collaboration start?

Eric: In January 2013 my colleague Mark Libkuman and I were in Haiti for the first ever Haiti Hackathon put on by Digital Democracy and the day after the Hackathon we sat down with (Executive Director) Conor and (Deputy Country Director) Amber. We had a long meeting to discuss the ins and outs of HELP and outline the project.

What was the problem?

Eric: HELP had three or four separate systems and none of them were able to handle the complexity of the operations. A tool was needed that could assist staff in their work coordinating and keeping track of everything from student activities, to the support given to each student, and relationships with four separate universities – a tool that could grow as HELP continues to grow and expand.

Where did you begin?

Eric: The first step was to compile a comprehensive list of the existing open source software for Student Information Systems (SIS) but it turned out that none of the existing products were flexible enough to handle the wide range of services offered by HELP so we turned to creating our own system. We began with a combination of Open Source/Free Software tools; CiviCRM (a relationship manager commonly used by non-profits & NGOs) and Drupal (a content management system or CMS), which we customized to meet HELP’s organizational structure and processes. This forms the core of what we call BazLa in Creole, or The Base. The next step was to integrate additional software tools suited to some of HELP’s other activities. For example, Moodle courseware manages all of HELP’s academic offerings including the four-year ESL and Leadership programs as well as the two-year IT curriculum, and KOHA is an Integrated Library System that monitors HELP’s books and resources as they are loaned out to students.

Do all these systems work seamlessly with each other?

Eric: Not yet. Right now, there is communication from BazLa to Moodle and KOHA so that student information and accounts exist across the platforms and don’t need to be re-entered or duplicated. We are working on having KOHA also send information back to BazLa so that the systems are fully integrated.

This sounds really complicated.

Eric: It is. It’s probably the most wide reaching project we’ve ever done and seeing it installed, used by HELP, and working the way it we hoped it would is very exciting. It’s why we do this.

What was the process like?

Eric: At Openflows, we operate on a user-centric building process where we involve the costumers and the users from the very beginning. For BazLa, we put together a working prototype even in the development stage so that the HELP staff could provide feedback and collaborate on ideas at each step. We worked through failures and missteps together that helped lead to a stronger end result. Together we designed this system that could handle all the various transactions and records that HELP staff manages every day and we even improved some HELP procedures to make them more efficient. In January 2014 we went to Haiti and built the BazLa server and a battery backup system and we returned in July to train the staff and work out any kinks before new students arrived. We will be back again in January 2015 for some follow-up training.

What were some of the major challenges you encountered?

Eric: The system as a whole was a challenge. Trying to create something that would work and would be usable by staff was very difficult. We also wanted to have a finished product that was sustainable, that could be maintained by HELP’s IT department and expanded for increased student body and additional programs added in the future. By far the most difficult piece of this project was the class scheduling software. The HELP Academic department asked if we could build a tool that would compare students’ university schedules and find common availabilities when they could attend their English, Leadership, and IT classes. The math necessary for that is amazing and I wasn’t sure it would work. But it did! And now HELP is able to have fewer sections of each class with more students in each for a more complete and dynamic experience.

Where is the project headed from here?

Eric: Phase I, primarily concerned with managing the advisor-student relationships, is finished. Phase II, which involves linking the academic department, the library, and other student requests is nearly complete. Looking ahead, Phase III will focus on coordinating and tracking HELP’s extensive recruitment process and after that we will turn our attention to HELP alumni, building them their own “dashboard” where they can submit updates on their jobs and other projects as well as find job openings that HELP has heard about.

Has your experience at HELP changed your view of Haiti?

Eric: Absolutely. I had very little experience with Haiti before I began this project but now … it’s hard to put into words but I suppose the best way to put it is this: every time I go to Haiti now, I try to bring more and more people so they can experience Haiti too. I brought a team to run the 1st annual Haiti Marathon last January and we’ll run again in January 2015!