Lessons Learned: Embracing a Comprehensive Database

Using a comprehensive database to track landowner contacts and agency activities, the Arkansas Forestry Commission provides examples and inspiration.

Katherine Hollins

January 7, 2019

As long as there have been grants, there have been grant reports. Thirty years ago, the Arkansas Forestry Commission (AFC) was asking staff to mail in paper reports about their programs that aligned with Federal grants. That reporting was eventually switched to Access databases, but staff had to mail disks to Little Rock to keep the central database updated. Ten years ago, AFC invested $48,000 in an online database system accessible anywhere, and with real-time updates. It provides tracking and reporting capabilities well beyond what is needed for grants, and paid for itself in savings almost immediately.

Entries cover all kinds of activities and information: school programs, tree plantings, Arbor Day events, management plans, EQIP applications, site visits, fire information, participant contact information, and landowner demographics. All of this information in one place allows for more useful reporting and analysis on a variety of scales. One person may need to assess state-wide data from past fire seasons to plan for the next year, another may want to compare activities occurring in two different regions, and another may want to reference a particular landowner’s report to help them take the next step in managing their land. Activities are tagged with their program funding to make grant reporting simple.

Do you want to know how many newspaper articles were published related to AFC? The database can tell you.

When Evette Browning joined the agency in 2002, she was leading the agency’s outreach efforts and needed information about minority landowners. Most of the existing landowner entries didn’t include information about race, but AFC was able to modify the database to meet this new need. They changed “race” to be a mandatory field, and now Evette has the data she needs to be able to direct programming to appropriate counties and track how well AFC is serving minority landowners.

Though the database required a sizeable initial investment, it only costs $3,000 per year for hosting and maintenance. Assistant State Forester, Doug Akin feels it increases their efficiency, and ultimately saves them money. It even produced an immediate savings of $53,000 due to a reduced need for ArcGIS licenses. The database allows for just enough mapping to satisfy the needs of most staff, but all of the data can be exported to ArcGIS for more detailed analysis when needed. This reduced the need for each district office to have an expensive Arc license. Other savings come in the form of increased efficiencies. Staff are able to access the information they need easily, and outreach to landowners can be done in a more focused way. For example, if one county has a lot of landowners planting new trees, staff can use that information when deciding whether to build on the momentum in that area, or change the program offerings to take those landowners to the next level.

AFC’s database wasn’t built overnight. An early version was piloted with a handful of field staff to identify gaps and issues, and once all of the staff were able to use the database for a while, they were able to provide additional comments and ideas for making it more useful. These ideas were incorporated in the next update, and the system is regularly tweaked to satisfy emerging needs.

Nearly all AFC Foresters, Rangers, and Program Managers are required to record their activities in the system. New staff learn how to use the database as part of their new-hire training, and activities reporting via the database is linked to staff’s annual performance reviews. However, AFC also provides incentives for entering data – last year, the region with the best reporting rate received a new chainsaw for their department. With over 100 users, a database this comprehensive requires consistency. This is achieved by using dropdowns wherever possible, including mandatory fields, and forcing “contingencies” (e.g. you can’t input a tree planting inspection unless that landowner has a tree planting plan first).

The database can interface with ArcGIS.

Although developing a comprehensive database and getting buy-in from staff can feel intimidating, AFC provides an example of how to do it well. By investing in a product that met the needs of field staff and supervisors and produced immediate savings, the database was off to a good start. By creating incentives for using the database and establishing it as part of standard operating procedures with new staff, they have built a robust dataset. Now AFC staff can harness additional efficiencies with reporting and analysis, and the continued use of the database just builds on the information they can draw from. The AFC database is providing benefits and capabilities that go well beyond what is needed for a simple grant report.

Thank you to Evette Browning, Doug Akin, and Jim Jolley for being interviewed for this article.