Data consolidation keeps commerce flowing at French Waterways

An MDM and data consolidation effort brought previously siloed databases together to better support boating operations on France's rivers and canals.

France's waterways -- including canals and such rivers as the Seine, Sarthe, Loire and Cher -- are both historic and scenic. They are also productive byways that generate commercial information in need of data consolidation.

The waterways, which have recently come under the control of French Waterways, a new state-owned entity, are traversed by bridges with tonnage limitations and clearage requirements. The rivers and canals carry travelers, raw materials and merchandise, and this creates data that must be managed.

Efforts began with a repository that provides data consolidation of databases containing information about boat registration, merchandise-on-board and general traffic along the more than 4,000 miles of waterways. The first project proved fruitful as data managers overseeing the initiative learned important lessons on cross-group communications for master data management (MDM).

Formerly a private-sector company, French Waterways made the transition to public entity at the beginning of this year. As it did, data management professionals worked to rebuild IT infrastructure and enact new MDM and data governance guidelines. Work on that initiative continues today.

"There was a need to deeply renew the information systems," Benoit Hollebecq, CIO at French Waterways, told SearchDataManagement via email. The forerunner company's information systems had been built mostly on the fly to answer business users' questions, he said, but the systems lacked the foundation of a global data strategy. The company turned to MDM and related technologies to help get the job done.

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To address data needs, French Waterways selected Redwood City, Calif.-based Informatica Inc.'s MDM platform. It implemented the software with the help of Logica, an IT services provider that is now part of Montreal-based CGI Group Inc. Data consolidation is a major piece of the initiative and French Waterways set the goal of replacing once siloed databases with unified data repositories.

A lot was learned on an initial project that consolidated 15 databases worth of information about boats and the waterways they traverse, according to Hollebecq. IT needed to learn to work closely with the business side when defining requirements and rules, he said. Moreover, communications became a paramount concern. Hollebecq said French Waterways' IT teams found value in forming workshops to explain MDM and share plans and objectives with "all actors." He said the effort helped popularize MDM and its principles throughout the organization.

Hollebecq advised others who would take this course to embrace compromise, to be ready to make near-term decisions and to expect to have to change some things in the future. Such changes can be difficult, especially at places like French Waterways, where the diversity of the component systems and user base constantly calls for ever more data to dice.

"The impacts of existing systems are significant," he said. "When the applications needed to be changed, and when the reference data was in MDM, we made short-term choices." These choices will be reviewed when renewing applications in the future, he said.

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