Pharmac publishes directly with open source

The TeX solution reduced the cost of the project to a fraction of what the proprietary solution would have cost, says IT manager

The Pharmaceutical Management Agency of New Zealand (Pharmac) has developed an open source solution for publishing the Pharmaceutical Schedule online.

Using TeX, an open source typesetting system, Pharmac’s IT department built a solution which enables the schedule to be published in book form, directly from the same XML source that is used to process subsidy claims.

The project actually started using proprietary software, says John Geering, Pharmac’s IT manager. After initially being told by local typesetters that automatic typesetting was not possible, he managed to find a proprietary 3B2 typesetting solution from a UK-based company.

Even though the system turned out to be incredibly complicated, Pharmac stuck with it, Geering says. Geering and his team went on a three week 3B2 training course, but they did not feel confident about maintaining the system after the course, he says.

“[The system] looked pretty ugly under the hood,” he says.

However, when the project was nearing its end, the UK company was acquired by another company, and Pharmac lost contact with the developers in the process. It was like the company “pulled the plug on us”, says Geering.

While Pharmac was working on the 3B2 solution, Geering’s son, a programmer still in school at the time, said that he could build a better solution using TeX.

Geering decided to give his son’s idea a go. They came up with a proof-of-concept, and it worked, says Geering.

Geering and two IT staff developed the whole open source system in-house, reducing the cost of the project to a fraction of what the 3B2 solution would have cost, he says.

The team used Python, libxml/libxslt and TeX, running on Debian GNU/Linux, and the open document standards TeX, XML, MathML, XHTML, and Xlink, says Geering.

The Tex schedule project went live in April. The schedule book is printed three times a year — April, August and December, but because the project has been successful, Pharmac is now considering publishing monthly, says Geering.

“The main thing is that it is a very robust, reliable system, and that is what we were looking for,” he says.

Support for the system is really good, says Geering. “I had no idea that TeX was used so much,” he says. If you have a problem, you just google it, he says, and if you can’t find a solution, there are plenty of discussion groups where you tend to get an answer fairly quickly, he says.

The new system has greatly improved accuracy, says Geering. Users can now enter data into the database, and basically press a button and publish the schedule within a minute, he says. Errors can be picked up straight away, he says.

In the past, all claims that came in from pharmacies were processed manually using a paper schedule.

There was a 200-staff centre in Wanganui where every claim was manually keyed in. In 2000, the process was automated and Pharmac’s IT team provided a database, but the problem was there were no links between the database and the printed schedule, says Geering.

The Pharmaceutical Schedule book is distributed to over 9,000 health professionals, and the corresponding database is used to process over 40 million subsidy claims every year.

Pharmac’s TeX schedule project is a one of four finalists in government section of the Open Source Awards, to be held in Wellington later this month.c

The Open Source Awards finalists are:

Open Source Ambassador:

Lynne Pope, Waikato Linux Users Group, Peter Harrison

Open Source Contributor:

Michael Koziarski, Chris Cormack, Graeme Williams, Matthew Cruickshank

Open Source Software Project:

New Zealand Open GPS, Koha, Gerris Flow Solver, Weka

Open Source Use in Government:

State Services Commission (E-government Unit), Electoral Enrolment Centre, Pharmac (Schedule Team), Ministry of Social Development (Applications Development Team)

Open Source Use in Business:

Zenbu, Plan HQ, New Zealand Post/Red Hat, Zoomin, Silverstripe

Open Source Use in Education:

New Zealand Summer of Code, New Zealand Open Source Virtual Learning Environment, Hagley College of Computing, Eduforge

Open Source Use for Community Organisations:

Vet Learn, Citizen Click/ Egressive, Aotearoa Independent Media Centre, Julian Priest (Consume/WSF II)

Open Source for Creativity:

Select Parks, Upstage, Stray Cinema, War Art Online (Archives New Zealand), NZHistory.Net, Access Radio

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