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CAT and your mouse

technical: computing

Chang Lab's cat, a relational database optimised for use in the small business environment, is becoming a standard office tool in many design practices. It provides users with a series of templates covering most aspects of business operations from a client letter to time sheets and job costing, combining aspects of word processors and spreadsheet applications with a series of tools allowing users to design complex templates very quickly.

A relational database rather than a file database, in simple terms it allows information to be gathered from a number of sources to generate a resource based on this information. Placing all this information in a relational database means that records do not have to be repeated, and a document can assemble information from several files in a dynamic way. For example, details of a client's address may be held in one data file, while details of the work being carried out for them are in another. A letter template can extract information from other data files and automatically place the corrects details where needed.

As well as greatly speeding up the creation of new documents, this approach also has the advantages of only storing information in one place. One of the greatest problems with any database is keeping all the records up to date. If a record is updated in the primary database the information will also appear in its new form in any published documents. As this relational cross-referencing works across the board administration tasks such as writing a report are made much more reliable and can be accomplished faster as they can be assembled directly from currently held information.

In its simplest form cat can be used as a contact manager but this would be a tremendous waste of its potential. Several add-ons have been developed aimed at design practices. They include an architect's job-costing set of templates from Chang Labs and a contract administration package called cafgen co-developed by the riba. cafgen adds the ability to produce the standard contract documents produced by the riba. More than 20 forms are available, all fully cross-referenced, including architect's instructions and certificates.

As architects are supposed to buy packs of standard documents from the riba to be used in contracts cafgen could save a practice a fair bit of money as well as making filing information a lot easier. Software is sold on a subscription basis, costing £75 per year for the first user and an additional £25 for every user added. The manual is clear and gives detailed editing instructions for each form.

The reaction to the use of the software by architects is very enthusiastic, a typical quote being: 'This program is a 'must-have' when it comes to contract management. Databases, riba standard documents, letters and records of phone calls can be brought up on to the screen along with infinitely customisable contact histories'.

A set of architects' job-costing templates is also available from Chang. These help you to keep track of a project's finance, to produce invoices and carry out performance analysis throughout the project. The ability to identify problems in resourcing early on can make the difference between profit and loss. The job-costing system costs £40 - compared with the time it would take yourself, it's a bargain.

It would be possible to create a similar system using FileMaker Pro 4.0 or any other relational database, but this would involve far more expertise than is needed to get going with cat. The range of tools for form creation and the simple learning curve make this an ideal management tool for those who don't have the time to set up complex systems. Add to this the fact that cat is very fast and only needs 1.5 Mb of ram to run, and it becomes hard to beat.

A network version is also available, called catnet. This will automatically synchronise files found on different machines on a network ensuring that everyone is using the most up-to-date information. As with any program of this type, time has to be spent setting up the system to gain maximum benefit, and the minimal documentation does not make this as simple as it could be.

Both cat and cafgen are available for Macintosh and Windows pcs. For further detail and a demo disc call Chang Labs on 01285 644403, quoting the aj for a special discount package, or riba Publications on 0171 251 9911. Chang Labs is offering aj readers a special discount package.

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