In August 2005, the Catholic church held what was possibly the world's largest meeting: World Youth Day, a 10-day meeting in Cologne, Germany. In attendance were 630,000 “pilgrims,” along with tens of thousands of volunteer workers, suppliers, priests, and VIPs. Imagine trying to register that many people, accommodate them, and schedule their movements. Now imagine it without using sophisticated database technology.

That's what the church — or more accurately, the local organizing committee in each meeting's host country — was largely doing before 2002: relying on paper registrations, Excel spreadsheets, and other simple technologies. In 2002, the local organizing committee, after an extensive bidding process, chose Exposoft Solutions, at the time a little-known data management software developer, to take its registration online.

The results were impressive enough that by the time preparations began the next year for WYD 2005, Exposoft had won a contract to help the organizing committee there address a much broader slate of challenges. What Exposoft ultimately created was more than 40 customized applications that in some cases solved problems that appeared practically unsolvable.

Sign-Up Sheet

The first order of business was registration, especially for the “pilgrim” registration application. “World Youth Day is all about getting the funding in order to pull everything off,” says Christian Veldboer, Exposoft's project manager for WYD. “We had to get it up and running quickly.” Not an easy task because, to create a system that could process payments from around the world, Exposoft had to undertake a crash course in local laws and regulations for setting up merchant accounts.

Then there were the demands imposed by the sheer size of the event. Because hundreds of thousands of individual registrations would have caused a severe drain on the system, the company tailored the application to allow for registration by group. If there were 100 people coming together from Brazil, say, the group leader would do one registration.

Because some group members still needed to be accounted for as individuals, the system also recognized exceptions; for example, a group from Germany that did not need visas did not have to list all the individual's names.

Tongue Twister

Most vexing of all, however, was that there were five official languages for WYD 2005, so all public-facing Web pages had to be delivered in all five of those languages.

That led to the development of a translation database that allowed Exposoft to flag and label every word and phrase on every page. Then the company created an interface allowing translators to log in and systematically enter translations for each label. Everything first was translated from English, the global software development language, then to German so that the organizing committee could understand it. From there, it was translated into Spanish, Italian, and French.

Exposoft also facilitated translations of documents and correspondence sent among WYD staff and volunteers who spoke different languages. A system was set up allowing such items to be posted online. A translator could log in, see a new translation request, and state his availability, at which point other translators would no longer have access to that item. The ability to re-release partially translated items back into the system for completion also was included.

Task Matcher

The company also created programs, based on complex algorithms, that allowed the committee to match attendees with donated accommodations, assign volunteer workers to tasks they could perform, and pair attendees with priests for confessions based on languages spoken.

Creating the volunteer-matching software posed the greatest challenges. While there were approximately 500 paid staff for WYD 2005, there were about 37,000 volunteers who committed their availability for anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months.

Creating an automated way to schedule those people's activities seemed at first blush to be far-fetched. The volunteers spoke about 50 different languages. They had various skills, various tasks they were willing to perform, and various teams or groups they preferred to work with.

“The challenge was to find an interface that would allow us to match the skills and conditions and information about the volunteers to tasks entered by WYD departments,” says Veldboer. “It was almost an impossible undertaking, because of the pure amount of information and because tasks were dependent on a date, a time, a number of people you needed to pull off the task, qualifications and languages needed, and availability in terms of location or geographical distance to the task.”

Not only that, the goal was to allow WYD officials to locate the appropriate person for a task very quickly. “We soon found out that we had to add restrictions,” says Veldboer. In other words, the person seeking a volunteer for a task had to enter a language, an availability time frame, the number of people needed, etc. The more restrictions added to searches, the quicker the process became.

In addition, dropdown menus and calendar-selection fields were used liberally, while the amount of free text that users were allowed to enter was kept to a bare minimum. In the end, it was possible to get search results in seconds.

Heads in Beds

A somewhat different challenge was presented by the accommodations-matching program. While many attendees arranged places to stay on their own, some 303,000 needed help finding somewhere to sleep.

Cities that host WYD typically organize a drive to get private individuals and facilities such as schools, parish halls, and youth hostels to donate accommodations at little or no cost, which is vital because most attendees are young and on limited budgets. (Hotels housed only 11,000 participants, mostly VIPs.) For 2005, Exposoft created a system allowing such donors to log in and enter information about how many people they could accommodate. They could specify that they wanted to host people from specific countries or who spoke specific languages, and which gender and age range they preferred.

These donated sleeping quarters were grouped into geographical units so that members of large groups of people traveling together could stay near one another. Attendees also entered a number of personal details. Someone responsible for overseeing a specific geographical unit could see with a click how many accommodations had been offered, how many pilgrims had been assigned to them, when those pilgrims were to arrive, their languages, their transportation needs, and more.

It was easier to develop the program for matching attendees with priests for confession. There was a registration portal for priests offering confession services. The main variables were languages and time frames. Location was not an issue, because part of a large park was dedicated to confessions.

A Big Coup

Right after WYD 2002, Exposoft had no more than 15 employees. Now, nearly two years after WYD 2005 and the exposure that it brought, there are about 65. The company's Web site lists almost 80 customers, including associations, trade shows, corporations, and meeting-management companies.

While Veldboer does not say how much WYD 2005 paid Exposoft, he noted that a rule of thumb today is that about 10 percent of the funding for a large event goes for registration and other online services. “We were a little bit lower than that, but the overall revenue for the event was about 100 million euros, so we're not talking about a $50,000 platform here,” he says.

However, Exposoft not only was a major supplier to WYD 2005, but it also signed on as a major sponsor, in effect putting a big chunk of its revenue back into the event.

The next World Youth Day is slated to be held in Sydney, Australia, in July 2008. Attendance may be significantly lower than in Cologne, owing to the distance that most international attendees would need to travel. While work on the event is well under way, Exposoft will not be involved, as the organizing committee is showing a strong preference for local suppliers.

“WYD and the contract we signed gave us the potential for tremendous growth,” says Veldboer. “It increased the level of respect and trust that other organizations have in us. And it led us to explore things such as the translation module, travel-related modules, and the multiple matching solutions that we deployed. Now some of those things are fixed parts of the Exposoft core. We use the translation module for all kinds of events.”

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