Bishop’s Stortford Town Council - Migrates 16,000 Cemetery Records to Rialtas

Bishop’s Stortford Town Council, has now gone live with the Rialtas Cemeteries and Memorial Management Solution. Please read on to find out why Rialtas was chosen, and the process undertaken by the council to migrate their 16,000 records to Rialtas.

Over to James Parker, Chief Executive Officer

"Bishop’s Stortford Town Council operates two Cemeteries with a total of more than 11,000 graves and 16,000 interments. We are fortunate that, some sixteen years ago, a programme was initiated to transcribe burial data from the historic burial books, which date back to the 1850s, to a custom created database. Although the database is a rather simple affair and records only a subset of essential information, it has served us well. However it is based on now outdated technology, the Town Council is no longer in contact with the person who created it, and its clearly time to move on to a properly supported solution which also helps with the process not just captures the data.

Having fully evaluated the options available, the Council settled on the Rialtas solution. This offers all the functionality needed (and more besides), is cost effective, and had the added bonus of linking directly to our accounts package which also uses Rialtas. Crucially Rialtas were able to offer the import of all our data – cross-typing 16K records was clearly not a realistic option!

As the import feature was being newly created, we worked collaboratively with Rialtas. As the Rialtas import routines were developed, we supplied sample data for test, provided feedback on features which were needed and also on the ‘template’ which Rialtas provided for the data import.

In parallel we worked on tidying up our own data. Over a century and a half it is hardly surprising that some data anomalies has accumulated. Furthermore there is some information which, quite rightly, is mandatory in the Rialtas solution, that was not directly captured in our legacy database. It was clearly not going to be practical to go through each record individually without driving the staff insane so, working with Rialtas, we made some considered choices. For example the issue date of ERBs (which was not captured in our database until recently) could be inferred, to the nearest year (but not to the day), from the sequence of the deed numbers. This we felt was good enough. So our imported records now show an extraordinary level of activity on Christmas Day each year – a day chosen so that it would be obvious to anyone in a few years time that it is wrong. We added a note to each record during the import stage this principle has been applied and the year but not the precise date is correct. Given the now inferred year of issue, it was possible to infer the duration of the ERB, another field which is rightly mandatory in the Rialtas database but not captured, until recently, in ours. We also took the opportunity also to infer or capture some non-mandatory data, for example whether a grave was consecrated or not, some memorial survey data which previously was separately held and a few other matters. We will need all of this data when we come to expand our grave-reuse programme (which is already underway, albeit in limited volumes), a move which will be forced on us in a few years’ time when we exhaust the very limited ‘virgin’ space available to us in the cemeteries.

It did take some mental (and excel) gymnastics to figure out all of the variations over the years, and it would be fair to say that ‘data cleanse’’ was the most arduous part of the journey for us, made more difficult because we couldn’t ‘freeze’ the existing data during the clean-up, for the simple reason that our Cemetery service must continue to operate. The intelligent database structure provided by the Rialtas solution, together with some verbal and email interchanges, was very helpful to this process, and any difficulty is due to our own failings over the years not those of the software. The end to end process took five months on and off, as the time had to be ‘stolen’ from day to day activities.

Finally, late in May 2022, we reached a point where the data was as clean as it was going to be and we had inferred everything we were realistically likely to infer. By this point we had tried several imports in a ‘test’ company created in the software to check that we were happy with the representation and that we had debugged all the errors in the cleansed data. It was time to do it for real. We backed up the Rialtas database, did a final dump from our legacy database, applied just a few manual corrections, and tried the import. Of course we got a few errors the first time round, due to recently changed data, but these were quickly fixed. Very soon after we had 11000 graves and 16000 interments in Rialtas. Time to take another backup!

At this point we took the decision to freeze data entry into any part of the system, including our accounting data, for half a day whilst we did a final look over to check that a systematic error had not crept in. As it happened we did find a couple of things to tweak, so we reverted back to the pre-import stage, tweaked the import data, and reimported. After a further backup and check, and we were satisfied not only that the data was sound but also that we were comfortable with the way it was represented. Time to print our first ERB from the system and have a cup of tea!

Data migration is almost inevitably a daunting task, particularly when the records go back for more than a century and a half. However I am pleased that, with the help of the Rialtas team, we have completed this task and can now look forward to reaping the rewards which will result from comprehensive system. I can also sleep a bit better an night, knowing that our most sensitive service does not depend on unsupported software. Now onto allotments….."