eServices are on the up

This is an exciting time for electronic data systems according to the speakers at a recent BCS Elite gathering.

Expectations are high for future eGovernment services, the semantic web can essentially be summed up as content about content, and the DVLA are making the most of their new electronic data system. Justin Richards reports on the BCS Winter Elite event.

Investment, innovation and aspirations in local government

According to Adrian Hancock, director of policy support and programme management for SOCITM (Society for IT managers) the current expenditure on IT within local government is £3.3billion.

45 per cent of this is spent on staff and 12 per cent on software acquisition and maintenance. Approximately 29,000 staff are employed within the ICT sector, 59 per cent of whom are employed using the usual channels, 28 per cent are contracted in and 13 per cent are outsourced.

Local government equipment comes from a number of sources, which roughly break down as follows:

45% Dell
26% HP/Compaq
13% Toshiba
6% Samsung
4% IBM
6% Other

Overall spending on IT is up from £2.7bn to £3.3bn and is expected to rise to nearly £4bn by 2008. However, actual spending on ICT accounts for only 2 per cent of total local government spend.

For the duration of the eGovernment initiative, which officially ended at the beginning of 2006, central government contributed £675M to fund a range of projects and innovation programmes.

Socitm Insight's annual survey of local authority websites (Better Connected) shows that the number of transactional websites has grown from 38 in 2005 to 60 in 2006 but that there appears to be little correlation between the transactional nature of the websites and overall council performance, as indicated by the CPA process. However, there is a correlation between these councils and those in the most likely to improve category.

One thing that did arise from the surveys was that the authorities need to focus more on a transformational agenda, which, in itself, requires a stronger commitment from local authorities and the way in which they manage the self-service channels.

Socitm Information Age Group (SIAG) believes there is evidence to suggest that eGovernment is often perceived as being web-focused, which is in contrast to transformational government through which the government is attempting to offer a more holistic approach around issues such as identity management, authentication and a shared services culture.

There are many good examples from local government where, using the foundations built during the eGovernment programme, they have moved into more transformational areas.

Leeds City council's digital pen and paper initiative is a good example of transforming a service using a technology infrastructure to bring benefits to the end user of the service as well as delivering internal efficiencies.

This project enables its home visitors to complete various home care forms using a digital pen/paper format, which the council estimates could save approx £4.6M over a three year period.

The trickiest thing is often to get people to use eGovernment services in the first place; the technical side is often more straightforward.

In West Devon, for example, citizens can use a SMS access channel in rural areas, which is basically a web enabled GIS software delivery planning service which works via SMS texting, using either SMS or SPRS to enable video spatial access to planning services.

Another local strategy can be found in Derby where a technical infrastructure platform has been developed which will enable a range of transformational initiatives to be developed without the need to worry about technology.

The strategic framework enables multi partner collaboration between bus companies within a secure and sustainable environment, which can provide customers with information regarding bus timetables. The council have kept the system as simple as possible in order to better provide an enabling service.

Local government has high aspirations for eGovernment services. A recent White Paper provides general direction and policy but is still only part of the picture.

Its implications are that ID management and authentication are crucial to the whole system working, and it encourages data sharing across multiple organizations, and through a number of different service delivery environments.

Local authorities are often far more complex than private enterprise in terms of the disparate range of services offered and the legislative requirements that so often accompany service delivery.

Just trying to bring all the various partnerships into the mix can be a monumental task. However, local Government needs to ask a number of questions of itself if things are to proceed in a satisfactory way.

  • Is the pace of change fast enough?
  • Is it bold enough?
  • Does it address the business/IT divide?
  • Does it have the necessary skills to deliver the changes required?
  • Does government have the compelling vision that is necessary to implement these changes?
  • Can all the stakeholders be engaged?
  • Are sufficient resources being committed into this mammoth project?

Ultimately, transformational government is less about the amount spent than it is about better tools and the vision to use them.

Creating a science of the web

Vannever Bush once claimed the human mind works by associative links, which ask why something links to something else.

The semantic web wants for us to be able to ask more questions of it but the web's development has been slowed down somewhat in recent years, began Professor Wendy Hall during the evening's second address.

The Google search engine is very clever as it uses people popularity as its search algorithm. However, to improve the success of searches one really needs to add context otherwise the engine won't clarify your search.

Semantic Web sees the adding of metadata into the mix whereby content is created specifically about content. Engines will, therefore, try to answer questions that relate to data, and their search is not just about finding an exact copy of your question within a document.

This is where ontologies come in. Hence for a meeting one would have content about different aspects of the meeting including location, speakers, and the schedule. There will be content relating to each section of meeting content.

The semantic web is all about revealing such content rich information to the world by opening up databases and ontologies ready for comparisons to be made.

We are not there yet but in approximately two years time the web will be properly semantic and ontology driven.

The web hasn't reached the 'mosaic' moment yet (whereby all the pieces of the puzzle come together), which will ultimately allow the semantic web to really come into its own; it is close though.

AKTive PSI involves the building of semantic databases and knowledge bases, however, at all times there is a need to be able to maintain the provenance of the data. Hence, triple stores are better than databases. Mashups are also useful for putting data together and answering certain questions.

For example, it is possible to combine search results for café hygiene results and café customer satisfaction to obtain an interesting picture on how popular restaurants are failing their customers behind the scenes even if they are triumphant in the dinning area.

Obviously when all the available data is integrated properly this becomes far more useful than all the separate parts.

Our lives are becoming increasingly entangled and run by the web so it is vitally important that data is properly managed in a secure way.

One of the things that Garlick (a project that Wendy Hall is personally involved in) has been doing, in conjunction with the University of Southampton, is to research the way data is used and obtained from the web and develop a better understanding of all the ramifications.

Hence, a new science has been born to provide a better social understanding of the internet and how society interacts with it. By adding metadata to the web the researchers are able to better determine who has done what within the web.

ID management is becoming increasingly crucial to the future of the web. It has almost reached the point whereby we need the equivalent of electronic DNA for ID management to work and for people's details to be properly and reliably authenticated.

Data managers need to be able to use redundancy as a means of checking that data is genuine. In future it is likely that there will be a need to obtain a trusted third party in order to authenticate anything operating across the web.

DVLA business strategy and transactions response

The DVLA wants to be the trusted partner right at the heart of road safety. Therefore, its mission is to maximize its contribution to improving road safety, reducing crime, improving the environment and increasing the public expectation of government services through the effective provision of its statutory core activities of driver and vehicle registration.

This is the agency's mission statement according to Ieuan Griffiths, director of finance and strategy at the DVLA.

He went on to say that since April 2004 the agency, which was previously linked to the department of transport, has been going it alone, using 7,200 staff, many of whom are part-time.

The DVLA has an annual turnover of £600M, has its two main sites in Swansea, 40 local offices and 4,000 post office service providers. It processes over 128 million transactions per year and is steadily growing.

Its vehicle database contains the details of  over 56 million vehicles, 36 million of which are classified as 'live' and its driver database contains information concerning 68 million drivers, of which 40 million are classified as 'live'.

The call centre deals with 24 million calls each year and issues 8 million driving licenses. There are approximately 950,000 prosecutions per year for road tax offences and the DVLA deals with over 380,000 medical cases.

The Agency is currently trying to have the address removed from the licence, since we are the only European country to have this on the licence. In future the DVLA aims to issue a smart card version of the licence and drop the use of the traditional cards.

Until five years ago the agency was still a paper factory but took the first steps toward a EDI based system in 2001. The system is constantly improving but still requires greater efficiency and flexibility. Purpose built call and innovation centres, with shared services and a combined training centre have all increased performance.

One of the main IS challenges was to reengineer the driver database, which involved considerable stakeholder management. One of the main hurdles is to change legislation which, as always, is slow going.

The main ambition is to change the licences into cards with chips on them to make information exchange simpler. In order to do this it will focus first on drivers before examining individual vehicle details.

From next March all endorsements will be shared between the UK and Ireland, and this cooperation will extend eventually towards information sharing between EU countries. The DVLA already shares much of its information with other organizations, including the NHS, IPS, DSA, MoD, HMRC, Police and local authorities.

Additionally, to change anything it first has to consult all its numerous stakeholders, which includes the Home Office, DFT, the insurance sector, HM Treasury and the European Commission, hence alterations are frequently slow to implement.

However, even with so many hurdles to over come the DVLA aims to be able to provide a simple, secure and customer focused service, aided immensely by ever improving information technology, for years to come.

Examples of how IT is changing the system include Electronic Vehicle Licensing (EVL), the agency's road tax online system, which went live in 2004 and intends to extend its service to include direct debit payments in 2007, and the EDL system, which enables all driver licence transactions, and went live in 2006, with further plans for expansion during January 2007.

Future DVLA projects include developing the capability to support ID cards, improving information services for the Police (e.g. officers obtaining information directly from BlackBerry style devices, to help them ascertain whether someone has given them false information) and providing support for future road pricing schemes.