Company: SybaseCustomer: Government (various)Submitted by: Portfolio CommunicationsSybase’s leading technologies are helping the Department of Social Security (DSS), the Department for Education and Employment (DFEE) and the Scottish Executive develop a new approach for disseminating web content to users without the need for storing and updating many thousands of pages of static HTML content. The new dynamic Web portal architecture, known as the Welfare Information System (WIS) will help the government provide a wide range of accurate and consistent services and information to the public.
The dawn of electronic government
One of the government’s key e-government targets is that by 2005, 100 per cent of the individual’s contact with government agencies and civil servants should be available electronically via the Web or digital television. This might be to renew a driving licence, apply for a passport, register a claim for disability benefit, pay a parking fine, find a new school, look for vacancies at your local Jobcentre, or even participate in an election or referendum.
In practice however, there are major challenges to be overcome before talk of ‘joined up government’ can be turned into reality. The Department of Social Security faced problems with its Internet information delivery strategy. The DSS’s Website content had grown up over many years from an initial project of a small number of simple web pages. Poor housekeeping and erratic Website growth meant that the content had become unreliable.
The Web offers new ways of distributing information, but it can also become a major administrative and cost burden. This is especially true when a major shake-up takes place, such as a change in government or policy emphasis. Changing the content of all of these pages was a daunting task because of the lack of adequate central administration. Each individual page would require amendment by a qualified web designer. A further problem was the lack of standard categories for information – resulting in unreliable and inconsistent Internet search results. Worse still, the same information existed in multiple locations with no way of cataloguing or linking the data.
To address these serious challenges, the DSS decided it needed a new national Web infrastructure. The new approach would centralise all DSS Web data in a common format and would only require updating at a single location. The new solution, Welfare Information System or WIS, was developed by the DSS Information Technology Services Agency (ITSA) using Sybase technology.Today, WIS is becoming the key infrastructure for deploying government information onto the Web. It has the potential for allowing all government departments to deploy national on-line databases that help to address specific ‘life issues’.
For example, a member of the public might want to know which authorities could help with the arrangements after a divorce, bereavement, disability or other major life change. This can require the co-operation of many agencies; for example claims for housing benefit demand the input of local authorities, the DSS and a local housing association at the very least.
A mature solution
Before choosing Sybase for WIS, ITSA looked at a number of different technology solutions. It evaluated and rejected a database solution from BT and ICL. The system needs to be flexible enough to cope with changes in government legislation or policy direction. For this reason, it also rejected Oracle and BT solutions because it would have required a re-structuring of the databases or the underlying programming code at great cost to the DSS every time a major change took place.
Sybase technology was chosen because it offered the right technologies to help the DSS deliver on its WIS project goals. It had previous experience of a similar project for Sweden’s DSS equivalent – Riksförsäkringsverket (RFV) – The National Social Insurance Board.Gwyn Jones, Technical Manager at ITSA, explained the choice of Sybase technology: “Sybase was the only company that provided technologies that could at the time actually do what was claimed. SEMA came to us with mature, easy and quick to develop products that had been proven to work in similar projects in Scandinavia. No other company could offer that.”ITSA deployed Sybase Adaptive Server Enterprise (ASE) as its central information repository.
Sybase EAServer was chosen to manage almost all web activity from the creation of the rules used to build on-demand web pages using Sybase technology.It also uses Sybase PowerJ development suite, which provides ITSA with a comprehensive solution for developing sophisticated yet simple Internet database applications. PowerJ uses Java development technology to harness the power of HTML, Java applets (or mini applications).Sybase PowerDesigner DataArchitect module enables developers to flexibly structure the data for presentation on the Web, using physical and conceptual data modelling technologies. This has allowed ITSA to develop the most effective data structures to facilitate fast conversion of content held on ASE to the web via EAServer.WIS provides the DSS with central management of all data.
Technically, no web pages exist, only the source data and a rules-based web page creation engine built around Sybase EAServer.
The key to data integrity
Security is a serious issue where data protection legislation is a key consideration. The information provided to the DSS is public information, but it is owned by the local agencies providing the information. If the integrity of the information were compromised, the content changed or users were re-directed to other sites, the effect for the DSS, and ultimately the government’s reputation could be disastrous.ITSA uses Enterprise JavaBeans, PKI technology and CORBA to complement EAServer’s built-in security functionality. This helps to establish a highly secure data exchange between local agencies and the DSS’s central Sybase ASE server.
The solution operates on the Sun Solaris hardware platform. EAServer allows ITSA to leverage the powerful functionality of Enterprise JavaBeans and CORBA security functionality.
A nation of e-childminders
The WIS architecture is a key component of a new national childcare database, ‘ChildcareLink’ (www.childcarelink.gov.uk) developed by the DSS in conjunction with 153 regional and childcare partners, including local authorities.
It is the first application to be deployed onto the WIS architecture and was designed using Sybase EAServer and Power J. Information is held centrally on Sybase Adaptive Server Enterprise at the DSS.The initiative was designed to address a key objective of the government’s National Childcare Strategy, which is a cornerstone of Tony Blair’s ‘Welfare to Work’ initiative.Helen Mair, Operations Manager of ChildcareLink, said that the service is now an invaluable weapon in their arsenal for finding the right childcare solution for individual parents: “It provides salient information about childcare provision, finding the right kind of childminder; emergency out-of-hours childcare and access points to relevant national information.
“It continues to be enormously advantageous to everyone who uses it,” she added.
Local agencies connect to the DSS server over the Internet via a dial-up modem connection. The DSS then uploads a portion of this local data and adds it to a database of information held on the ITSA’s central server. The information is then assembled by Sybase EAServer and is stored within ASE. Information is then presented dynamically with Sybase EAServer technology and Netscape Enterprise Server at the front-end.One of the agencies connected to ChildcareLink is Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council, a local authority based in the North West of England. John Halligan, Information Manager of Leisure Services at Wigan, said that the ChildcareLink database has acted as a means for change within his local authority, as well as providing accurate information to Wigan parents.
“The Childcare Information Service has acted as a major catalyst for us in our efforts to develop a two-way dialogue between the DFEE, DSS and the local childcare providers,” explained Halligan. “Technology should not be a barrier to empowering business goals. The technologies chosen by ITSA have contributed considerably to the effectiveness of the overall solution.”
Future of e-government?
WIS offers a compelling and highly scalable model for e-government. Gwyn Jones continues, “The ChildcareLink service clearly illustrates the potential for enormous cost savings across government, while making accurate and fast service delivery of government services a real possibility for the first time, since the invention of the benefit claim form.”By providing a means for dynamically delivering rapidly updated web content direct to the user’s desktop, ITSA has been able to streamline and take much of the risk and effort out of finding suitable childcare provision.
The next step, in May 2000, is to further develop these service offerings to a wider DSS client-community. The ITSA already has plans for an on-line benefit fraud form, which will allow anyone who notices someone claiming any kind of employment benefit while working, to report the individual to the relevant authorities. This secure service will allow the anonymous notification of ‘benefit cheats’ quickly and easily. Users of the service will not even need to make a phone call.
There are further plans for a pension value prediction website. The ITSA hope that the new service will integrate with all of the relevant departments, such as the Inland Revenue, Contributions Agency and private sector pension providers to give users an accurate estimate of their pension entitlement upon retirement.
Log on to e-nurses
All of these services could soon be available from e-government kiosks located in public buildings. Companies such as Boots the Chemist and Rolls Royce have also shown an interest in deploying the ChildcareLink service within their organisations.”These are exciting times we live in and the real possibilities for WIS and Sybase technologies are endless. With the political will and public buy-in we could be looking at a brave new e-government future,” concluded Helen Mair.