March 2005

Developing interoperable information System

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National e-Governance framework

Generally e-Governance evolves through three stages. In the first stage, dissemination of information is the main goal. In the second stage, e-Governance users access department-specific services. The ‘enterprise’ approach (based on the concept of joined-up government) with citizens at its focus and having integrated services and back office servicing takes it to the third stage of evolution, which is transformation. As government services are diverse and independently offered by various departments and ministries, consolidation into a joined-up government is not a simple affair. A key enabler in this direction is the interoperability framework. There must be a mandatory compliance with the accepted standard, interface and architecture at all levels to be interoperable, so that data and information can be exchanged and processed seamlessly across government. The framework should cover policies and standards for achieving technical, semantic, and syntactical process interoperability.

Background

Government possesses one of the largest repositories of information products and services. Public access to these services is uncoordinated, cumbersome, complicated, slow, paper-based and most often very confusing. This is further complicated when more than one of the agencies are involved1 . e-Governance or electronic governance may be defined as delivery of government services and information to the public using electronic means. Generally e-Governance has three evolutionary stages2 3 . In the first phase, dissemination of information is the prime objective of e-Governance. This phase begins with a mere ‘presence’ stage where individual departments host their websites conveying the Government’s initiative in providing information relating to the department’s functioning such as its official address, working hours, forms, rules and regulations to the public. This stage may slowly evolve into a web portal where the public gets a common integrated view to all information.

In the second phase, these portals progress to ‘transaction’ phase where e-Governance users access department-specific services that support two-way interactions and transactions besides an integrated view of information. At this stage, all departments are computerised separately and the user has to go to different departments for availing the services offered by them. Since delivery of a majority of government services involves the collaborative effort of several related departments and various tiers of government, this department-centric approach has many shortcomings. It results in a situation, where the citizen is forced to provide the same information multiple times at multiple locations in multiple formats. Government agencies are also required to enter the same data repeatedly at different places. Duplication of data and efforts increases cost and complexity for the citizen availing these services. As pointed out in the document Vision of e-Government in State of Andhra Pradesh in India4:

“From its experience in implementing a few e-Government projects at the department/agency level, the GOAP realised that such individual projects implemented by the departments on a standalone basis would result in duplication of work, besides creating islands of excellence, which are not interoperable. Integration of these disparate systems at a later time would involve tedious plumbing. A standards-based approach was felt to be the need of the hour”.

Moreover, incompatible data at different departments hinders government efforts to detect fraud. It is also found that the benefits of e-Governance initiatives within an isolated department are sub-optimal and finally results in no substantial speed or efficiency gain. It is here that the enterprise approach combined with the concepts of ‘life events’ is becoming a predominant policy consideration while designing government services. The enterprise approach emphasises a statewide perspective as opposed to a department/agency view. It tries to identify, fund, and implement inter-departmental, cross-tier e-Government initiatives.

Image Source: IST 2002 of European Commission

The ‘life events’ concept starts with the proposition that citizens’ life is not segregated into departments like Revenue, Public Works, Social Welfare, etc. and citizens want access to government services in terms of life events and without going through the functional fragmentation of the government. Various examples of life events are birth, admissions to schools for which they may require SC/ST certificates and may require government stipend, looking for a job which may require registration at the employment exchange, starting a business which will necessitate applying for trade licenses, loans from different government schemes, renewing licenses, purchase of vehicle, getting married, preparing for retirement which may require application to old age pension schemes, and finally death. As a result, developing e-Gov-ernance solutions should totally focus on citizens, where they could avail services without being concerned about the functional fragmentation of departments. This requires services designed around possible life events, and the integration of back-office processes.


The third stage of evolution is ‘transformation’, where the objective is to achieve the true vision of e-Governance by:

  1. A citizen-focused approach. A single point of contact would provide an integrated platform for government services that is totally transparent to citizens and businesses.
  2. Integrated services and integrated back office. The focus on the ‘enterprise approach’ where government information is readily available to all, allowing a seamless interface to respective departments involved in the transactions.
  3. Services built around life events.
  4. Inter-department collaboration. Interoperable systems across government departments, allowing seamless flow of information thereby facilitating collaborative decisions among government agencies and the public.

Most of the current e-Governance applications in India are generally at the second stage of evolution. In most cases back ends are automated independently at departments and the user has to go from department to department for availing different services. To help citizens there might be a concept of Single Window Facilitation Centres where a citizen could avail all kinds of services, but at the back end all departments run their services independently. The consolidation process is not a simple affair. A key enabler of the enterprise approach in e-Govern-ance is the interoperability framework.

In India there is an increasing feeling that a minimum set of ‘Policy and Standard’ should exist at the national level so that the projects, which are being developed in various States, could later become interoperable, reusable and scalable.

What is Interoperability and What is Interoperability Framework?

“Interoperability is the ability of a system or a product to work with other systems or products without special effort on the part of the customer5” In the context of e-Governance interoperability can be defined as “The ability of government organisations to share information and to integrate information and business processes by agreeing to use common standards.6” This can be achieved by developing a common framework of policies, standards and guidelines that have to be followed by agencies developing actual solutions. The framework is the basis of all e-Government strategy. Interoperability Framework sets out the government’s guidelines, standards, policies and technical specifications describing the way in which government ministries/departments can link their business processes and deliver ‘joined-up’ services.

In India there is an increasing feeling that a minimum set of ‘Policy and Standard’ should exist at the national level so that the projects, which are being developed in various States, could later become interoperable, reusable and scalable. Once the framework is in place, a single source of guidance, standard and best practices will be available to the developers at different levels, that will foster a rapid, coherent, inexpensive and trustworthy implementation of interoperable e-Governance systems. Development of such a framework has been in the focus of the policy makers for quite some time now. The report of the Working Group on convergence and e-Governance for the Tenth Five Year Plan ((2002 – 2007), Government of India, Planning Commission, November – 2001, TFYP Working Group, SR. No 83/2001 7 says –

“e-Governance demands standards in all areas. Some of the key areas are: data encoding (ISCII or UNICODE), application logic for common horizontal applications, user interfaces, data dictionaries, etc. These standards will need to be put in place before e-Governance can effectively be implemented. ….Standardisation should be started without any delay otherwise confusion will ensue that would negate the advantages of use of IT”.

Andhra Pradesh has already come out with an e-Governance interoperability framework.  Some other states are also working in that direction. National InformaticsCentre, Department of Information Technology (DIT), Government of India, has initiated the development of an Interoperability Framework for E-governance comprising of a set of policies, standards for development of interoperable e-governance applications8.

The International scenario

Many countries have evolved or are in the process of evolving their national interoperability  framework for public sectors. United Kingdom (http:// www.govtalk.gov.uk) is among the  first in establishing an e-Government Interoperability Framework (e-GIF). The first version of  UK’s e-GIF was issued in 2000 and it has been reviewed every 6 months since then. It has  focused on four main issues such as interconnectivity, data integration, access and content management.

New Zealand (http://www.e-government. govt.nz/interoperability/ index.asp) published the  first version of its e-GIF in July 2002. It emphasises on Business Process Interface, Service  Delivery, Access, Information Sharing & Exchange, and Interconnection. Australia  (http://www. agimo. gov.au/practice/ framework) issued a consultation draft of an  interoperability framework in May 2002 by adopting objectives of integration of Government  information and services, openness and transparency across Government, and  strategic focus on business outcomes. In 2000, the US (http://www.cio.gov/) formed an XML  Working Group to develop strategies for the effective use of XML, and in April 2002 the US  General Accounting Office issued a report titled “Challenges to effective adoption of XML9”  that recommended more central co-ordination to facilitate the effective adoption of XML in US  government agencies. Pan European Countries identified three main aspects – technical,  semantic and organisational interoperability. Germany (http://www.bund. de/Service /english-.6118.htm) initiated the Standard and Architecture for e-Government Applications  (SAGA) and a complete approach on four development directions such as definition of  technical normative references, standards and architectures, process modelling, data  modelling, and development of basic components. South East Asian countries like Hong Kong (http://www. ogcio.gov.hk/eng/infra/eif.htm) and Malaysia have done remarkable work on the interoperability framework for their respective countries.

Issues involving Interoperability

Interoperability broadly involves successful communication between two or more systems.  Successful communication depends on mutually agreeable syntax, semantics and compatible  communication mechanism. Syntactical component of interoperability is achieved by  resorting to use of XML to define syntax of communication. Technical interoperability is  concerned with the communication mechanism, and covers issues of linking up computer  systems, including key areas such as open interfaces, middleware, accessibility and security  services. It ensures that networks and information systems can physically communicate and transfer information successfully. Ubiquity of ‘Internet-type’ technologies based on  universally agreed open standards and the relative decline of closed networks and proprietary software are helping to achieve technical interoperability.

However, common syntax and communication mechanism is not enough to achieve  interoperability. The exchanging parties have to agree upon the meaning of the data item for  successful communication between themselves. Semantic interoperability is concerned with  ensuring that the precise meaning of exchanged information is understandable across  applications. Interoperability at this level may fail in case different users or groups of users  use different terms for similar concepts, or use similar terms to mean different things.  Interoperability at this level requires communicating parties to follow agreed upon standards  for data and metadata. Developing policies, standards and specifications for semantic interoperability is a long term investment which requires the input of many people. Semantic  interoperability consists of two sets of standards – one for data and other for metadata.

Data Standard

Achieving data coherence across government means that government organisations need  data schemas that have been agreed upon for use throughout the government. Since  development of information systems has evolved in a largely decentralised manner,  government databases may not be compatible, thus inhibiting data sharing and fostering  duplication. The Government Data Standards Catalogue is a data dictionary to be operated  across Government that holds information about data items widely used across Government.  The Data standards may be expressed as a structured list of data items with descriptions, field  lengths and formats, and UML models. The national data dictionary would be produced in several stages, beginning with a section covering core data elements that run across all government departments (e.g., name, address, etc.), and a section dedicated to each  functional area of government activities (such as rural development, agriculture, etc) that  covers the data elements unique to that area. An agreed set of data standards is a key element  in the development of interoperable applications. Adoption of data standards for use across  government will enable easier, more efficient exchange and processing of data. It will also  remove ambiguities and inconsistencies in the use of data.

Metadata Standard

The most common definition of metadata is ‘data about data’. A more helpful definition is that  it is structured information about a resource – a summary of the form and content of a  resource. Metadata serves the same function as a label. Like other labels, metadata provides  information about the object and enables a resource to be located. The resource could be a  single webpage, an electronic document, a digitised image, a sound file, or an animation such  as a movie, etc.

Among other benefits, the use of metadata facilitates achieving interoperability. Metadata  standards provide a way for information resources in electronic form to communicate their  existence and their nature to other electronic applications (e.g. via HTML or XML) or search  tools and to permit exchange of information between applications 10. Metadata standards will  cover the core set of ‘elements’ that contain data needed for the effective labelling of the  resource, so that retrieval and management of the resource across all of governments’  information systems become easier. Many countries in Europe and around the world for e.g.  the UK, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have adopted the  Dublin Core (http:/ /dublincore.org/) approach as part of their e- Governance framework, or  are in the process of doing so, whereas the US government and a few other countries are  following GILS (http:/ /www.gils.net/) approach.

Over and above interoperability at syntax, semantics and technical level, interoperability  frameworks cover process interoperability as well. Process interoperability is concerned about identification and usage of common processes and business patterns across information systems.

Proposed Framework for Interoperability

The approach towards interoperability should be based on the following premises:
1. Browser based interface for access
2. XML as the primary means for data integration
3. Acceptance of Internet and World Wide Web standards
4. Metadata Standards for content management

The interoperability framework should be based around a hierarchy of standards ensuring that international standards are used whereever possible, national standards could be used to  cover items specific to the country, and new standards are developed where none exists. A  minimum set of standards that are relevant for system interconnectivity and information  exchange should be selected. These standards should be open in the sense that they are  publicly available and well documented. Moreover, standards having wide market support  should be chosen to reduce cost and risk. Some of the crucial areas of technical interoperability  where policies and standards would be required are – Networking, Interconnection, e-mail, Directory Service, Domain Name Service, File Transfer Protocol, Security etc. There are a number of well-established international standards in these areas. A  common approach to attain interoperability is aligning the government information system  with the Internet and adopting the standards available for the Internet. Choice of standard  browser with required plug-ins for accessing government information systems as a part of the technical framework also makes life easier. But we need to remember that choice of browser  for accessing information may restrict choice of technology for developing information  systems. For example although Xforms is an evolving standard for electronic forms, only a few browsers support Xforms. Some of the policies related to technical interoperability are:

• Networking would be IPv4 based, and IPv6 in due course
• e-mail clients have to conform to SMTP/ MIME for message transport and POP3 for mailbox retrieval.
• LDAP V3 is to be used for general-purpose directory access
• DNS is to be used for Internet/intranet domain name to IP address resolution
• Application has to be Web based whenever possible. Web based services are to be based on SOAP, UDDI and WSDL
• FTP should be used where file transfer is necessary within government intranets. Restart and recovery facilities of FTP are to be used when transferring very large files

Conclusion

Many of the current e-Governance applications in India are in the second stage of evolution.  To reach the ‘transformation’ stage, interoperability has to be achieved at both the technical  and semantic level. The required framework for interoperability can be achieved through  alignment and adoption of common standards with the Internet, and WWW for all  government information systems; adoption of XML as the primary standard for data  integration and presentation, and Browser as the key interface. The Framework needs to be  developed by forming various working groups that could support with implementing the  existing international and national standards. Successful implementation would require  making available best practice guidance, toolkits, schema development guidelines and  centrally agreed data schemas.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policy of the employer.

References

1 Sudan Randeep Flattening bureaucracy, the first estep of AP http://www.ciol.com/content/services/ egov/showpeople.asp?AID=32&CI=4&SI=5 as on 16th Feb 2004
2 Sawhney Mohan(2001). E-Governance – Towards the Next Generation. http:// www.mohansawhney.com/Registered/ASP/ItemDetail. asp?tab=wri&CID=607 [as on 12 th August 2004] 3 Al-Tawil Khalid M, Sai Sadiq M(2002) E-Governance – Where We Stand? http://www.worldbank.org/mdf/ mdf4/papers/altawil-sait.pdf [as on 12 th August 2004] 4 Government of Andhra Pradesh, Department of Information Technology & Communications. Framework for e-Government. http://www.ap-it.com/ egovernment.html#framework. [as on 12 th August  2004].
5SearchWebServices. http://searchwebservices. techtarget.com/sDefinition/0,sid26_ gci212372,00.html [as on 12 th August 2004] 6 Interoperability and how will it be achieved? http:// www.e-government.govt.nz/docs/e-gif-v-0-9/ chapter2.html
7 Report of the Working Group on convergence and e-Governance for the Tenth Five Year Plan  (2002 – 2007), 2001TFYP Working Group, SR. No 83/2001, Planning Commission, Government of India, November–2001, (http://planningcommission.nic.in/ aboutus/ committee/wrkgrp/wg_egovrn.pdf as on 12th Feb 2004)
8 Suchitra Pyarelal Interoperability Framework for EGovernance (IFEG): Strategic Approach to Evolve National Standards. Informatics 13(2) Oct 2004
9 United States General Accounting Office(2002). ELECTRONIC GOVERNMENT Challenges to  Effective Adoption of the Extensible Markup Language,GAO. www.gao.gov/new.items/d02327.pdf . [as on 12 th August 2004] 10 Treasury Board of Canada,Secretariat(2001). Why Metadata? What are the benefits?  http://www.ciodpi. gc.ca/im-gi/references/meta-standard/metastandard01_ e.asp . [as on 12th August 2004]

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