lt seems to be everywhere – which is ironic, under the circumstances. That would be the BlackBerry, which has become ubiquitous in government. So ubiquitous, in fact, that it’s hard to believe that wireless and mobility technology in government is really just in its infancy.
In part, that may have something to do with how a lot of BlackBerries are deployed in the public sector. Most – especially at the federal level – are used by executives, mainly for e-mail and perhaps as cell phones, even though possible uses extend well into the realm of the desktop. (Some key IT personnel use them to keep tabs on systems and infrastructure; they’re an exception).
Another bump in the road to wireless maturity is the question of security, confidentiality and privacy. How would you feel if, for example, you knew that corrections to your voter information in the Register of Electors were floating around in cyberspace – tapped into a personal wireless device by an election worker who had just been at your door? (Not that this could ever happen, of course, because of the stringent security precautions built into any such application.)
Some observers outside government consider the public sector both inherently risk averse and hamstrung by security requirements in the wireless/mobility world. The average citizen, meanwhile, would likely opt for caution over progress in this respect, knowing that it’s his or her vitals that might be lost in space or, worse, fall into the hands of cybercrooks.
There is another massive challenge that must be met before wireless/mobility use in the public sector, or the private sector for that matter, can achieve the full bloom of maturity: Huge areas of this country are not yet served by wireless networks – including some surprising nooks and crannies in Toronto and other large cities. Until coverage is total, and this may be on the way within the next couple of years, wireless and mobility use will be stuck, at best, in a frustrated and frustrating state of adolescence.
Meanwhile, the first cautious steps are being taken, things tend to move quickly, and some governments are even ahead of the developmental cohort.
Ron Blakey, Manager of Administration and Strategic Planning for the Region of Durham in southern Ontario, says that “we’re really in the infancy stage of a mobility initiative that started out as a remote initiative to address employee requests for access to e-mail from home or while travelling.” For Durham, however, the infancy stage will be short-lived, as regional emergency measures and ambulance services go wireless within the next year.
John Rath-Wilson, Senior Director-General of the Technology Services Directorate at Service Canada, also characterizes wireless and mobility use there as “more or less in its infancy,” with e-mail still the reigning “killer app”. Because of rigid adherence to security standards, Service Canada hasn’t even been able to approve the extension of wireless LANs within buildings, says Rath-Wilson. Yet Service Canada, with its client service mandate, is positioned to be a prime user of a range of wireless and mobility applications that will allow it to function better in the field.
Although the federal government was a fairly early adaptor of wireless/mobile technology, according to Scott Toske, Director of Government Technology for Research in Motion (RIM) – federal usage, generally speaking, seems to have stalled at the e-mail stage. And we know what that means – BlackBerries. BlackBerry seems to have captured major market share for public sector PDA use, with more than 55,000 in use across all levels of government in Canada.
In an extended rant in the Ottawa Citizen about BlackBerry use, analyst David Ljunggren complained: “You can’t move for people stumbling around town like zombies as they peer at their hand-held electronic devices . . . Whatever the occasion, you’ll see someone senior in government paying more attention to their e-mails than to events around them.”
BlackBerry usage and mobility access seems to be, for the most part, stuck on the executive rungs of government at all levels. Perhaps usage will gradually devolve down through the ranks, as we saw with government cell phones in the late ’90s – especially as governments begin to understand and implement other wireless/mobility applications.
One of the biggest challenges for RIM, says Scott Toske, is to convince government clients of the myriad applications available through their BlackBerries in addition to e-mail – access to, for example, internal databases, corporate intranets, the Internet or workflow processes such as procurement, hiring, expense approvals and travel planning.
Pockets of early maturation
This is not to say that the federal government isn’t making use of other mobile and wireless applications at all. For example, Scott Toske cites work being done by Defence Research Development Canada with the U.S. Office of Homeland Security on a cross-border communications protocol, in which BlackBerry devices and applications are a key component in the means to be developed for emergency responders in both countries.
Municipalities and other public sector institutions such as hospitals, however, are where the action seems to be for creative mobility applications. There are reasons for this, according to Toske, notably that these are largely local solutions and that the data to be processed is not as vast as at other levels of government.
Vince Robert, Government Practice Partner at Accenture, suggests a few other reasons why municipalities and other public sector institutions may be leading the wireless/mobility-adopter pack. For one thing, he says, they are not saddled with the same degree of risk aversion that is endemic to the much larger federal government apparatus. Nor do they have the same requirement for extensive pilot projects, or the same complexity of security standards.
RIM’s Scott Toske says the biggest growth areas he sees in the immediate future are health care and policing services.
Bridgepoint Health of Toronto – the former Riverdale Hospital – recently moved to an integrated transparent portal solution, provided by Novell Canada’s Healthcare Solutions team, that allows Bridgepoint’s 1,200 physicians and staff, as well as board members, to access e-mail and administrative information, regardless of their location.
Bridgepoint is Canada’s largest integrated health care organization for specialized complex care services. Much of its work involves community-based care delivered by caregivers working in the field. The second phase of the over-all solution will involve applications that allow access to clinical documents for health care workers in remote locations – expected to be up and running within 18 months.
In time, as the province increasingly directs its health care emphasis to the community, home care workers will be able to access and update patient management tools, likely using a tablet device or even a BlackBerry. The hardware to be used is not what is significant in this case, though it will be appropriate to the user and the user environment. What is important, says Bridgepoint CIO Steve Banyai, is “making the working environment seamless and the portability of the applications.”
What is even more important is security and confidentiality, particularly when it comes to patient records. You simply can’t have the cyberspace equivalent of patient records strewn in a back alley or happened upon in a dumpster.
Police and public safety organizations, such as emergency measures and fire departments, are poised to become big users of wireless applications. In the U.S., California-based Telenav has recently launched a Global Positioning System application that anyone can subscribe to on a cell phone. GPS, delivered wirelessly by satellite, has long been available if you had an expensive piece of hardware in your vehicle. The Texas Department of Transportation uses Telenav GPS applications to locate stranded motorists; police use it to track suspects. Telenav expects the potential uses to increase greatly with the new cellphone application, which is scheduled to be available in Canada by the third quarter of this year.
Role modelling – a case study
The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University has done a thorough case study of a collaborative project “planned as the first multi-state transportation and public safety integrated wireless network in the United States.” The Capital Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN) is designed to give “firefighters, police, transportation officials and other emergency-services wireless access to multiple government data sources during critical incidents. . . Improved access to information will help these ‘first responders’ and public safety officials make vital safety-related decisions.”
(The Harvard study goes into great detail about the project history, development approach, governance issues, project task structure, and, of primary importance to all public sector initiatives, privacy and security issues and solutions. It is available at www-1.ibm.com/industries/government/ieg/projects/projects.html.)
Canada may be behind the curve as far as such integrative applications are concerned, but at the municipal level, there is clear evidence of creative use of wireless and mobility applications – if only in the beginning stages, such as in Durham Region. On the other hand, the City of Nanaimo could be the Canadian poster child for wireless/mobility adoption at the municipal level. Says Guillermo Ferrero, Manager of Business Applications for the city, “In my opinion access to information via wireless devices is definitely the way to do business now and in the years to come. The information age we live in demands rapid access to information and wireless devices provide the best medium to deliver this.”
When wireless/mobility grows up
Growth in the use of wireless/mobility by government, particularly by large governmental organizations, will be subject to the constraints imposed by concerns over security, confidentiality and privacy. Suppliers of wireless/mobility applications, such as Novell and BlackBerry, build extensive security solutions into their applications. But any uses implemented by the federal government also need to meet the requirements of the Government Security Policy, as well as the Management of Information Technology Security Standards (MITSS) – which, says Service Canada’s John Rath-Wilson, “contains a very proscriptive set of requirements to ensure security on government networks. . .We see these wireless applications as a liberator of service, but at the same time we are working to ensure that the security is wrapped around wireless services in a way that is responsible and robust.”
Another factor influencing the growth of wireless/mobility uses by Canadian governments is the country’s enormous geographic challenge. Vast parts of Canada have no access to wireless connectivity. These include, not surprisingly, the far North, as well as many northern and remote parts of the provinces. More surprisingly, points out Ross Chevalier, CTO/CIO at Novell Canada, pockets such as the high-tech oriented Kitchener-Waterloo area still cannot access wireless connectivity. For that matter, neither can much of the Ottawa bedroom community of Chelsea, Que.
Attempts are being made to address this gaping hole in our wireless capacity through the deployment of satellite technology by private companies and some governments.
Then there is WiFi.
According to the San Jose Mercury News, in its annual look at technology trends for the year ahead, WiFi networks which allow wireless connection to the Internet are expanding at a such a rapid rate that in some cities, wireless “hot spots” will soon be “hot zones.” In some places in the U.S., such as San Francisco and Philadelphia, WiFi coverage is available throughout the entire city.
Closer to home, service provider SimplySurf is working with Nortel to provide WiFi to the small community of Dunrobin, just outside Ottawa. The system uses wireless mesh technology to link small WiFi access points hung on street lamps or the sides of buildings to create a hot zone or local network. This network will deliver secure, seamless, mobile communications throughout Dunrobin, according to SimplySurf.
But until that infrastructure availability reaches a greater level of maturity, government use of wireless/mobility client service and operational applications is going to be hindered in its growth as well.
Many sources consulted by CGR saw the next 18 to 24 months as a huge growth phase, particularly with respect to expanding public sector use of wireless internal workflow and administrative solutions. The San Jose Mercury News echoes this vision, predicting an accelerating trend to “transfer the computer desktop experience onto the web” – which, as RIM’s Toske notes, is already possible on your BlackBerry.
If only his government clients could see beyond their e-mail.
Catherine Morrison is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa (email@example.com).