As CIO of the Ministry of Forests and Range in British Columbia, Nelson Lah has many responsibilities. Here he discusses the multi-faceted nature of his work and the award-winning electronic forest management system that has slashed the amount of paper in the forestry industry submission process.
Q. Could you discuss the work you do at the Ministry of Forests and Range?
A. I play three roles really. I’m the director, the CIO and also chair B.C.’s Advisory Council of Information Management, a peer committee of about 12 Ministry CIOs. As director, I manage the IMIT operations, and as CIO, I leverage the strategic use of IMIT in business transformation.
In my roles at the Ministry I have the common mandate around information management and information technology. It may be slightly different from others in that I also have accountabilities related to freedom of information, protection of privacy, litigation and records management.
The part I enjoy most is helping not only to transform our Ministry, but also the forests industry in the use of IMIT. This links to my third role in helping the IMIT community inside core government to leverage the use of technologies as a corporate resource. It is most rewarding to see the positive changes rippling through various ministries, industry and our clients as a whole.
Q. You’ve won CIPA and GTEC awards for e-FM, the electronic forest management system that you lead. What motivated this initiative?
A. The motivation started at the tail-end of the Y2K project. We documented 6.5 million lines of code from over 50 applications that we had to manage. At that time, they were running on an IBM VM, which was a legacy system; so we wanted to move it into a thin client Web front-end. We took about three years figuring out what we would rewrite and what we would transform in terms of new processes and products. It was a “divide and conquer” strategy that we used to achieve that.
That’s really what e-FM was all about. We were the first in B.C. to negotiate directly with an offshore company in India to convert many millions of lines of code in order to help us get to that goal.
We also looked to the forest industry and worked with their information systems providers and forest companies in order to implement electronic submissions. We asked them to send in not just the information for tree-cutting permit approval, but also raised the bar by asking them to provide us spatial boundaries on where they wanted to harvest, and where they would be replanting the trees.
The e-FM project has many dimensions within it, and we tried many different things. We tried to push the limit of what we have with data integration, which is really tying together the three different kinds of data: the traditional kind of attribute data that’s in a database, the spatial information that in the past has been in GIS systems and the linking together of all electronic information.
Q. How did this help to optimize resources?
A. I like to call it “five days in five seconds.” In the past, when the forest industry was required to report to the Ministry, companies would have to ask their IT service providers to print the report and submit it to the Ministry of Forests and Range. The company would tell their service provider to print the paper, the service provider would then send it back to the company for verification, and then it was shipped to our district office.
The district, on receiving it, would then send it to our resource officer for validation and then it went to our resource clerk for input into our systems. We did some stats on that, and it was literally about a six-foot pile of paper for one year of submissions – it took us about a year-and-a-half to get it into our systems. Last year, the day after the deadline, we got 95 per cent of them through this electronic submission process.
On a Ministry scale, you can understand why we wanted to go directly to electronic submissions. We were drowning in paper and were not providing optimal service to our industry clients.
Q. Will you add on to the e-FM?
A. The next step is business intelligence. Basically, if you go into our database and pick a particular client, you’ll be able to see a consolidated view of everything they’re involved in: their rights, obligations, outstanding invoices, track records, etc. To achieve this, we are putting in place a data quality framework to ensure that all the attributes of a good integrated database, such as data integrity, are being monitored.
We are also looking at a higher abstraction of data – rising above the physical data elements to logical entities such as people. We see this as an opportunity for horizontal integration. Imagine having the possibilities for tracking people, vehicles and even individual trees, and the opportunities from linking them together.
Q. Are there additional e-resources your Ministry is working on that you’d like to discuss?
A. The big one we’ve been working on is around the concept of collaboration. Socializing technology is another way of putting it. The Ministry has 40 offices across B.C., including some in remote areas such as Fort Nelson in the north and others as remote as Queen Charlotte Island. We have staff all across B.C., so we have a geographic challenge in trying to engage staff in corporate initiatives, and how to really get them involved in meaningful conversation and discussion.
We are trying to figure out what kind of technology we can put in place to enable us to bridge the geographic gap. One of the things we’ve been doing really well, and is now being used extensively, is video-conferencing. It’s an old technology, but has now come to the price point where it’s affordable and the network is able to sustain it. We’ve been successful in implementing that technology to make our communications and organization more effective.
Lisa Williams is senior writer with intergovworld.com. She can be reached at ( [email protected] )