Keeping close

Information is arguably the most valuable currency for today’s public- and private-sector organizations. To fulfill the information needs of its workers, a government information system must meet a variety of functional requirements. One of these requirements is to facilitate how workers interact with the system to gain access to the information they need.

Most government departments have centrally managed and controlled information systems that connect all office-based personnel, enabling them to store, share and retrieve data quickly and easily. But many government departments fail to seamlessly connect mobile workers.

We felt this pain at The District Municipality of Muskoka. Given our remote location, many of our senior managers spend a lot of time traveling to other municipalities and urban centres where at any time they may be inaccessible by phone or e-mail. Information comes to them from different sources in a completely disorganized fashion. While most attempt to overcome this problem by carrying multiple devices – cellular phones, laptop computers and PDAs – these devices don’t always work together.

Beyond that, new corporate governance and transparency rules in the private sector are spilling over to the public sector and compelling government agencies to take precautions on how they store, retrieve and access the infinite amounts of information they manage daily. This is even more important with workers on the road; unstructured content such as voice mail, Web conferencing, e-mail and instant messaging is not well organized, not easily found and generally not maintained. Whether with regard to regulatory compliance or basic discovery, unstructured content in many organizations is a potential time bomb.

Web-based collaborative solutions serve as an information bridge to connect mobile workers to the office so they can function as a unified team and adhere to governance practices by sharing data and ideas quickly, capturing and managing knowledge and managing information throughout the lifecycle. Collaboration also enables team members to do their jobs faster and easier.

Tremendous advances have been made in the collaborative arena in the past couple of years. A new generation of collaboration technology has arrived, meeting the unique requirements of mobile users by providing them with full access to information, anytime, from anywhere. With new collaboration tools, users can access e-mail, voice mail, fax messages, calendar, tasks, files and corporate directories via their voice mail services, PDAs, Web-enabled mobile phones and pagers.

For the Municipality of Muskoka, the solution – in this case Oracle’s Collaboration Suite – means that “out of the office” will no longer be “out of touch.” The new technology will allow employees to remotely retrieve, respond to and manage correspondence from a variety of communication channels through a single point of access, such as a PDA, phone or Web browser. As well, because e-mail is the preferred method of communication for our workers, it is imperative that the information contained in their e-mails be easily accessible and retrievable indefinitely. T

he Collaboration Suite leverages the Oracle database as a message store for e-mail, voicemail and fax messages, allowing staff to access and manage all communications from the interface of their choice. We also plan to explore how the suite can help with file management. The notion of an integrated approach to content management is attractive; it would certainly save employees a lot of time storing and locating information. Muskoka is not alone in facing collaboration and connectivity challenges, which is ironic, considering the very tools that allow us to stay in touch are causing these challenges.

The benefits of collaboration technology to ease these communication woes are invaluable. For Muskoka – and for any organization following this model – the payoff lies in efficiency and productivity:

Efficiency. For senior managers who travel daily, a collaboration solution means that data captured on the road can be transferred straight back to the system for immediate use by other members of the team. Better sharing of information will create faster delivery cycles and increased efficiency.

Productivity. Immediate access to the data obtained by a mobile worker enables better operational decisions. For Muskoka, mobile workers will be able to input information – wherever they are, in real time. As a result, the administrative chain is shortened, leading to a significant increase in the accuracy and timeliness of information and the decisions that depend on it.

It is clear that new tools for communicating and collaboration will continue to move into the workplace, while the need to communicate with colleagues, customers and partners across geographically dispersed offices will continue to grow. With a consolidated collaboration infrastructure, the public sector can improve information management, productivity and efficiency throughout an organization.

Geoff Plummer ([email protected]) is Director of IT Systems with the District Municipality of Muskoka.

(Cyber) tour management comes of age By Nabeel Hamdi

The Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Recreation maintains a lot of data in its Tourism Establishments and Stakeholders Database (TES) – information collected from tourism establishments and stakeholders in Ontario.

For years, that material was gathered the hard way. The Ministry mailed paper surveys to thousands of tourism establishments ranging from marinas to hotels and motels, camping and RV operations, restaurants, golf, attractions, conference and convention centres and beyond.

Enormous resources, in terms of planning, printing, shipping, collecting and processing the completed surveys, were consumed in the data exercise. Hence, a simple idea was introduced: put the survey in an efficient online format and reap the benefits of a digital medium.

The execution, however, would be a challenge. With much data already stored in legacy systems, it was not a simple matter of starting from scratch but rather of bridging the archives and developing the new technology solution required to move forward. The database was in Microsoft Access and contained “establishments” in a principal table and “facilities” in secondary tables. The specific challenge was to design and build a Web interface to an Oracle database system based on the Ministry’s predefined paper questionnaire.

The online form navigation would correspond closely to the sequence of questions and fields in the paper questionnaire.

The solution came through Internet Light and Power (ILAP), which was provided with a copy of the Access database and went on to design and build a Web interface to the Oracle database, based on the predefined paper questionnaire.

The interface was designed to indicate the different sections of the questionnaire, with the appropriate reference to the operator’s facility type. A hotel operator, for example, would receive questions specific to hotel operations and not those for a restaurant. The online access allowed the Ministry instant and simultaneous access to the same database establishment the operators were updating. This contributed to better data entry and validation support and easier telephone support, since the Ministry could walk a caller through the questionnaire. In some cases, the Ministry could also update the database based on partial information provided by the establishment operators.

It was important that a given tourism establishment operator could view and update its own records. The TES database did not contain username and password protocols; authorization and security were therefore critical to the online application. With that in mind, each user was given a unique login code that allowed only allowed access to relevant client records.

Batch e-mail invitations were then sent to tourism establishments, with reminder notifications following to establishments that had not updated their information online. Undeliverable notifications were rerouted to a generic account at the Ministry to keep tabs on “undeliverable” clients.

The results:

5,900 messages were sent out.

3,121 online questionnaires were successfully completed,

1,005 online questionnaires were partly completed.

Although this was the first step in a drive to get tourism operators online, the reality is that less than 60 per cent of Ontario’s tourism operators have valid e-mail addresses, and this is not expected to increase to more than 70 per cent this year. In a perfect world, if 100 per cent of tourism operators had valid e-mail addresses, the Ministry would save about $125,000.

There’s nothing better than another big challenge.

Nabeel Hamdi ([email protected]) is a Senior Research Officer with the Tourism Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Recreation.

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