Tech change discussed at e-gov show

Hundreds of public servants gathered at the Showcase Ontario 2004 e-government conference in Toronto recently to discuss the latest in e-government initiatives — much of it centred on how to instigate and cope with technology change.

One morning session updated attendees on a Ontario-wide portal prototype designed to provide students from kindergarten to high school with education aid material. The portal is being built by IT staff at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), a department dedicated solely to developing new or experimental projects with a variety of partners, on behalf of the Ontario Knowledge Network for Learning. It pulls together existing Ontario curriculum material, as well as useful content from a variety of other databases from across Canada and around the world.

Brian Sutherland, an instructional technology analyst at OISE, said that daunting mandate coupled with tight funding means the portal is taking advantage of open source technology as much as possible. He’s using Web Services technology and is employing metadata standardized on IEEE’s Learning Objects Metadata (LOM) specification so that data pushed to students dynamically matches that suited to their age and grade.

But he cautioned the audience that what works well in an experimental, university setting may not work well in another environment — and that the open source-based portal will be interacting with proprietary systems at other locales.

“Loosely coupled IT systems are the way of the future, (but) you just use the best tool for the job,” Sutherland said.

He also advised other portal builders to “do pilot testing …. We need to learn from that.”

Later that morning, Robert Musty, president of INS Consulting in Delaware, Ont., and the IT project leader for the town of Tillsonburg, Ont., outlined his efforts this year to introduce an asset and data management discipline to the town’s systems.

Data at the town had been stored in a variety formats — spreadsheets, databases and, of course, with the city staff themselves. Tillsonburg officials wanted to centralize that information in a way that would enable them to carry out business or “what-if” modeling to help them draw up 25-year plans.

With Musty’s help, they purchased an existing application from the nearby town of Chatham-Kent.

Musty’s advice to those mulling over their own asset management project is to forget the machines, at least at first. “Capture the information that’s in-house now and put it into a repository. A lot of (data) is in people’s heads,” he said. “Then after you capture that, it’s time to look at the condition of (physical) assets.”

Mark Farrow, director of information and communication technology at Hamilton Health Services, a Hamilton, Ont.-based teaching hospital with four campuses, also discussed data management with Showcase attendees. Recently the hospital, which had stored paper documents on its patients, documents that were all but inaccessible by staff at other campuses, rolled out document management software from FileNet. The software has been in place for 18 months, and still remains a work in progress.

Farrow said he expects to fulfill ROI five years from the start date, but that’s not accounting for “the massive amounts of space that has been opened up,” as a result of digitizing documents and disposing of paper records. Hamilton Health Services has nearly 1,500 separate types of documents that must be stored — nine million of which were made digital in 2003.

Farrow’s advice to those in a similar position is to “work to understand the business processes” at the outset. If he were to do the project over, “that would be the biggest change I would make,” he said.

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