There’s no rest for the weary. Although the public sector has begun to absorb recent advances in technology, such as voice over IP and service-oriented architectures, the stage is being set for yet another revolution. Wireless mobile devices are beginning to free citizens and government workers from the chains to their desks, and promise far-ranging impacts on economies and geographies.
In Canada, telecommunication companies and service providers are planning their evolutionary steps for unleashing Internet-enabled 3G cell phones and next-generation wireless networks. But it will take time before these all-in-one handhelds are ubiquitous, says Robert Forget, chairman of the Wireless Innovation Network of British Columbia (WINBC).
“Personally, I don’t think this will happen before 2012 in Canada,” he predicts.
So the public sector has some breathing space to plan for the next wave of change. There are many programs and initiatives under way to take advantage of wireless opportunities to reshape the machinery of government.
In February, Saskatchewan unveiled the country’s largest Wi-Fi network, offering Internet services in Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Regina and Moose Jaw, to a population of one million spread over a geography of 660,000 square kilometres.
Wireless technology is the invisible glue needed to connect everyone, says Richard Murray, executive director of IT policy and planning at the Province of Saskatchewan.
“We believe wireless will supplant wired technologies in about four years, so that’s where government needs to be in the future.”
The Wi-Fi initiative was a response to issues identified at the Youth Summit held in Saskatoon to solicit young people’s feedback about ways to make the province more attractive, says Murray. Participants emphasized the need for wireless and other advanced technologies.
“We’re thinking laptops, but our young people are thinking iPods, satellite radio and a whole new array of devices.”
New technologies will play a big role in developing the economy and retaining people, he says. Seeing few opportunities, many young people leave Saskatchewan for the boom-towns of Alberta.
“However, we’ve seen a shift in the past two years with folks returning as Alberta acquires more big-city problems,” says Murray, noting Maritime provinces such as New Brunswick have had similar experiences – and have used technology to create economic opportunities back home.
“We have a number of advantages here: small-town life, inexpensive cost of living, beautiful environment,” he says. With the rise of teleworking, it will soon become unnecessary for people to leave to get jobs or start businesses. “We intend to enhance our urban capabilities and make our cities more tech-savvy by putting the infrastructure in place for this.”
Living the future now
The province is involved in a number of creative wireless initiatives, adds Murray. The University of Regina, for example, is conducting research on water monitoring in cities. “This involves testing water levels in advance of floods and communicating that information wirelessly to communities.”
The University of Saskatoon is also conducting research on monitoring bridges and other infrastructure using the municipal Wi-Fi network.
“Instead of using RFID, we can use custom-built devices that are less expensive.”
In New Brunswick, there are also initiatives under way to support provincial mandates by extending wireless capabilities, says Danny Keizer, CIO for the province. The legislature was one of the first places where wireless was installed. “It allows elected officials to remain in touch with their constituents during lulls in House proceedings,” he says.
The province also recently put out a tender for a public safety wireless system that’s based on Project 25, a new set of standards for digital radio communications that enables a range of emergency workers at all levels of government to communicate.
“This will have both voice and data communications, and is effectively a replacement system for four separate province-wide systems that were antiquated, voice-only systems,” says Keizer.
In addition, the province is involved in a creative project to equip ambulances with automated vehicle location (AVL) capabilities.
“RFID works well in stores where you’re trying to do a predictable thing all the time, but not in this application,” he explains.
AVL instead uses a modem that sends identification and location information from a GPS chip installed in the ambulance.
“In order to do AVL, you can also transmit other data. The communications capabilities in AVL haven’t been fully exploited yet – you could send direct data about the patient’s condition as well as the location all on one channel.
“The number of applications that wireless can be applied to is almost limitless, says Keizer. “Capturing information at the point of service improves the level we can provide. Virtually anything done in the office can be done in the field.”
Wireless at work
The Ontario government is involved in an ambitious initiative to streamline the workings of 13 ministries that deploy an army of field workers to conduct audits, inspections and other compliance-related activities.
“We are the umbrella group for all those ministries, which includes the Ministry of Labour, Transportation, Natural Resources and so on,” says John Stager, ADM for Inspections, Investigation and Enforcement business transformation.
“Our role is to look at ways we can work together.”
This is an area where governments can reap enormous tangible and intangible benefits from wireless tools, he says.
“If staff spend more time in the field instead of going back and forth to their offices, generating mounds of paperwork, ultimately what this does is increase the level of protection to Ontario’s citizens,” he says.
“And being able to analyze the front-end information coming in as data, instead of paper files, opens up so many levels of efficiency.”
Inspections, Investigation and Enforcement’s 2,000 field workers are equipped with a variety of specialized wireless tools to capture and process information on the spot. For example, the Ministry of Transportation uses magnetic card readers that can read drivers’ licences at roadsides, and Child Services uses tablet PCs that can capture signatures.
“These are critical to our work, they’re not nice-to-have tools,” says Stager.
Most field staff use specialized Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software to generate checklists, inspection reports and e-tickets, he says.
“Funny enough, if you look at the CRM tools that sales people use to identify clients, spend time with them to capture data, and then generate a report, it’s amazing how similar those functions are to the work that compliance folks do in inspections.”
Another key area of efficiency that reduces duplication and increases data integrity lies in sharing similar information that’s needed across ministries.
The Regulatory Modernization Act 2006 opened up opportunities in this area, explains Stager. “We can share compliance information between ministries now in areas that we couldn’t before. This is particularly useful in areas where we need to know the same kind of information.”
However, there are limitations on this, he adds. “Information sharing is almost exclusively restricted to business-related information. We’re not trying to do things with personal information that aren’t allowed under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts.”
The Transportation Ministry, for example, has databases that track drivers, vehicles and licences via an advanced roadside data capture system used by field enforcement staff.
“This is used for commercial vehicles like long-haulers, where inspection staff may stop them to ensure the vehicle is safe and has the right paperwork,” says Stager.
But outside Transportation, the vehicle emissions enforcement unit may need access to the same information, as well as law enforcement and other compliance units. “About 5,000 select staff who are somehow involved in vehicle inspections have access to the database.”
The savings generated by efficient data capture with mobile devices at the front-end ripple through the system, says Stager.
“There are also savings in the huge amount of effort in trying to understand the information, because it feeds into a system of analysis and decision making.
“You have to look at the continuum of activities and overall savings, not just at the data collection point, but in the conduct of compliance activities overall and what they do for you.”
The one device that citizens are most likely to have on hand is a cell phone, so using wireless technologies to disseminate information and services to the public will soon become critical.
This will play a role in the broader trend towards demand for one-stop service, says Saskatchewan’s Murray.
“What we’re seeing is consolidation of all channels the public uses to connect with the government, not just wireless but Internet, phone, service desk, etc.”
The federal government is working towards providing the public a central point of contact for a range of services.
In 2005, its wireless portal became operational, says Jirka Danek, director general at Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC).
“Service Canada is responsible for the portal’s content and applications, and PWGSC looks after its infrastructure and evolution.”
A number of wireless services are currently available, says Melissa Teasdale, head of operations for the Service Canada site.
“We don’t provide the content, but we do provide the vehicle for this in partnership with agencies.”
Some of the information services offered are border wait-times, currency converter, and a Member of Parliament directory with click-to-call options.
“Our most popular is the weather conditions service, which we added a few weeks ago.”
Service Canada is looking into new areas such as using GPS technology to tailor services to provide information about traffic conditions, says Teasdale.
But privacy issues around GPS technology need to be sorted out, and partnerships at the provincial and regional levels will need to be formed to provide real-time information feeds.
“This initiative will require major effort, but users have been asking for traffic services since we launched the portal.”
Using GPS to get a location fix could provide other benefits, such as providing the nearest student loan centre or employment insurance office.
“Currently, users need to input what province, city and sector they want, which all takes time to process and download, and they’re paying for all that wireless time.”
A major challenge in the portal’s evolution is dealing with the bewildering array of wireless devices designed with different screens and standards and their associated form factor issues, says Teasdale.
“We’re looking into developing client detection capability that would allow us to determine what type of phone or device is being used.
“We can provide more content if their device can handle it, otherwise we can scale back and provide less to avoid download issues. Our biggest issue is building something everyone can access.”
Although this will be very difficult to achieve, it is nevertheless a top priority, she says.
“There are so many devices coming out every day, and old devices are still circulating. They don’t handle code the same way, so we’ll need to do a lot of testing.
“We’re looking at building a master database of all devices and their characteristics, and then building an application that could tell us which device is accessing the portal.”
This lack of standardization across devices is a universal issue for both government and industry, she adds.
“There’s been a lot of discussion around that for a very long time. It’s even been suggested that the government step in to create standards. There’s a lot of clamour around this issue.”
At the back-end, there are also integration and standardization issues to sort out across ministries, she says.
“All the content we provide is obtained through other government departments, but not all their databases are built the same way.
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