Tearing down the mountain

New software creates a management and collaboration tool: Online forms

Project: Electronic Forms

Agency: Federal Aviation Administration.

Partner: IBM Lotus.

Goal: To improve collaboration at FAA.

Obstacles: Old forms were not designed to be
collaborative.

Solution: Forms that can be accessed via the
Web and that easily tie into back-end systems.

Payoff: FAA can share data more easily with
government officials and other agencies.

When disasters such as last month's
California wildfires hit, the government
agencies affected need to get back in service
as soon as possible.

To expedite that, officials often use government
credit cards to buy things such
as plywood and coaxial cable. Although
those cards speed the procurement
process, the purchases still must be
reviewed. That means forms must be completed
to answer questions such as:
  • What is being purchased?
  • Why is it being purchased?
  • How will it be used?
  • How much will it cost?

The forms help with oversight, but
they also help agencies coordinate
with one another, said Giora Hadar, a
knowledge architect at the Federal
Aviation Administration.

"It's not only the FAA that needs the
information, it's the Federal Emergency
Management Agency, Army Corps of
Engineers, and state and local government
agencies," Hadar said. "You need cooperation
and information sharing among all
these agencies to decide what needs to be
purchased and implemented by whom so
there's no duplication of effort."

To achieve that collaboration, FAA is
moving to smarter forms such as the new IBM Lotus Forms. The open-standardsbased
electronic forms are intended to
work in a Web 2.0 environment for easier
integration with third-party software,
back-end systems and compliance tools.

The ability to quickly perform that integration
is important to government agencies,
said Greg O'Connell, who is responsible
for the forms practice in government at
IBM.

"From a forms perspective, in government,
what we are seeing are requirements
around compliance and regulatory-driven
needs," O'Connell said.

For example, a new mandate from
Congress requires that lawmakers quickly
answer Freedom of Information Act
requests for information about campaign
contributions.

"So that's where technology like Web 2.0
can come into play," O'Connell said. "It can
help make that information available [in]
real time through the Web in a secure
fashion." That system is tightly integrated
with forms.

In the past, electronic forms involved a
client-side application that performed the
functions and business logic to drive the
behavior of a form. With that model, software
had to be installed on the desktop
computer.

What's new

With Lotus Forms Version 3.0, the concept
is to put that intelligence and application
logic on the server side.

That enables users to access intelligent
forms wherever they have a Web-connected
computer.

"They can access those applications
through the browser as opposed to needing
to bring code down to the desktop to run
the application," O'Connell said.

In addition to making applications more
widely available, the system also reduces
the need to manage an application on
thousands of desktop computers.

Variations of electronic forms have been
available for years, but they have had limitations.
The ability to digitally sign a form
was only available through rich-client
technology.

For example, a military officer's review
requires sectional signing by a number
of people up the chain of command.
Providing that sectional signing through
a Web-based interface has been challenging
because of the inherent limitations
of HTML.

With new forms technology, digital signing
via the Web can be as strong as clientbased
technology.

Los Angeles County is using electronic
forms and digital signing to enable residents
to file their state tax forms online.
At FAA, intelligent electronic forms will
make it easier for users to fill out forms and
improve how the agencies process them.

"We need to move to sharing and collaboration,"
Hadar said. "And also we need to
process the information that is behind the
form in an intelligent way, which means
we really have to move to the XML world."

XML, or Extensible Markup Language,
is designed to make sharing data across
various systems easier. The new Lotus
Forms will be tied to back-end systems
that use XML.

That will make sharing data easier and
reduce the need to repeatedly enter the
same information into various forms.
In the military, service members must
deal with hundreds of forms during their
careers and enter a great deal of redundant
information on those forms.

By using a unique identifier, such as a
military identification number or Social
Security number, that information can be
dynamically extracted from a database.
When service members enter their unique
identifiers, the data can set up a form with
as much information as possible. As information
changes, the database can be
updated.

"For systems integrators, it is an opportunity
for them to see where they can use
the Lotus Forms technology to further
streamline and automate the processes
that they are under contract to perform
for their government customers,"
O'Connell said.

Staff writer Doug Beizer can be reached at
dbeizer@1105govinfo.com
.

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