Government Takes 'Webification' To the Next Level
Government Takes 'Webification' To the Next Level<@VM>Web Speak<@VM>Web Trends: Government May Lead the Way<@VM>Spending on Web Tools Rising
By Jon William Toigo
Last year may have seen the demise of many commercial dot-coms, the companies built up around the technologies of the Internet and World Wide Web, but that has not diminished the perceived value of Web technology among government or business decision-makers.
Using the Web as an information medium and as a customer service enabler continues to make compelling economic sense. By consequence, sales of Web development technologies ? from network products and services to Web page design tools, application server and Web server software and hardware platforms, and wrap-around consulting services ? have never been better.
Analyst projections for future Web technology acquisitions by business and government remain bullish. The mere mention of Web technology still is likely to elicit a happy gleam in the eye of the local reseller, integrator or software vendor.
For many government agencies, the Web is proving to be an increasingly important vehicle for extending access to critical information, both to internal customers and to the general public. Increasingly, their use of Web technology is moving beyond the static display of information about the organization and the electronic republishing of reports and studies, which already are available to customers as printed documents.
Organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Defense Logistics Agency and others are advancing their "Webification" efforts to the next level by placing sophisticated data query and analysis tools online. Using Web browsers, authorized users can access agency data products and create customized reports tailored to specialized needs.
While it is difficult to determine how much money these projects save, the overall benefits are many, according to their managers. In some cases, cost reductions accrue because customers can find answers to questions online, rather than contacting information specialists by phone.
Overall, however, the greatest benefit realized has been less tangible: improved customer satisfaction.
Kim Raymond, acting chief of the information management division (soon to become chief of the operations division) at the Defense Logistics Agency's Defense Supply Center in Richmond, Va., stated the business case for her Web project in two words: customer testimonials.
Since the Web-based Customer Account Tracking System, called WebCATS, was fielded in February 2000, the site has received rave reviews from users who account for the 40,000 to 100,000 hits per day, she said.
The origins of WebCATS can be traced back to 1997. At that time, DLA initiated a project to enhance the decision support capabilities of its legacy inventory management system, which is used to track all replacement parts for military equipment and aircraft maintained by DLA and its vendors.
Inventory data was stored in several database repositories, called hubs, at Defense Supply Centers around the United States. DLA was seeking an efficient means to extract information from the hubs for use in consolidated reports and queries.
In 1998, a decision was made to migrate the hub repositories to Oracle relational database management systems platforms in order to facilitate access. This paved the way for a subsequent move to use Oracle's new Web technology in place of a traditional client-server approach to building decision support applications.
A team of consultants from Oracle Corp. of Redwood Shores, Calif., already onsite to perform the database migration, was tapped to deploy the vendor's new Internet application server and to rewrite the decision support applications using Oracle's Web-ready query and reporting language, known as PL/SQL.
According to Mike Niblock, an Oracle staff consultant on the project, using PL/SQL Web tools enabled browser-based users to query the inventory database so they could check backorder status and available supplies and better plan their maintenance activity on weapons systems.
"The applications reside on the Internet application server at the Defense Supply Center," he said, "where they can be accessed either internally or externally via the Web by using passwords to go through a firewall. PL/SQL provides a natural language for asking questions, so you don't have to be an expert to query the database."
Following the successful migration of the Defense Supply Center hubs, work was completed last summer on the integration of Naval Inventory Control Points and Boeing aircraft supply databases with the solution. This provides broader access to information on parts and supplies both by maintenance depot personnel and maintenance personnel in the field.
"The system allows managers to assess the status of parts, decide on schedules for upgrades and decide whether to cannibalize parts from other weapons systems or aircraft if supplies of parts for a critical system will be delayed," Niblock said.
He said Java and extensible markup language elements have recently been added to the system to enhance
performance and messaging, and the still-evolving platform is being readied for another upgrade. The group, he said, is looking at adding the ability to input requisitions, another capability sought after by users.
The total cost for the work was not disclosed. However, the Webification of the database applications has received nothing but kudos from users, Raymond said.
"They are now able to do ad hoc queries at their desktop or in the field. It is a real time saver for the manager," she said.
The Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) Explorer Web site isn't exactly a prime target for casual surfing.
Nevertheless, roughly 2,500 users per month, over 90 percent of whom are not government insiders, log onto the TRI Explorer Web site to sift through 11 years of data on toxic releases or to see statistical information on waste transfers and quantities.
Most accesses to the site occurred during business hours from a wide range of visitors, including academicians, home buyers, real estate agents and anonymous "stakeholders who wanted to look at their neighborhoods or counties to see where toxic releases had occurred," said Pete South, program analyst with EPA's TRI program office in Washington.
Visitors use a comment button to leave a message about issues with the site, what additional functions they would like to see and how useful they found the analytical tools that have been made available via the Web since May 2000. The new tools cost the agency about $300,000.
The feedback on the TRI Explorer Web site also has been consistently positive, South said.
Using datasets and a Web-enabled report request interface created with SAS/Internet, a set of Web tools from SAS Institute of Cary, N.C., users can input criteria for organizing the data, including geographic area, chemicals released, year of release and format of the report desired.
According to Myles Powers, onsite project manager with Logicon Inc. of Herndon, Va., the integrator for the project, the system responds with the requested report "within a matter of a few seconds."
Powers said development of the TRI system began in 1997. Logicon was engaged under a contract let by the National Institutes of Health Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center to help EPA create SAS datasets from large repositories of information stored in Oracle databases. The integrator also worked on the development of analytical tools for use in culling and reporting information from the datasets.
Powers said the most challenging part of the effort was the "de-normalization" of Oracle data. Given changes to reporting rules that have occurred over the years, sophisticated business logic needed to be developed to ensure that data was cataloged and grouped appropriately, so that trends and comparisons could be discerned accurately.
Once this process was completed ? which Powers said was accomplished at about a tenth of the cost that would have accrued to using Oracle utilities to perform the de-normalization ? the door was open to many methods for disseminating the results.
Creating an online site, TRI Explorer, was initiated in November 1998 to improve the accessibility of EPA toxic release inventory data and to increase the timeliness of its publication, which generally trails a year or two behind completion of EPA's annual study. Within six months, using the SAS tools, the site was in full operation.
"EPA has always produced the TRI data in print format and electronically," Powers observed, "and the results of Web-based queries match printed information on releases. Now, the data can be made available online before the printed report comes out. It answers the public's right to know."
There are ongoing updates to the Web-based system, according to South and Powers. New functionality is being added continuously. Soon, users will be able to obtain reports by groups of chemicals, not just individual chemicals, they said.
"You will be able to find out what quantity of bioaccummulants, carcinogenics or mutagenics have been released in your vicinity over a specified period of time," Powers said.
He quickly added that the TRI is just part of the picture. "Companies only started reporting in 1987, and there are many other things that you may be exposed to that are not part of TRI data," he said.
The data provided on the site is of the highest accuracy and integrity possible, he said. The TRI Explorer project has become a model that may be expanded for use in exploring other data the EPA collects.
Logicon has been in maintenance mode since the recent cutbacks in EPA funding, said Powers, and the capability to do more is already in the product. For now, the team is working on getting the 1999 TRI data ready for hosting on the Web.
Both the Defense Logistics Agency and EPA have evolved their Web presence from familiar technology. SAS or Oracle was already in place within the organizations and Webification efforts amounted to harnessing the latest Web tools from those vendors.
The Social Security Administration's experimentation with the Web began on a different track. Making the right moves on the Web requires a patient process of technology testing, according to Lynda DeFord, program analyst and project officer for SSA's Channel Convergence Proof of Concept project, conducted in Baltimore.
In December 1999, DeFord approached CommerceNet, a global non-profit organization involved in promoting electronic commerce technology and education, with a proposal. SSA was interested in developing the Web as another vehicle for serving its customers. However, it needed a proof of concept to determine whether the component technologies for a Web-based call center solution were actually ready for prime time.
Social Security personnel and facilities were offered for the project, provided CommerceNet could find vendors willing to invest the time, effort and resources to demonstrate solutions.
Vendor response was very positive. Four "threads" were defined, each consisting of a group of vendors who would demonstrate a combined approach that fit the bill.
"We were looking at the program holistically," said DeFord. "We made very clear that this was not a bake off. We wanted to see the different technical approaches." KPMG of New York served as the evaluator.
Tony Livesay, a Cisco Systems engineer based in Columbia, Md., was a participant in one of the threads. With partners Microsoft Corp. and Unisys Corp., the group developed an "end-to-end solution for managing customer contact ... a prototype for a future customer contact center accessible through voice, e-mail or the Web, 24 hours per day," he said.
Livesay said the proof of concept from his thread demonstrated a broad range of tools for customer interaction. A laboratory was set up at a Social Security facility that served as a scaled-down version of their downtown Baltimore customer call center.
Eight desktop systems simulated customers and five simulated SSA managers. Cisco Systems provided networking switches and Web software tools, Unisys deployed servers, and Microsoft provided numerous software components.
In addition to providing traditional voice lines, Web capabilities were integrated into the simulated call center solution, including Web callback, Web chat and white boarding. SSA representatives were trained over a weekend to use the system, and additional, untrained staff was brought in to play the roles of customers. No live data was used for the tests, DeFord said.
In the end, she had a good understanding of which technologies were ready and which were not, she said. A pilot using a real Web-enabled call center strategy is in the works for mid-2001, she said.
|? Web professional development tools include software packages used to write Web pages, to develop art and animations to illustrate them and other related object integration tools.|
? Application server software creates an environment for executing applications across a Web technology network and browser.
? Web server software provides a means for network attached clients and servers (nodes) to access one another using Web technology methods described by the Internet Engineering Task Force, the standards-making body for the Internet and World Wide Web.
Source: International Data Corp.
International Data Corp.'s Steven Garone, program vice president for application development and deployment, is bullish on the Web. Based on IDC's research, the dot-com debacle of summer 2000 did little more than "root out the kinds of organizations who got the dot-com part down pat, but missed the business stuff beneath it," he said.A significant amount of Web development will be assisted by systems integrators, despite the efforts of companies such as Oracle to Web-enable their existing products, he said."Companies are worried about out-of-the-box solutions. They are afraid that they will not get what they need, that they may be trading best-of-breed applications for integration cost savings," Garone said.And government may turn out to be the leaders in the coming business-to-business push in Web technology deployment, he said."Business-to-business Web development will comprise about 80 percent of new Web development over the next four years. The government has the characteristics of early adopters in this technology area [because] they have the technical expertise, the money and the requirement," he said.
|Revenue (In millions)|
|Application Server Software Platforms||$994.22||$1,763.17||$2,986.34||$4,832.98||$7,538.87||$11,295.21|
|Web Server Software||394.10||473.07||544.25||614.86||688.65||770.98|
|Web Professional Development Tools||677.40||914.95||1,203.08||1,481.95||1,764.06||2,019.67|
|Source: International Data Corp.|