Is the World Wide Web ready for prime time to deliver goods and services in state and local government? A qualified "yes" is the conclusion of a report prepared by the Center for Technology in Government in New York (http://www.ctg.albany.edu/).
"The World Wide Web as a Universal Interface to Government Services Technology Report" answers positively the questions of whether New York state government can use the Web as a universal interface for delivery of all or most services to citizens and for conducting business within and among agencies.
According to Theresa Pardo, project coordinator, the study was the result of an effort by New York state to identify strategic issues and to work with the information resource management community in New York. A survey conducted in 1995 identified the Internet as an area of key interest. Subsequent research highlighted the Web as a tool for delivering government goods and services.
"This was a test bed project versus an innovation project, which we also conduct," says Pardo. "We were trying to see if the Web was ready for prime time and in what specific ways it was ready. Put another way, we wanted to find out what kinds of technical capacity had to be available to get a variety of jobs done, keeping in mind that one person's available is another person's cutting edge."
As one instance of a technically ready Web tool, Pardo pointed to RealAudio, a Web program for sending audio and video over the Internet. A CTG-sponsored workshop about security on the Web was audiotaped and placed on their server. Those with the RealAudio client and Internet connectivity can listen to the workshop from their desktop or laptop.
"At this stage of Web development, however, people have to keep in mind that it is still not simple to deliver effective and reliable services," warns Pardo. "A lot of end-user training is required as is the need to keep expectations in line with reality."
The study covered four technical areas with individual teams: information dissemination, business applications, group collaboration and education services.
The information dissemination capabilities team, for example, addressed the issues of concept searching, Web agents, client-side processing, cookies, streaming and virtual reality. The business applications team looked at issues involved in Web-legacy projects, including the transition of a major national database called America's Job Bank from a mainframe to a Web-based application.
Ron Schrimp, managing consultant and project manager for Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group/DRT Systems in Albany, N.Y., worked on the business applications team.
"Our focus was whether the technology could meet the demands of the business requirement. What especially interested me was the middleware solutions, the ability to access information on a mainframe through a [graphical user interface] front end. This is important to many organizations," says Schrimp.
One issue that emerged, but was not part of the original project, was the need for what Schrimp calls "infrastructure planning," for example, technical training for COBOL programmers who would be expected to learn and use object-oriented programs such as C and Java.
Further, while the technical capability of the Web may be there to meet many state and local as well as business requirements, Schrimp feels that to achieve higher productivity, the use of the Web and GUI must be a fun, exciting process. He also recommends that others pursuing similar studies start small, with a nonmission-critical application. One reason is that two of the programs used had upgrades during the period of the project.