Agencies' Need For Web Access Lures Business Intelligence Firms

Agencies' Need For Web Access Lures Business Intelligence Firms

Gerald Cohen

By Lisa Terry, Contributing Writer

As government agencies face more pressure from the public to be Internet-enabled, they are using business intelligence software for easy access to their massive, often mainframe-resident databases.

"For our kids, dealing with government by standing on line or wading through a three- or four-week paper shuffle will be unacceptable," said Bob Blecher, director of the e-government group for systems integrator Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Plano, Texas. "More and more of the citizenry are demanding real-time access to the repositories that government holds."

However, the sophisticated data access tools designed for information technology pros don't cut it in a world where everyday users are making queries via their Web browsers. That has prompted development of Web-enabled business intelligence software, a group of applications designed to help users access data from myriad sources without intervention by IT staff.

Web-based reporting is "a direction many business intelligence companies are going in. It's becoming a requirement," said Henry Morris, vice president of data warehousing and knowledge management for market research firm IDC of Framingham, Mass.

According to IDC, the end-user query and reporting market was valued at $1.3 billion in 1999, but will mushroom to $6.9 billion by 2004. That growth can be attributed to the explosion in end-user access enabled by the Web.

For example, a Department of Housing and Urban Development grant system designed by Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., manages 100,000 transactions a day by about 3,000 users, all logging on via the Web, according to Ray Bassler, a Lockheed Martin computer specialist.

One vendor making a major play in the government business intelligence space is Information Builders Inc. of New York, a privately held firm with 1999 revenue in excess of $340 million. Best known previously for its FOCUS data access product, the company has been building its Web access business with WebFOCUS, a dynamic database Web reporting and publishing tool.

Information Builders' WebFOCUS government clients include the Agriculture Department, which is providing data on grants and other programs; the New York City Department of Health, which has made restaurant health inspection reports available online; and NASA, where Web access was required to help monitor outsourcing contractor activity.

"Until a few years ago, our NASA engineers were in the field," working alongside outsourcers building components for the space shuttle, explained Ronald Phelps, project manager for NASA's Insight system. Now that those engineers have been pulled back in-house, "we needed a way to look at the data being generated out there and be comfortable with the processes that were going on."

That prompted the creation of a business intelligence system incorporating a suite of Information Builders tools.

About 10 percent of Information Builders' North American business comes from the government sector, which could grow to 15 percent if its public-sector plans are borne out, said Gerald Cohen, chief executive officer and one of the company's three founders and owners. The company addresses the market via direct sales and a consulting arm, as well as through government integrators that include EDS, Lockheed Martin and Unisys Corp.

While it continues to pursue federal agencies, Information Builders also is stepping up marketing efforts to state and local jurisdictions. Manufacturing is the firm's largest commercial market.

Competitors in the end-user query and reporting space include Brio Technology Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif.; Business Objects SA of San Jose, Calif., and Cognos Corp. of Ottawa, according to IDC's Morris. While relational database companies also market business intelligence tools, "the independent ones have been the most successful," he said. "This has become a specialty."

Cognos draws about 15 percent of its $385.6 million annual worldwide revenue from government, and expects those sales to grow significantly along with the government market itself, said Ben Plummer, vice president of consumer operations. State and local will grow even faster than federal, since market penetration is not as deep there, he added.

Two-thirds of Cognos' government business is direct, with the remaining third coming through the channel and original equipment manufacturer deals.

Government agencies' interest in business intelligence applications began about four years ago, when data warehouses rose in prominence, Plummer said. "When Web technology came into play two to two-and-a-half years ago, mass deployment began," he said. The Web solved the problem of settling on a standard client-server infrastructure and common look and feel for access software across an agency. Now, Web browsers serve that function.

The biggest obstacles to business intelligence solutions are cultural, not technical.

"Data is often controlled by the various components of the agency," said Plummer. "You have to sell them on the benefits."

Closely related to end-user query and reporting are several other aspects of business intelligence, including multidimensional analysis or online analytical processing, executive information systems and data mining, IDC's Morris said. "They're often sold as separate products, although you do see them sold as suites, or packaged related to a business subject," he said.

Few players in the space offer precisely the same array of services. "Where [Information Builders] has significant strength related to their query and reporting business is their middleware, which allows you to hitch the query and reporting tool to all sorts of databases, including legacy databases," Morris said.

Agencies can enable browser-based queries and report generation without modifying databases, although frequently data warehouses or data marts are created to manage the query traffic.

"People do not want to abandon their legacy systems," said Cohen at Information Builders. "They just want to be able to access them."

For jurisdictions anxious to get e-government initiatives off the ground, business intelligence solutions have great appeal. Often e-government projects launch with a makeover of the front-end Web interface. After static information is added, reporting applications requiring database access tend to be next in line, since these are often more straightforward than transactional systems.

"The integration isn't there for transactions, but it is there for the reporting," Cohen said. "Transaction systems are much bigger projects."

Agencies are employing business intelligence software to provide data to three constituencies: employees, suppliers and the general public. In addition to right-to-know laws and e-government pressures, other factors driving the push for business intelligence software include knowledge management, paperwork reduction, speeding time to information and relieving IT staff of the information creation task. Productivity savings are often a benefit, but not a top goal.

Integrators are bullish on the opportunity for Web-enabled business intelligence engagements in the government market. EDS is employing Information Builders' WebFOCUS to help Pennsylvania meet a Justice Department call for more detailed crime reporting data. The application also will allow citizens to access real-time crime data by district.

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