Automating Government with e-Governance

by Akbar S. Ahmed

e-Governance is improving the lives of billions of people worldwide and is integrating government services in a way never seen before. Linux with its low cost, high security and open standards is rapidly becoming the driving force behind this revolution.

So what is e-Governance? E-governance is the computerization and automation of common government processes with the goal of lowering costs, improving efficiency and generally providing better services to citizens.

Linux has found a new powerful ally in politicians who have made e-governance the new mantra for governments globally. Politicians, primarily are interested in Linux and open source in general due to the core business value and benefits provided by Linux over and above alternative operating systems. In a general sense, Linux provides improved IT security in the increasingly security conscious world post-9/11 and greater interoperability via open standards in an ever more integrated global society. Put another way, Linux provides a safe and secure environment while supporting the benefits of openness and interoperability.

Delixus, Inc. recently completed work on the Delixus e-Governance Platform 2004 edition that leverages the strengths of Linux to provide improved services to widows, pensioners and poor farmers in the Indian state of Karnataka. The Delixus e-Governance Platform addresses the needs of millions of rural poor citizens in India who receive widow or pension checks through services provided by local government offices. For several reasons, the current manual system is slow in getting checks to the people who desperately need the money. First, long distances often exist between the pension offices and the villages where people live. Second, cross-referencing multiple files for a single citizen often takes weeks due to the large volume of applicants. Third, citizens often are unaware when checks are ready for pickup.

Requirements

e-Governance applications must deliver tangible benefits to citizens in terms of lower costs, more rapid delivery of services or new, innovative services previously unavailable. Put another way, the primary requirement of e-Governance is it must improve the lives of citizens.

All software application development begins with the definition of technical requirements, such as data storage requirements, performance requirements in terms of I/O and throughput, as well as scalability and application uptime. Although any experienced software professional is an expert in technical requirements, the automation of governance in India and China in particular are uncovering issues on a scale never see before. For example, defining the upgrade path for an application that must scale to a total of over 1 billion total users with a capacity for 100 million concurrent connections is not easy. What are the bandwidth, storage capacity and performance requirements that will enable an application of this scale to provide consistent and usable services to citizens? These are the exact issues facing the governments of India and China and technology vendors as they look to implement e-Governance.

Laws and Regulations

e-Governance applications must adhere to the laws and regulations of the government body using the application. Many of the laws and regulations were created long before the information age and therefore may not define clearly what is acceptable in an automated government office. As a result, frequent and direct communication with government officers is required to seek clarification during the development process.

Lawyers become an integral part of the software development process due to the need to understand the vast ocean of laws and regulations that have the potential to make or break the marketability of an e-Governance application. e-Governance is one of the few applications where software engineers and lawyers sit side-by-side reviewing a software requirements specification (SRS) for technical accuracy, albeit with different ideas about what is technically correct.

Language Support

Multilingual environments create new challenges and opportunities. There are multiple national languages in India, but more importantly numerous regional languages are mandated by state governments. Despite the existence of national languages, state governments dictate that regional languages must be used for all government communication within state and local departments. The Kannada language is mandated for all state and local government bodies within the state of Karnataka. Karnataka is home to Bangalore, which, along with Silicon Valley, is of the two largest software development centers in the world.

Kannada language support was a critical legal and technical requirement for the Delixus e-Governance Platform. Detailed research and testing on Kannada language support in both Linux and Windows was undertaken. Importantly, the desktop operating system (OS) selected had to support Kannada for the Delixus e-Governance Platform as well as all other business applications. Research on Kannada support yielded the following findings:

Table 1. Summary of Kannada Support in Linux and Windows

 LinuxWindows
Operating SystemIn developmentWindows XP native support
 GNOME translation in development (11% complete)3rd party add-on (Nudi) for Windows 2000, NT, 98, 95
  3rd party add-on (Baraha) for Windows 2000, NT, 98, 95
Office ApplicationsOpenOffice.orgOpenOffice.org
  Microsoft Office XP or 2003
Web BrowsersMozilla 1.4+Mozilla 1.4+
 Firefox 0.8+Firefox 0.8+
  Internet Explorer 5.5+

As can be seen from the findings above, Kannada support is available on both Linux and Windows, although in varying degrees. Specifically, Kannada is supported officially in Windows XP by way of the Multilingual User Interface (MUI) Pack and in Office XP and 2003. Several open-source projects to add Kannada support to the Linux desktop are in various states of development.

The difficulty in adding Kannada support to software is that Kannada uses an entirely different font from English, the keyboard layout must be remapped and there is a lack of presentation standards. Importantly, Linux has strong support for Unicode in programming languages, databases and middleware. Unicode is a standard encoding system that provides support for many different languages and character sets, including Kannada. Unicode is widely supported in open-source applications and by such industry leaders as IBM, Sun, Microsoft and many others.

The PostgreSQL database server and the Postfix e-mail server add Kannada support to Linux through Unicode. In a general sense, Unicode enables Linux to provide the processing power behind a Kannada-based application.

Figure 1. Screenshot of Delixus e-Governance Platform in the Kannada Language

The Business Case for Linux

Linux was selected as the technology of choice for the Delixus e-Governance Platform as it best satisfied technical and legal requirements. More specifically, Linux servers provided an optimal level of security and cost effectiveness, as well as supported the language requirements. Support for open standards enabled Linux to serve an interoperable e-Governance application that is accessible from Linux, Windows and other desktop operating systems.

The benefits of Linux had to be expressed from two different viewpoints. First, the benefits to government operations and second the benefits to widows, pensioners and farmers. Government operations had to improve by:

  • Lowering the cost of operations.

  • Providing scalability for future growth.

  • Following open standards for interoperability with other applications.

  • Providing a robust and stable system to support ongoing government operations.

  • Simplifying system maintenance and management.

Much has been made of which OS has a lower total cost of ownership (TCO), Linux or Windows. However one views the argument over TCO, many governments appear to be weighing in with their opinion that Linux is the right solution in terms of cost, performance and security. Proof of this lies in the moves by the Texas, Canadian and Chinese governments. Numerous other governments have made similar moves to Linux and open-source software.

A major business value provided by Linux to governments is freedom from outside influence by a foreign corporation, namely Microsoft. Linux provides governments with the freedom to change vendors as needed, the freedom to audit code for spyware and support for open data formats that are accessible to lower income citizens who cannot afford the expense of proprietary software. Protection against spyware is vital in security conscious government departments.

OpenSSH provides a secure method for system administrators to instantly access and manage the Linux servers located in the most remote of local government offices. OpenSSH is an open-source implementation of the SSH protocol that enables system administrators to log on securely to a remote Linux server over the Internet. The speed with which an administrator could access and repair each office's Linux server greatly reduced system maintenance expenses and improved system uptime.

The lives of citizens had to improve by:

  • Reducing the time between submitting an application and picking up a check.

  • Enabling citizens to remotely check on the status of their applications.

  • Notifying applicants when their checks were ready for pickup.

Shortening the time required to process applications is a central benefit of the Delixus e-Governance Platform. The old manual process required government officials to locate large numbers of files for each applicant. The vast number of applicants made the process of locating each applicant's files time consuming. The Delixus e-Governance Platform reduced the search time for an applicant's files from weeks to a few seconds. A simple search of an applicant by name instantly provides the government official with immediate access to all of an applicant's files.

A Web-based interface provides the ability to remotely check on application status from any Internet-connected computer. As a result, widows, pensioners and farmers easily can check the status of their applications from any Internet cafe. Automated e-mail notifications are sent to field officers upon the approval of an application. Field officers then can notify the applicant that his or her check is ready for pickup.

Delixus e-Governance Platform

The Delixus e-Governance Platform leverages the strengths of Linux to improve the lives of Indian citizens through more timely access to information and to their pension checks. Linux servers located in each local government office power the e-Governance application and provide a robust decentralized processing model. The use of separate Linux servers in each office removes the risk of having a single point of failure that would cripple government operations. Importantly, the decision to put a separate server in each office was cost justified through the use of low cost open-source software.

The servers at each local government office are designed to communicate with a central computer at the state government offices. Communication and internetworking with the state-level computers is facilitated through the use of open-source applications that support open standards. Specifically, the PostgreSQL database server, the Apache Web server and the Postfix e-mail server easily integrate with other open-source software, commercial software and one another.

The Delixus e-Governance Platform uses a Web-based user interface to allow applicants to access the e-Governance application from any Internet cafe. In addition, the same interface is fully accessible by government officers who access the application from their internal network. The Web-based interface provides a unified and consistent user interface that can be accessed from any Web browser that supports Kannada, including Linux and legacy Windows desktops.

Figure 2. Delixus e-Governance Platform Network Diagram

Looking Forward

Linux provides true business value to governments through lower costs and better information security as well as proven interoperability through adherence to open standards. However, increased language support is required to increase Linux usage in many government agencies throughout the world. Some government agencies, such as the Israeli Ministry of Finance, have taken a proactive approach and enlisted the help of Sun Microsystems and IBM to add Hebrew support to OpenOffice.org.

Additional attention should be paid to simplifying the steps to add additional language support to the various Linux applications in order to further advance Linux adoption by government agencies. Finally, improved documentation will provide the needed boost to the many open-source supporters itching for a chance to add their favorite language to the many already supported by Linux.

Akbar S. Ahmed (akbar@delixus.com) is the President and COO of Delixus, Inc. Delixus and Delixus Software India Pvt. Ltd. service the international software services and consulting markets. Ahmed manages global operations including the technology division, which specializes in Linux to Windows interoperability. He holds an MBA in Information Technology and a BA in Economics and frequently speaks on the topics of Linux and offshore outsourcing.

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