16 March 2005

The Web

Malta at the eGovernment crossroads

Investment, Industry and Information Technology Minister Austin Gatt speaks at last week’s mGovernment conference on applications and benefits of wireless technology in London. Following are extracts from his speech, in which he outlines the high use of SMS in Malta and its significance for e- and m-Government channels

A genuine information society and economy is not necessarily a square-mile of workaholics huddling shoulder to shoulder browsing their PDAs on the bus. Our vision is rather more subtle than that: for technology to become so ubiquitous as to be practically invisible and for all members of society to benefit from its use without giving the matter a second thought.
People’s lives do not surround the services provided by a Government, whether on a mobile phone or over the old-fashioned counter. Yet our experience has been that the example and initiative of providing public services electronically over the past five years has served as a catalyst for the take up of technologies in a broader sense. After we have converted a technophobe to spend money on a computer and learn how to use it, the question we need a quick answer to is: What do I use it for?
Our own services were the first answers until there was a sufficient critical mass for more providers in the community – public and private – to afford to go on line too. Therefore, a first secondary objective of our eGovernment programme was to promote the use of technologies through a wider portion of the community. A second secondary objective was to help build up a local ICT sector that employs the highly trained skilled people that our educational institutions are preparing year in year out. I apologise if this sounds like a Keynesian approach to economic growth, yet our experience has been that the short-term experimental clientele of the public sector has given the Maltese private sector the right experience to sell new products abroad.
This is largely what we have been doing over the Internet in the past five years and we feel we are coming to a cross roads. By the end of next year practically all public services that in some form or other lend themselves to electronic application will be available over the net. We will shortly come to the point where the vision we set out in 1999 to open up to our customers on a 24 by 7 basis and provide them a service from whichever point in the globe they wish it delivered will have been, to an almost full extent, satisfied. Yet 1999 is ancient history and over time technology and its use and forecasts of its future have changed rapidly, and for the same reasons that enticed us to set out on this program, we have to crystallise a new vision for the future years.
Within months of the beginning of the implementation of our eGovernment programme five years ago, it became immediately clear that the mobile phone would become the preferred vehicle of communication for the entire population. The spectacular take-up of mobile phones upon the opening of the market is a world-wide experience and needs no underlining here.
What was surprising in Malta’s case, at least to us who were observing it closely, was the take-up of SMS. Vodafone Malta tells us that in all the countries it operates in the world, SMS per capita use in Malta far outdoes any other comparison. Both mobile operators in Malta confirm that SMS use is in reality their core business activity there, exceeding the use of voice services let alone any other trinkets they provide.
Within this context, we developed over the past three years an mGovernment infrastructure which brought together the Government, the mobile industry and the communications regulators in an effort to use the mobile delivery channel as a springboard for our eGovernment services. There is very little magic in the way the technology works. An individual registers for a notification service through a central electronic point which automatically and invisibly validates the application with the relevant Government agency providing the service.
Once the information requested by the individual becomes available, the agency triggers an SMS notification that is processed between the Government servers and the m-Government infrastructure through the Government network. Once complete the notification is sent to the mobile operator with whom the individual is registered and the operator, in turn, packages the notification and sends it as an SMS to the citizen.
This is almost dully simple. Yet it is also information delivered over what has turned out to be the preferred medium of communication of the recipients. The take-up of SMS is not only a statistical curiosity. This technology has revived an appetite for writing and reading to an entire portion of the population that has scribbled nothing beyond a grocery shopping list or lottery numbers since their school days. And this portion of the population would have been immovably rooted on the wrong side of the digital divide if the only way they were going to use technology was on a computer.
Our mGovernment philosophy has therefore been rather humble in its aspirations: to use the mobile phone to provide simple services on demand as mobile extensions of our eGovernment initiatives. Over the past two years we have adopted the policy of introducing an mGovernment dimension in every one of our eGovernment projects. The most popular services are indicative of what advantages this method of providing a service carries with it.
The SMS service is beloved by school-children waiting for their major exam results. It has cut down by several days the tortuous wait for the postman and this most private and important of news is now guaranteed to be broken to them first rather than given to them by an unsmiling parent.
It has also gained rapid popularity with job seekers who are alerted immediately of a lead or an interview for an employment prospect.
These are examples of people who want news that is personalised to their needs as soon as they can get it. The information need not be complex or elaborately decorated; after all it has to be all that can fit in an SMS. But if you could not say all that much in an SMS, it would not have become such a popular means of communication.
We are now looking ahead at the next few years of our eGovernment programme in the context of which our mobile initiatives need to fit. In some form or other all transactions between individuals or business on the one hand and public entities on the other will shortly have some level of electronic communications. That said, there are of course higher levels of complexity and interactivity that can be added to any service and that is of course a direction we will be following. With the advent of comforting secure technology, more people and businesses should become more comfortable with paying on line and with personal and private information made available on line only to the rightful key owner.
The arrival of new mobile technologies does indeed create the opportunity to extend these principles of a more advanced, more complex, more secure eGovernment to mobile use. The possibilities are there though we do have reasons to be cautious about the realistic prospects of complex and expensive mobile technology. The fact that people can access highly elaborate information and can conduct complex transactions over their phone, does not necessarily mean that they would.
I would be out of place to dampen the enthusiasm of the promoters of new technologies and services and I for one would be the most enthusiastic client of these. It will take some shifting of today’s goalposts however before we can see the barriers of affordability and the adaptability of the medium itself to attract take-up of any meaningful substance.
It is in this context that we have to plot the future of mGovernment. Just because one may have the capacity to fill out tax forms over their mobile phone, does not necessarily mean that one would want to do that. It is one thing to move away from conventional paper processes of business and another thing altogether to try to adapt complex transactions to the size of the delivery channel you happen to be using.
Availability is necessary for take-up but availability is not in and of itself a cause of take-up.
This reflection, I am sure, is not only a matter of interest for Governments and public authorities; it is also a reflection of all potential content providers and creators that must assess the viability of the media they choose well before they mail their message.
Academics teach us that the medium is the message. SMS is carrying in brief, swift and simple words what bureaucrats fussed over in ceremony and jargon – allowing us as a Government (or perhaps making us, whether we like it or not) speak the new favourite language of our customers. ‘If it takes more than 160 characters to say something, it probably is not worth saying it.’ Perhaps it is a bit too early to forget that useful lesson we are only just learning to try to stuff on a mobile phone what perhaps would fit better on a web site.

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