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E-government initiatives to cross borders


A new platform to help small and medium-sized government organisations (SMGOs) implement e-government strategies – with the emphasis on cross-border cooperation – has been created and tested by a pan-European team.

With people, goods, and now services, able to move freely within the Member States of the European Union, it’s perhaps surprising how exchanging information across borders can still present such a barrier. Yet even in border regions, cities geographically close to each other, but belonging to different Member States, can take weeks, or even months, to swap data on companies or individuals. And, as Pim Hengeveld, Project Manager of the IST project eMayor behind the work explains, many municipalities simply lack the resources to develop the kind of e-government services that would make such transfers quick, easy – and, of course, secure.

“Our aim with eMayor was to bring e-government within the reach of smaller government organisations around the world,” says Hengeveld. “Within the European Union the issue of cross-border exchanges is becoming increasingly important.” This calls for solutions for interoperable and secure services which take into account the organisational features and the requirements of small governmental organisations such as municipalities.

Since its beginnings in 2004, eMayor has developed a prototype platform, and had completed testing by the end of 2005. The test phase, involving 100 testers, from city administrators to citizens, underlined the cooperation between universities, companies, and municipalities that is key to eMayor’s success. Now the project management team at Deloitte in The Netherlands is preparing for a large-scale field trial that will target cities in border regions of Germany, Poland, Italy and France.

“We had a dream team of developers from the beginning,” says Hengeveld. These developers were based in a number of countries: Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland and The Netherlands. While this could have been a logistical nightmare, the eMayor teams made it work: “We had a 24-hour closed working environment based on Skype,” says Hengeveld. “Basically, the teams used continuous telephone conferencing – sometimes with video too.”

This way, the partners put together a platform based on open standards. “We’ve based everything on the universally accepted, tried-and-tested standards of the W3C: so, XML, WSDL, XACML, plus PKI, and also XForms – local government organisations naturally need to use a lot of forms,” explains Hengeveld. “We wanted the eMayor platform to be as simple as possible: simple to implement, simple to connect to, simple to implement security technologies such as digital identity cards, and above all, simple to use. Our overall architecture allows for all the known e-government applications of the future, and is designed to be easy to use by a wide range of potential users.” The interface is therefore deliberately simple, and at the moment four languages are enabled: English, German, Italian and Spanish.

Furthermore, eMayor has already been tested in five European countries, and in December, successful trials were finalised involving the cities Aachen, Seville, Sienna and Bolzano. End-to-end security was also a major issue: “From passwords up to smartcards, we have ensured communication will be citizen to civil servant – not only computer to computer,” says Hengeveld.

One area that still requires development concerns the legal framework: “The issue is not privacy, but ownership,” he explains. “This varies in different countries – in Germany, data on citizens is owned by the municipality; in Belgium, however, it belongs to the King. So then the question is, on what basis can Belgium and Germany exchange this data?” But eMayor is already tackling the problem. “We are approaching university experts in law, to come up with a white paper to identify the issues and hurdles that need solving to make cross-border e-government a reality,” says Hengeveld.

“The eMayor platform is easy to use, easy to adapt to different municipalities, and it does what it set out to do,” he adds. “Now the coming field trials will show eMayor’s business viability.” The business model is not in licensing the software, since eMayor is based on Open Source, but in developing services that use the platform. “The business challenge is to get eMayor services running in different municipality departments,” says Hengeveld.

The prospects for developing such services look promising.

Other areas where eMayor can be used include preventing fraud (a problem in border areas), and cross-border policing – where there is already a legal basis for exchanging information. Another important area for the future looks to be e-procurement; this offers great savings, but will need safeguards in the form of access to all available legal information about companies. Again, eMayor can provide the answers. “On an individual level, it will also make life easier for people moving cities within the European Union,” adds Hengeveld. “In general, eMayor will enhance mobility in Europe.”

Tara Morris | alfa
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