Web services booming in the public sector

Traditionally a late adopter in the IT world, state governments are showing an uncommon zeal for Web services.

With something as simple as a public meeting notice, S. James Willis is hoping to start a revolution.

The director of eGovernment for the Rhode Island Office of the Secretary of the State last week unveiled a new Web service that allows state agencies and municipalities to post their public meeting notices everywhere the law requires with a single electronic document submission. In the grand scheme of things, it's nothing complex, but Willis believes that when state agencies start to see how Web services can open up formerly gridlocked information, it will make a big splash in the Ocean State.

"I see the ability for precedent to move people forward," he said. "A big part of it is creating the expectation that you can move the information around like you promised. Yet once you do, it's going to be difficult to retreat after you start making data available via open services."

Without that identity management component, we won't be able to deliver all the services we're looking to build.
Matthew Miszewski
CIOState of Wisconsin

One of the keys to getting mindshare around the concept, according to Willis, was to avoid terms like XML and Web services. Instead, he pushed the concept of publish and subscribe. Behind the scenes, Willis' development team used the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, Perl/Python/PHP) platform to build a system that can publish a service within five minutes of the initial request.

"Our whole shop is run almost exclusively on open source," Willis said.

Willis' grassroots effort in Rhode Island is being matched by a top-down Web services push in Wisconsin. Since starting his job in 2003, state chief information officer Matthew Miszewski has overseen the aggregation of six separate purchasing systems into a single Web service. He is now looking to take a service-oriented architecture statewide, into every nook and cranny of government.

The Willis Doctrine

On the Government Open Code Collaborative site, S. James Willis offered the following summation of the current state of Web services at the government level: "It is simply unacceptable at this point in history that a citizen can use Web services to track the movies he is renting, the weather around his house and the books he's recently purchased, but cannot as easily monitor data regarding the quality of his drinking water, legislation or regulations that will directly impact his work or personal life, what contracts are currently available to bid on for his state, or what crimes have recently occurred on his street."

Wisconsin is in the process of installing a new IBM Tivoli identity management system. Miszewski first plans to get the state's 62,000-person workforce into the system. He's then faced with the enormous task of putting Wisconsin's entire 5.5 million citizens into it.

"We're hoping to get that up by February," Miszewski said. "Without that identity management component, we won't be able to deliver all the services we're looking to build."

He added that his staff is looking to make a decision on a UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration) directory in the next month.

Sandy Rogers, director of the service-oriented architecture, Web services and integration consultancy at IDC, noted that government has been the most rapidly expanding sector for Web services adoption in the past year.

"They've sort of leapfrogged EAI [enterprise application integration] because they couldn't afford it," she said. "Now they've got all these legacy systems they can wrapper and make available to the public, which is their mandate. It's a perfect fit for them."

Government, according to Rogers, was also a heavy adopter of object-oriented programming.

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"They're comfortable with modular design," she said.

Miszewski confirmed that much of the application development in Wisconsin over the past decade has been done around Plain Old Java Objects.

Willis believes Web services could be the key to unlocking development talent, which previously hasn't had much of a chance to shine in the public sector.

"We're already seeing this outreach of developers who are buried two or three layers deep in management," he said. "They've been aching to make government more accessible for years and now here's their chance."

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