Past Issues of Government Technology

Nine Lives

Government agencies find the World Wide Web has breathed new life into legacy data, resulting in the development of some unique electronic services.

by / December 31, 1997 0
In Montana, as in other states, welfare applicants need proof of birth to apply for public assistance. Getting a copy of a birth certificate from the state used to take time and money. But now, when a person enters a county welfare office to apply for welfare, a caseworker can search a database using a Web browser, view the applicant's birth records and print out a copy. The new service provides -- in a few seconds -- crucial eligibility information that used to take days or weeks to track down.

At the same time, the caseworker can now complete the applicant's eligibility form online (instead of filling out a 19-page paper document), using the same Web browser. Both the birth record and welfare eligibility applications are part of a state intranet that uses legacy data.

Eventually, both functions will be available to anyone on the Internet.

For years, state and local governments have been attempting to make information locked away in legacy systems more accessible to both workers and the public. They also have studied ways to provide taxpayers with a single point of access to government services. They have also debated the costs and benefits of migrating mainframe data to so-called "GUI (graphical user interface) environments," which are easier to use.

While the benefits of these proposals have been clear, high costs and complex technical issues have stymied any broad change in how governments use legacy data. Client/server, for example, was thought by many to be the answer to government's legacy woes, but higher than expected migration and operation costs have curtailed its use in government. With the arrival of the Internet, however, government agencies appear to have an affordable and relatively easy-to-use technology on their hands that can bring new life to legacy data and the systems on which it runs.

Internet access to legacy data -- specifically via the World Wide Web -- is hot these days for several reasons: Users like the friendly Web browser interface; information system managers like the fact that Web access leaves the legacy systems relatively untouched; and the cost of developing Web access is also lower than rewriting a legacy system.

For government executives, Web-to-legacy applications answer a fundamental policy question: How to open up government data to the public? For the first time, anyone, anywhere can search and query taxpayer-supported information in a relatively unencumbered manner. It appears that Web applications using legacy data can generate enormous efficiencies and savings for government agencies as well.

These efficiencies and savings don't come without some pain, however. Traditional business processes must be redesigned -- not an easy task with some government bureaucracies. Internet security remains a big hurdle and a possible stumbling block for some of the more ambitious projects under consideration in government. And Web development tools, while much improved, still aren't robust enough to handle all the requirements of some applications.

But compared to past efforts at migrating legacy data into new applications, Web access represents a whole new frontier. "This isn't just screen-scraping," said Louis Gutierrez, chief information officer for Massachusetts. "Using the Internet to access legacy data is far more sophisticated and beneficial than that."

Alive and Kicking

Today, 35 years after it was created, IMS (Information Management System), the hierarchical database, is still used on thousands of IBM mainframes. In fact, it's generally accepted that 70 percent of all business information still resides in mainframe databases. As every government IS agency knows, VSAM (virtual storage access method) flat files, CICS (customer information control system) transactions and COBOL applications are major players in cities, counties and states.

Ask government officials why the Internet has become so important, and they will tell you that legacy systems cost too much and allow relatively few people access to data. They will also tell you that it's standard government policy to broaden public access as much as possible. "Our books are open," said William Kilmartin, comptroller for the state of Massachusetts, explaining why his office is exploiting the Internet to access mainframe data. "We believe that people other than state employees should have access to government data."

Kilmartin cited other reasons why there's so much interest in using the Internet to access legacy data. The Internet offers Web browser technology, which is easy for nontechnical people to use, and delivers tremendous economies of scale. Right now, it's the most cost-effective way to make data accessible to as much of the public as possible. The Internet also is fast-becoming the infrastructure for electronic commerce, overtaking electronic data interchange and other computerized means of transacting business.

Fast-Moving Market

Web access to legacy data is still in its infancy. In 1996, sales of Web-to-legacy tools totaled just $35 million, according to International Data Corp. Industry experts and users of Web-to-legacy products say the market is fast-moving, however. New products are entering the market all the time, while existing development tools undergo major revisions every 12 months.

For the uninitiated, the process of choosing the right tool for the right job can be bewildering. Vendors are also apt to mislead customers, warned Stuart Greenfield, a systems analyst for the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. Greenfield has been working on Web-to-legacy projects for nearly two years. "You have to make sure the vendor's products can do what they say they can do," he said.

One tool that has performed well for Greenfield is a product called Amazon, from Intelligent Environments. He used Amazon to create a Web application that links a CICS transaction system running on an IBM mainframe to a search form on a browser. Banks and auditing firms that want to check on the franchise tax status of companies doing business in Texas can now use their browser to search -- in minutes -- for company financial data that once took state employees a tremendous amount of time to locate.

Except for IBM, a quick look at the leading Web-to-legacy software vendors reveals they are not household names. A cluster of small firms on the industry's top tier list include Wall Data, Attachmate, OpenConnect Systems, Centura Software, Apertus Technologies and Simware.

Another relatively obscure tool is Corridor from Tuebner & Associates. Corridor is a Web-to-mainframe software translator product that allows Web browsers to appear as 3270/5250 terminals to host mainframe systems. BDM International is using it, along with Sapphire/Web, a development tool from Bluestone Software, to build a Web-to-legacy application for the state of Montana. Tor Gudmundsen, project manager for BDM, said that the choice of Web-to-legacy tools has improved. "When we started, it was hard to predict where the market was headed. Today, things are better; the graphics have improved dramatically."

One reason why states are hopping on the Web-to-legacy bandwagon is the fact that applications residing on legacy systems and accessed through terminals have a lot in common with Web applications. Both have thin clients, so merging the two is not that tough.

In general, there are three approaches to merging the Web with terminal applications:

* On-the-fly conversion of terminal applications to HTML;

* Delivery of actual terminal sessions within a Web page; and

* Application servers that broker data transfers between the Web and host applications.

Some approaches are faster than others, but overall, developing the Web-to-legacy applications is not that difficult, as long as you use the right tools for the right job. Some organizations prefer to use Java, the programming language, for merging intranet applications with legacy data and conversion tools for Internet applications. Trouble occurs when bells and whistles are added to the mix, such as hardware components for scanning; bar-code reading or video capture; or if the application requires a high degree of security.

Early Web Applications

So far, the few Web-to-legacy applications operating in government seem to fall into three general categories: financial, employment and social services.

One of the first Web-to-legacy applications involved America's Job Bank, a 10-year-old program run by the U.S. Dept. of Labor and state employment agencies. In 1994, the Job Bank began working on a way to make its job information available over the Internet. The Center for Technology in Government, based in Albany, N.Y., has written a detailed account of that project, in a report titled, "The World Wide Web as a Universal Interface to Government Services" (see ).

The Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts started working on a Web-to-mainframe project back in 1995 [Government Technology, January 1997]. Today, the state's fiscal office has three Web-to-legacy applications. Besides the tax status service, there is the microfiche tax information system, which anyone can use to search for tax-related documents based on accession numbers and keywords. A third application called USAS Financial Reports, which is still in prototype, is SQL database of special reports that can be searched via the Web.

Looking To The Future

"We're all toiling in the same vineyard," remarked Kilmartin in reference to the work the Massachusetts Office of the Comptroller is doing with Web-to-legacy applications. Indeed, two of the agency's recently launched Web projects are similar to what's taking place in Texas.

One intranet project, dubbed "Manager Web," allows government executives to view state financial data through the filter of a Web interface. Executives will no longer have to view data on mainframe terminal screens and instead can use a Web browser to display the same data in more condensed, digestible formats. Another Web application called the Warehouse Web opens up 85GB of state financial information stored in a data warehouse to public scrutiny. Viewers can select from 20 of the most-asked questions concerning the state's budget, financial and personnel matters. Kilmartin said the queries can be modified to suit more selective questions.

The comptroller's third application is, on the surface, another query
service. Called the Business Web, the application allows vendors who have business with the state to look up the status of their contract as well as any outstanding invoices they have. But Kilmartin also plans to let vendors access the state accounting system so that they can reschedule bill payments and take advantage of special discounts for accelerated payments.

"We're crossing the line here," acknowledged Kilmartin. "Some people will think we are committing an act of heresy by giving vendors access to accounting data." But he believes that the state's vendors are partners and have a need to know. Further, the additional capability of adjusting payment schedules is just a natural progression in the evolution of electronic commerce, according to Kilmartin.

In Montana, Web-to-legacy tools have made it possible for the state to offer integrated government services through the Internet. Mike Billing, an administrator for the state's Department of Public Health and Human Services, calls it Montana's "no wrong door policy." Given $1 million by the Legislature to reform the state's welfare system through technology, the state began looking for ways to streamline the welfare system through automation.

The department quickly decided to create a pavilion of services that includes welfare and employment. Besides online birth records and eligibility forms, clients can access a directory of daycare centers throughout the state. They can conduct self-directed job searches using a Web browser and query a directory of job training services. In addition, clients will be able to post their resumes on the Web.

To help technology-shy clients, the state is training the more technically-adept welfare recipients to become "pavilion
guides" to teach newcomers how to use the Web to apply for assistance, find a job and locate daycare services.

Different Playing Field

Clearly, these more ambitious Web-to-legacy applications go far beyond the more rudimentary practice of publishing government information on the Internet. "This is a leap, not a baby step," said Kilmartin, commenting on his decision to allow vendors to modify their accounts via the Web.

By putting information in the hands of the public, government is turning its back on decades of limited public access to taxpayer information. At the same time, government is also breaking down the traditional geographical boundaries that have tied citizens to government by location. The Web allows citizens to interact with government from anywhere and at anytime. Social services, for example, no longer have to start at a county welfare office; they can start at the local library instead.

That's good news for people who like flexible hours and conducting business with governments at a local level. But it poses significant questions about the role of government in this electronic era.

"The World Wide Web is a whole different playing field," commented Massachusetts' Gutierrez. "We're just getting our footing in a new world without geographic designations. There are some really profound issues that will have to be addressed in the long term."

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