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