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Open ePlatform: an open platform for building digital government services

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5/5 | 2 votes |

As its name implies, Open ePlatform is an open platform for building digital municipal services. It aims to provide an easy-to-use interface for people building and maintaining the applications, as well as for public servants and citizens working on their cases and communicating with each other.

Building new services and modifying existing ones can be done using only the mouse; no coding is required.

The interface adapts itself automatically to any device used to access the system, whether this is a browser on a traditional PC, a tablet, or a smartphone.

The software is open source and freely available for anyone to download, adjust and deploy.

Hundreds of e-services

Open ePlatform is one of the outcomes of the Riges project that ran from 2011 to 2014. The project was initiated by the Association of Local Authorities in Västernorrland County, Sweden. Since the platforms that were available at the time did not fulfil even the basic requirements, the development of Open ePlatform was taken on by the municipalities.

The platform was used to produce the Riges e-services, and at the same time allowed the municipalities to build hundreds of other e-services even after the Riges project had ended.

The experience from the Riges project has now been built on through continued collaboration on the further development of e-services in the e-Cooperation project (eSamverkan). This project also provides Open ePlatform as a service from a central location, so that the municipalities can focus on developing new e-services.

Open ePlatform can be used anywhere in the world. It has been built as a generic platform that can be used for many purposes. There are no dependencies on Swedish legislation or back-end services for it to work. The same is true for using Open ePlatform at levels other than municipal.

Policy context

Riges project

Open ePlatform is one of the outcomes of the Riges project, short for Regional Innovative GIS and E-service Cooperation. The project ran from 2011 to 2014 and was financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

Riges in turn had its roots in the fast-track project PIKE [1, 2], financed through Interreg IVC, an ERDF-funded programme for inter-regional cooperation. Another inspiration was the DOPS project (Donegal Online Planning Services), which provide the citizens of the Irish city of Donegal with a map giving information on approved construction permits, planned land use, and restrictions.

Description of target users and groups

Planning and construction

The Riges project was initiated by the Association of Local Authorities in Västernorrland County, Sweden. They wanted to make it easier for companies and citizens to get access to information on planning and construction, and simplify and speed up the application procedure for construction permits.

End-users would be allowed to submit their applications and registrations digitally, and use the web to access information from municipal databases and other existing processing platforms.

Given the sometimes demanding tasks in the application procedure, the project had to deliver e-services that were smart yet easy to use.

Business developers

At the same time, the municipalities did not want to become dependent on developers to build the applications, because in the long run this could hinder the speedy development of e-services. So the underlying platform had to support the iterative and agile production of e-services, allowing the business process developers to create and adjust the specific applications. That way, the new platform could be used to produce the Riges e-services, and at the same time allow the municipalities to build hundreds of other e-services even after the Riges project had ended.

Description of the way to implement the initiative

Underlying platform

The development of the underlying platform was taken on by the municipalities after no supplier could be found able to fulfil the requirements. The initial goal of the Riges project was to develop innovative e-services, says Jari Koponen, IT strategist at Sundsvall Municipality, but the platforms that were available at the time did not — and sadly many of these still don't — support the building of device-independent dynamic e-services optimised to work in the best possible way on any device.

Koponen lists the basic requirements:

  1. Dynamic e-services should adapt their flows based on the users' input; a user should never even have to see a question that is not relevant to their application.
  2. Services should be integrated with various information providers such that no information that is already available elsewhere should be needed to be re-produced by either the end-user or the provider of the e-service. For example, the user should not have to enter information about their property if that information can be fetched directly from the agency managing the data.
  3. E-services should be accessible and optimised to work in the best possible way on the device that the user has in their hands. We did not want a responsive design that just about works, says Koponen. All too often we see solutions that do not take into consideration how a person behaves on different devices.
  4. All this functionality had to work like pieces of Lego. Once the underlying functions, connectors and services are delivered, the person building an e-service never should have to call the IT department or a developer when building another e-service with the same features or when incorporating the new features into an existing e-service. The platform should be a tool that is easy to use when developing business processes, not something that creates obstacles.

Unfortunately, none of the existing platforms could fulfil these requirements. Some of them, for example, did support dynamic e-services, but not without having to call a developer to build or change an e-service with a dynamic flow. None of them, at the time, could deliver an accessible, easy-to-use interface that was optimised for different types of devices. And none of them worked like "Lego bricks" giving a municipality the full power to create e-services, even if that involved using queries to integrated external sources. So we had to build the platform ourselves.

Modular architecture

The Open ePlatform created as part of the Riges project is based on a modular architecture in which software developers never build any customer-specific functionality. Applications are built by the municipalities themselves by combining the available building blocks in an easy-to-use web interface.

One example of such a module is the map query. Instead of users calling the municipalities for their property information, this module allows them to select the building on a map, after which the correct information is retrieved from the Swedish land registry (Lantmäteriet). This makes life easier for both the end user and the municipality, which can now be confident that the property information retrieved based on the user's choice is correct.

Another module connects the application to the glossary maintained by the Swedish National Board of Housing, Building and Planning (Boverket), which provides end-users with explanations of words specific to the planning process.

The module providing the map functions, Open eMap, is another major outcome of the Riges project. It provides a map interface, integration with the search services of the land registry, and an administrative interface. This software is available as open source too.

Technology solution

Open ePlatform is built on the OpenHierarchy Java web development framework. The Municipality of Sundsvall had already used this framework in several other web applications and from that experience had learned that it provided a robust platform for building large-scale web applications that are modular and can be configured at runtime.

To make the platform sustainable and usable by anyone in the long term, the use of publicly available open standards was key when developing Open ePlatform. Some of the standards used are:

API

Since the spring of 2016, Open ePlatform has provided a standard API (Application Programming Interface) for integrating the platform with other systems, i.e. sending and receiving data, sending notifications, and receiving status updates. This is a crucial feature for connecting applications to back-end service providers.

Main results, benefits and impacts

When it ended in 2014, the Riges project had produced twelve new e-services and a public information map called the Construction and Development Map. The e-services primarily cover various types of construction-related registrations and permit applications, but also include services to request planning information and register facilities involving food products.

As part of the project, about 3,000 detailed city plans were digitised, allowing geographic information to be made available in completely new ways to anyone. For example, it allows users of the Construction and Development Map to find limitations applicable to specific locations at an early stage in the planning process.

e-Cooperation

The experience from the Riges project has now been built on through continued collaboration on the further development of e-services in the e-Cooperation project (eSamverkan). eSamverkan is a collaboration between nine municipalities in the region of Västernorrland, Koponen explains. The idea was to create a larger organisational unit for the development of e-services. In that regard, Riges was just the beginning. The open platforms lay the foundation for many more e-services to be developed in collaboration with other municipalities in Sweden.

This project also provides Open ePlatform as a service from a central location [i.e. a Shared Services Centre, SSC] at Sundsvall, so that the municipalities can focus on developing new e-services rather than keeping an IT system up and running.

Municipalities

Every municipality in the group has its own entrance to the central portal, Koponen continues. There they can customise it and publish their selection of e-services for their citizens.

Each individual municipality deploys its own integration hub, which provides the local entry point for applications and sends these securely to the appropriate systems in its local network.

Each municipality involved has appointed an eSamverkan coordinator, who is part of the project as well as the key person in the municipality's local e-development. So the municipalities work locally on the development of new e-services, and then we use each others' e-services and findings, and roll these out to all the other municipalities.

All the requirements for further development of the underlying Open ePlatform in this region are collected and prioritised in the eSamverkan project. It also provides some central e-services that are managed and developed for use by all municipalities.

Hundreds of applications

According to Koponen, there currently are hundreds of e-services available for Open ePlatform. As part of our regional cooperation we have produced 20-30 e-services up to now. But since there are many other municipalities and organisations all over Sweden using Open ePlatform, the list of applications is growing every day.

Since sharing e-services is a big thing in Open ePlatform, it comes with a built-in e-service library that can be used by anyone. This library is accessed directly from within Open ePlatform, allowing the user to search for a specific e-service, and see and test e-services published by other municipalities. If a specific e-service appears to be good, the user can install it in their local Open ePlatform environment with the click of a button.

The list below, for example, shows e-services published by Kumla Municipality and Svedala Municipality. We don't have a formal relationship with these municipalities, but because they are using Open ePlatform too, we could deploy their e-services if we wanted to.

Accolades

In 2015, the Riges project received the eDiamond Award, given annually by the Swedish trade magazine Offentliga Affärer (Public Affairs). According to the jury, Riges has created a ground-breaking e-services platform that enables other municipalities to become digitised.

In the same year, Riges was named 'Best e-service in town planning'. The project also won the 'IT Project of the Year' award at the Swedish CIO Awards IT gala in December last year.

Return on investment description

According to Koponen, a total of 3173 hours was spent on development in the Riges project, including the interaction design (front end), core platform, connectors, and map query module. The Open ePlatform core took around 2000 hours to develop.

The business case for Open ePlatform was that its development cost was about the same as two years of licensing fees for the existing proprietary platforms used by the five municipalities in the Riges project. And those fees did not even include the adjustments that would have to be made to such a platform to have it meet the requirements of our project.

Track record of sharing

All Open ePlatform software is published under the AGPLv3 (Affero GPL) open source licence and is freely available for download.

The framework that Open ePlatform has been built on, OpenHierarchy, comes with multi-language support, but this is not yet incorporated into Open ePlatform. All the code is written in English, so developers do not have to speak Swedish to further develop the platform.

Dialogue

Since the publication of the Open ePlatform software as open source in 2014, the platform has spread from the five municipalities originally involved in its development to more than thirty municipalities and organisations in Sweden, and more are on the way. According to Koponen, there are already hundreds of thousands of potential users for the e-services currently offered.

Open ePlatform has fundamentally changed the market for e-services in Sweden, giving municipalities new options in procuring (or building) applications. Furthermore, it has brought about a dialogue between municipalities in Sweden, who are now developing applications collaboratively and making these available to other municipalities as well. In the long run, the platform is developed continuously, bit by bit, by all the municipalities working together.

Universal

According to Koponen, Open ePlatform can be used anywhere in the world. It has been built as a generic platform that can be used for many purposes. There are no dependencies on Swedish legislation or back-end services for it to work. For example, the electronic authentication that is used in Sweden (and in Open ePlatform) is based on the widely-used open standard SAML 2.0, so it can easily be replaced by any form of authentication supporting this protocol.

Of course, you would have to configure the platform according to the legislation in your country. However, legislation is becoming more and more alike between countries in the EU. The upcoming General Data Protection Regulation [Regulation 2016/679, will become effective on 25 May 2018, replacing the Data Protection Directive (Directive 95/46/EC)]. That will make it easier to use Open ePlatform in other countries. But since almost everything is configurable, you can already do that today.

There are some minor features that you would have to change in the software in order to use the platform in another country. A couple of queries require a Swedish 'personal identity number' to identify the user after log-in. This number is usually fetched automatically from an electronic identification system we have in Sweden. Other countries have different types of identification and electronic authentication, so these queries would have to be adapted accordingly. But we estimate that would take only few hours to fix.

Other uses

The same is true for using Open ePlatform at levels other than municipal. The Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SALAR, SKL), for example, uses it to develop and provide central e-services for all municipalities with a tight connection to www.verksamt.se [a collaboration of several Swedish government agencies for people who are (interested in) running a business in Sweden], says Koponen.

Another example is an electric power company selling electricity to homes and businesses all over Sweden. They will use Open ePlatform to sign up new customers as well as provide a 'My pages' function where customers can see their electrical consumption, set goals and so on. It could very well be used by organisations at other levels of government and private businesses.

 

 

 

 

16 October 2016 - For the next few weeks, OSOR will be testing the effects of providing its headlines in other languages than English. This is one of the selected studies.

Open ePlatform: egy nyílt platform digitális közigazgatási szolgáltatások kifejlesztéséhez

Open ePlatform: una plataforma abierta para construir servicios digitales gubernamentales

Open ePlatform: una piattaforma aperta per costruire servizi digitali governativi

Open ePlatform:μια ανοιχτή πλατφόρμα για την ανάπτυξη κρατικών ψηφιακών υπηρεσιών

 

Case Info

Acronym:
Open ePlatform
Website URL:
Start date:
2011
Operational date:
01 January 2014

Information

Target Users or Group:
eGoverment
highlight:
Open source observatory
Case status:
Operation
Case type:
Open source case study
Funding source:
Public funding EU
Geographic coverage:
Sweden
Themes:
Communication (infrastructure), eGovernment, eServices for Business, eServices for Citizens, Procurement
Type of service:
IT Infrastructures and products
Scope:
Local (city or municipality)
Technology choice:
Mainly (or only) open standards, Open source software
Type of initiative:
Project or service, Strategic initiative
Overall implementation approach:
Public administration

Comments

Ivan De Masi
Posted by Ivan De Masi on November 14, 2016 at 11:32
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Thanks for this very detailted article and informations about "Open ePlatform" - very helpful!

 

Unfortunately the webseite of "Open ePlatform" seems not to be available in english, so it makes it difficult to get futher informations there.

Dylan Guibot
Posted by Dylan Guibot on November 11, 2016 at 19:41
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Nice.