Report Card: "Plays well with others"

Dave Reinke
InfoLink Project Manager
APWA Washington, D.C. Office

If you look closely, you can see the future. In the past year, technology has been advancing at its usual hectic pace, even if the speed of "Internet Time" has lessened just a bit during the economic slowdown. But some new developments are taking place that will have as much of an impact as any since the rise of the World Wide Web in the last decade. The future of the Internet is arriving now, and the good news is that this technological evolution lets things work together productively.

Now all of us know that hype coming from the computer/Internet sector is not unusual, and given the unfulfilled promises from now-defunct Internet companies, probably should be viewed with at least a little skepticism. What is different this time is the amount of coverage generated, its positive tone, and the focus of the technology on customer needs.

It's all about "Web Services." The name might not sound like much, but the major technology players like Microsoft, Sun, and IBM are all pushing their implementation as the "Next Big Thing." Microsoft is currently in the midst of a nationwide rollout for Microsoft ".Net," and the folks from Redmond are pinning their future on this technology (which gives you some idea of its relative importance). Microsoft is also releasing a suite of tools for developers of these services. As a major initiative from the largest software company in the world (love them or hate them, just don't underestimate their impact), web services are here. Now when it's this big (and complex) it can be a little hard to define, but the term basically refers to software components that can interact across the Internet. As an analyst from the Gartner Group said, while it's not "the Holy Grail of computing, web services will ultimately deliver more of the promises made by earlier technologies."

That's probably the real benefit of the technology—the ability to finally deliver on the potential that the Internet has always presented. Building on the foundation of all that's gone before, web services leverages existing networks, databases, and information to integrate previously separate systems and data. Just as InfoLink has built a solid base of users, regular site visitors, and information sources, these existing Internet communities can take the next step into useful collaboration and expansion of services.

Of course, like all things technical, it comes with an alphabet soup of XML, SOAP, and UDDI, working on processes like EAI, BI and CRM. But you don't need to know what they mean (actually stand for), just what they mean in the long term—a way for different computer systems in different locations to interoperate. We finally have different vendors of different systems agreeing to standards that allow it to happen.

Even the geographic layers of GIS/geospacial information are falling into a zone of interchangeability. Leading vendors of GIS software can import and export alternate formats, and the federal government is sponsoring a number of initiatives to ensure the data transportability of national mapping projects. The Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) and National Spacial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) and the new E-Government Geospacial One-Stop are working toward the establishment of policies, standards and procedures to ensure the accessibility and interoperability of geospacial data layers by government, private, and academic groups, again boosting usefulness and value to existing and new communities of users.

For public works departments, what does this mean for you? It is not a question of if this impacts you, but when. Historically, perhaps, not the first to get equipped with computers for administrative tasks, e-mail, or Internet access, public works departments will be equipped with the technology and will become part of this larger data sharing universe. Overcoming institutional barriers and technical access problems might still take awhile, but as e-government initiatives spread, and more departments deliver their information and services to citizens electronically, streets, sanitation, and water information will be included.

One early example of this is eMontgomery.org, from Montgomery County, Maryland, which begins to show how web services matter when delivered to citizens. The site, among the others that can be accessed through www.apwa-infolink.com, consolidates information from a wide variety of departments, in a wide variety of formats, and makes them accessible in one place. The site is also a good example of the implementation of portal technology, increasingly being used for web delivery within companies and governments. "One of the keys to success for the eMontgomery site," says Kevin Novak, manager of the eMontgomery site, "is the ability to...find information that resides in many different locations and formats and deliver it to the user in a way that meets his or her needs." This tying together of documents, databases, and other information is notable not only for the technological ability to deliver, but for the focus on customer needs as well.

Web Services delivering Enterprise Application Integration is just a fancy way of saying that the tools you need do your work and deliver your services can work together. Which, if you think about it, makes you wonder what took so long. But now that we are finally clearing the hurdles of proprietary formats and competitive secrecy, the interconnectedness of the Internet can be put to greater use in delivering quality services, and APWA-InfoLink is positioned to do just that.

To reach Dave Reinke, call (202) 408-9541 or send e-mail to dreinke@apwa.net.