The Friday Interview: Ray Rochford, LGCSB

14 May 2004

It is unlikely to be a quiet summer for Ray Rochford (pictured). That normally peaceful season is going to be bracketed by two very significant events in his diary. The first happened during eWeek at the turn of the month, when Mobhaile, a landmark development in e-citizen services, was launched. The second will take place at the end of August when the first three county councils – Meath, Mayo and South Dublin – go live with the service.

Until then Rochford – a no-nonsense engineering graduate and project manager employed by the Local Government Computer Services Board – will be a busy man, bringing new functionality on board, testing the system and ironing out any technical difficulties that arise.

Although Mobhaile is seen as an e-government website, it in fact broader than that – an umbrella term for a range of e-citizen services. These will be accessible via websites and SMS services based on Microsoft and Vodafone platforms.

The project is structured in such a way as to devolve decision-making right down to local level. The LGCSB has developed a gateway to which local authorities have access for setting up community sites. Community groups are given access to content management software that they can use to design their sites and can use separate software to publish documents, articles and events.

Mobhaile (meaning ‘my town’) is a first for Ireland and, in some respects, the world. It is touted as having a unique combination of geographical and community services. If successful, it could at last see the internet fulfil its true potential as a public network that appeals not only to large businesses and middle class Tesco Online shoppers but to everybody because, the theory goes, we all need local information.

For this vision to be realised a myriad of problems needs to be overcome and Ray Rochford has been cast in the role of troubleshooter-in-chief. For example, while the LGCSB has designed and will continue to host and maintain it from its offices in Conyngham Road, the idea is that content is generated at a local level, by community groups, local authorities, businesses, various agencies and citizens. This means there is needed a very careful control on who has access to the publishing system so that no undesirable content appears.

Says Rochford: “We’re looking at an authentication system whereby users who wish to avail of certain online services, such as pay local authority bills, apply for planning, or make complaints, will have to submit their PPSN number to us, which we then authenticate with the Department of Social Welfare.”

Moreover, while Mobhaile gives community groups the publishing and content management tools to set up and maintain their own websites free of charge, each group has to nominate someone to act as webmaster/editor. These individuals have to sign a data usage policy before they are given the go-ahead to develop their site.

There are currently seven county councils running pilot community sites, two sites to each council. When the system goes live with the three councils, Rochford anticipates a “flood” of community sites emerging very quickly. The expectation is that all councils will be hooked into the system in the following months.

Happening in parallel to this will be launch of the next element of the project – getting small and medium sized enterprises online. Rochford feels that small businesses are coming under increasing pressure to become e-commerce enabled and Mobhaile can help them do this.

“Small to medium sized enterprises are being told that they need to be e-commerce enabled in order to deal with the local authorities, which are moving in that direction in order to cut their costs. So we’re looking at giving SMEs a web presence through the Mobhaile site until they hit a certain threshold, at which point they’ll move away from us to another ISP. This will allow them to deal with local government.”

Rochford expects the first of them to go online within the next two months. Unlike community sites businesses are likely to face a small charge from the LGCSB. This figure has yet to be agreed but it is likely to be between €10 and €50, he says.

But Mobhaile isn’t just about giving communities and businesses the means to post their own content; it is also about the local authorities providing useful content to citizens and businesspeople. To this end, the LGCSB is looking at enabling new areas of rich content using the latest geographical information systems (GIS) technology.

“We are looking at taking some ‘data-sets’ such as roads and planning from the local authorities and putting them online,” says Rochford. “The problem is that each local authority uses a different GIS application and the data can come in many different formats. The question is how do we convert this information so we can store it in a central hosting system.”

Rochford thinks he may have the answer: geographic markup language (GMM), an open computer language that converts the data into a standard form in the same way that XML allows different web protocols to communicate with to each other.

“Spatial technology has been around for a while but only recently have open standards started to come into play,” he explains. “This is allowing GIS to go mainstream. I think it’s important that information has a spatial dimension – it allows you to do a lot more with it.”

Using GMM, Rochford and his colleagues will be able to take information from a range of public service providers from Bus Éireann to Forfás (which holds data on national infrastructure such as power lines), feed it into a SQL database and then use it to populate the Mobhaile site. The ultimate goal is for citizens to go online and be able to click on a map of their neighbourhood find all their local landmarks from schools and churches to bus-stops and council offices.

One welcome by-product of the project is that it should help communities knit more closely together.

Margaret Thatcher once famously declared that there is no such thing as society any more, just individuals. She clearly had not foreseen the development of Mobhaile.

By Brian Skelly

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