Local government text craze

9 Mar 2004

A new text messaging service originally designed for local government is being used by the Irish presidency to keep EU officials and other interested parties appraised of vital data.

The story dates back over two and half years ago, according to Tim Willoughby (pictured), assistant director of the Local Government Computer Services Board (LGCSB), when the Department of Finance issued a tender on behalf of the Government for fixed-line, mobile and virtual private network telecommunications, a tender eventually won by Eircom and Vodafone. As soon as the results of the tender were announced the LGCSB began negotiations with Vodafone.

“We wanted to see if we could set up something on top of their network for local authority usage and one of the obvious things was an SMS [short messaging service] gateway,” says Willoughby. “Basically, Vodafone could provide us with an IP [internet protocol] SMS connection so we didn’t have to use modems to send messages. Instead we could send them directly over the network. We also negotiated with them a block of 100 different mobile numbers that we will be able to use for particular services or particular counties.”

Following agreement with Vodafone, the LGCSB then went to tender and selected Saadian Technology as the preferred supplier for the SMS gateway software. The intention of the service is to facilitate communication between citizens and local authorities. “If you have a website hosted by the board and you have a mobile phone with one of the 100 numbers we have negotiated, then you can use an SMS message to update the content of that website,” he explains.

Potential uses include updating sports results on local websites, sending traffic reports to a central server and much more. “One of the things we have been talking to local authorities about is putting unique identifiers on all of the signposts and traffic lights and some of the bigger infrastructural things in the country,” explains Willoughby. “If someone spots that, say a streetlight is broken or that there is a pothole in the road, they can send a text. It’s all about empowering people. Some counties spend a fair amount of money employing consultants to go around and do exactly that.”

The board is also talking to South Dublin County Council (SDCC) about using the system for management of sports pitches. “There are 150 sports pitches in the SDCC region,” says Willoughby. “If you book one on a nice day there’s no problem but the days when it’s lashing rain, the council may have to cancel half the pitch bookings. How do they tell all the people who booked the pitches they are unplayable or redirect them from 17A Tallaght to 15C in Terenure? The council could take your mobile number when you book will text you if there’s a problem. The service could also include texting members of both teams. So it’s simple services based along the lines of ‘Would people be interested in this?’ As usual there will be services that people demand that we haven’t thought of yet.”

While these services are still tentative the system is already being put to use by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) for the Irish presidency of the EU and it is handling 25,000 messages per month. According to Willoughby interested members of the public — although not just the Irish public — can signup for messages relating to specific topics. “People interested in the Lisbon Agreement can be texted if there are any changes or if something happens on the presidency website they can be alerted,” he says. “Then for delegates, if a meeting changes or if something happens there is a different level of text message.”

Willoughby sees nothing odd in the fact that a body charged with providing IT services to local government is working on a supra-national project. He says it is all to do with the nature of local government computing. “If you are interested in planning in Westmeath, say, you can visit the Westmeath County Council website, go into the planning section do a live hit on the server, view a map and so on and while you are accessing their database but the infrastructure pulling all the information together is here at the LGCSB.” The board, he says, has therefore developed an expertise in high-end integration. “We don’t do the small systems,” he says. “Rather we do the big complex ones. The sort of websites we’ve been hosting are the big 17 server, multiple links to different places affairs which aren’t that easy to build in an ISP [internet service provider].”

The needs of the DFA he says are very similar. “It needs security, SMS, links to the government VPN and to other government departments. We already had that infrastructure in place so for them to add to it was more cost efficient than going to and ISP.”

Ultimately, however, the EU presidency will pass to another nation and Willoughby and his team will take what they have learned from the experience and apply it at a local level. “There are endless applications for this technology at a local level,” he says. “Text is an ideal medium for contacting large numbers of people all at once and e-inclusion is about everyone.”

By David Stewart