Eliminating this manual intervention was one of reasons why the London Borough of Camden’s council embarked on a new integration strategy back in 2009. At the time, many of its process were slow and unduly expensive.
For example, if a citizen wished to report a missed bin collection, they would have to call the council, who would record the incident on its back-office system. Bin collections are outsourced to Veolia Enviromental Services, who would access the council’s system via a virtual private network, print out the relevation information, and re-enter it into their own operational applications.
Eventually, the situation became untenable. "We started looking at how we could provide better integrated systems, how we could support more agility in our business processes, and how we could prevent oursevles from being tied to specific vendor solutions to support those processes," recalls Francois Mounier, integration and development manager at Camden Council.
Mounier and his team assessed their options, and decided that service-oriented architecture, wherein application functionality is broken into discrete, interchangeable services, was the best fit. "We looked at at all the SOA infrastructure software on the market," he explains. "As a council, we’ve had a long commitment to open source software, so our preferred was [Red Hat’s application infrastructure platform] JBoss. Our assistant director engaged with Gartner, and they validated JBoss as a platform that could support our SOA strategy."
Originally, the idea was to tackle the citizen-facing business processes first. However, soon after Camden Council had selected its SOA infrastructure and laid out its roadmap, Veolia informed the organisation that it was about to undergo its own IT transformation, migrating to new information management system called ECHO.
"When Veolia first told us about ECHO, they suggested a point-to-point integration with our back-end system (a specialist application called Contender StreetScene from DataPro)," says Mounier. "But we told them we had an integration framework in place, and showed them the interfaces we wanted to use.
"We defined something called the canonical data model, which is basically the blueprint for the XML format of the information you want to exchange," he explains. "We said to Veolia and DataPro, we want you to build your interfaces to support these data models."
Having defined the integration model itself, Camden Council is in a stronger position when it comes to application lifecycle management, says Mounier. "If we decided tomorrow to move away from our current back office system, all we would have to do is maintain those interfaces," he says. "This is a very comfortable position for Camden, and it definitely lowers the cost of exit from one solution to another."
Cutting transaction costs
Soon after it began work on the integration framework for its interface with Veolia, Mounier’s team was approsched by Camden’s Street Involvement Services division, who look after the council’s public facing street management services. They wanted to improve the way in which incidents submitted by citizens on the website were entered into the back-office system.
Having already built the interfaces for its Contender application, doing this was a simple job. "One of the selling points of SOA as an architectural pattern is the reuse of code," explains Mounier. "But we never thought we would be able to achieve reuse so early in our SOA journey.”
Furthermore, once the ECHO system was in operation (Camden had its integration platform built long before this took place), the council had an entirely automated process from when an incident was raised online until it was passed over to Veolia to resolve – even though this was never the focus of any particular project.
That process used to cost the Council £3 per transaction, Mounier says, due to the manual rekeying involved. Now that it has been entirely automated, it costs just 8p per transaction. That dramatic cost reduction meant this part of the integration project paid for itself in a matter of weeks.
Once business processes have been encoded in the SOA platform, they can be reused by other channels. For example, when a citizen requests a new recycling bin, there are certain rules that govern whether they are eligible, such as whether they live in a block of flats or a house. If a citizen makes a request via the council’s call centre, it is up to the operative’s training and knowledge to decide whether or not they are eligilbe. However, the council is now working on integrating its customer support applications with the SOA platform so that this decision is automated, as it would be online.
"Using SOA, we have been able to demonstrate reuse, and because Camden takes ownership of the interface, we’ve lowered the cost of exit," Mounier explains. "Even better from a customer perspective, we are able to provide business services across multiple channels and we only have to design them once. This means projects will have shorter timescales, but will benefit the organisation at much greater scale."