How Web Services Increase Accessibility

By David F. Carr Print this article Print

Miami-Dade County used XML-based Web services to make its call center more responsive to citizens--and data more accessible to government departments.

The Problem: As Miami-Dade County reached out to its citizens through a Web portal and a 311 government information call center, it wanted to tap data and applications previously available only through its mainframe, mostly powered by CA's IDMS database management system. In fact, most new applications built or bought for county use needed access to mainframe data and functions-increasingly made available as Web services.

The Details: In 2005, the county began offering citizens the ability to dial 311 and get answers and request services. The effort dovetailed with the introducton of the Miamidade.gov Web portal in 2001. "Access to the back-end data systems was critical," says Judy Zito, director of the county's Government Information Center. "Some of the mainframe systems could potentially be rewritten in the future, but when we started this we knew that wasn't something that was budgeted for and wouldn't have happened quickly." So, when a citizen wants to pay property taxes or schedule a bulky waste pickup, performing those and other common services requires access to a mainframe application.

Carmen Suarez, a manager in the county's Enterprise Technology Services Department, seized on the high-profile 311 project as an opportunity to explore the concept of service-oriented architecture. Instead of integrating the mainframe and the Motorola Customer Service Request software package the county had purchased for the 311 project, Suarez proposed turning existing mainframe applications into XML Web services for use in a variety of applications. This means that mainframe functions can be accessed with requests for services transmitted in the Extensible Markup Language (XML) format.

For example, one key service searches for the owner of a property. Search requests are invoked with an address, or a folio number from the land records, as a parameter, and the results are returned in XML. When a citizen requests a bulky waste pickup-either on the Web or over the phone-another Web service records that request in a mainframe scheduling application used by the county's waste disposal department.

The Solution: Miami-Dade uses a middleware product-Shadow RTE from DataDirect, a division of Progress Software-to make Web services available from the mainframe, along with developer tools to define the chunks of application code that will be exposed as services. For its Web portal and Java application servers, the county relies on IBM's WebSphere products running on AIX, IBM's version of Unix. Another development team works with the Microsoft .NET framework, mostly to support the integration of packaged applications that run on Windows, according to Suarez. The Java and .NET development teams are also creating Web services; more than 100 programs are now in production.

"A good majority of them are mainframe-based, because that was the point-we had all these applications that needed mainframe data," Suarez says.

The Results: The 311 call center has earned the county some rare praise. Even the usually snarky local newsweekly, the New Times, recognized the 311 center for "no hold music, no voice mail, and helpful people." Part of the reason they can be so helpful is the underlying technical integration.

Suarez says a key to success is training mainframe developers on what makes a good Web service. What if, for example, you're offering to look up property owners by both address and folio number? "Is that one Web service or two?" she asks. Answer: It's one service that accepts two different types of parameters.

The property lookup service now also feeds the Web portal, an interactive voice response system, the police and fire emergency dispatch centers, and applications used by other departments. "I can't believe how much that gets used," Suarez says. "Sooner or later, everyone in county government needs to know who owns a particular piece of land."

This article was originally published on 2007-08-24
David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.
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