straight to the point – from different points of view

COVID reentry and digitization

COVID reentry and digitization

I read a report today about the government’s new request to those persons applying to return home having been stranded overseas because of the COVID restrictions. They now demand that applicants make their requests for entry via an online form rather than emails as had been the case until recently. This episode vividly illustrates the lack of appreciation and understanding within the government of the critical issues and benefits of digitization and digitalization.

From the outset I complained that the use of email for requests was inefficient, ineffective and would create problems later on. Firstly, applicants were not effectively guided to provide the specific information needed by decision makers. They would compose their request as they thought best. This is never a good basis for decision making especially where applicants are effectively competing for limited opportunities to return.

Without a digitized data entry system there would also be no audit trail guaranteeing that all applicants and applications could be reviewed so as to guarantee a fair process. How easy is it for an email to be accidentally (or otherwise) deleted. Further, access to the emails received would depend on the initial recipient forwarding all in a timely manner to those who needed it. There would also be no automatic control and reporting on who had access to what is surely deeply personal data. I could list several more weaknesses of email based applications as opposed to a fully digitized one but you surely see the stark differences by now.

From what has been said, all free format email applications submitted to date will form no part of the process going forward. Given that this (email applications) is what they were directed to do by the authorities, can this be considered even remotely fair or appropriate? I am suggesting that any properly done digitization should include all data submitted to date.

At this juncture I should repeat the explanation given in an earlier article about the difference between digitization and digitalization. Digitization converts existing data, however held, into a structured, digital format usually in a specially designed database. The existing data could be in any of several formats including hand written, unstructured or partially structured electronic format. Digitalization layers an app or application over that data in much the way that the online reentry form is now available.

The discarding of all emails from the system is only because no initial digitization was included in the email system as implemented. Had a digitization consultant been part of the initial design of the email based system a means would have been found to gather data via email such that it could be easily pulled into the online database once it became available. At the simplest level, this could have been a Form created in MS Word that users filled out and attached to their email. At this stage we would easily import the contents of those forms into the new system. I don’t think I have to explain how much more effective that would have been and why applicants would have been so much better served.

What this episode illustrates for me is that even where we are building completely new data management systems inclusive of applications processing, we are not utilizing the expertise of data management specialists. Converting data from existing systems is already an onerous and time consuming process without us creating new difficulties by acting as if we do not plan to digitize our operations in the near future.

With this approach we can have little confidence in our ability to achieve digitalization in any sensible timeframe. What we will do is what we have done for two decades with very little success. We will acquire expensive and mostly foreign sourced digitalization systems that struggle with the paucity of data presented to them. The digitization is .missing for the most part, and projects will fail.

With respect to the reentry applications, I can advise that inclusion of the email contents can be accommodated within the database that sits behind the system. There are a few methods that could be used that I do not need to delve into today. Suffice to say that entire emails including attachments should present no insurmountable problems.

Had I been an applicant who diligently provided all the data and documents requested by the government utilizing email as instructed, I would be unhappy to be treated in similar manner to those who had not. I would also be concerned that all institutional memory of my interactions had been so easily disregarded.

There needs to be a complete reset of our thinking regarding digitization and digitalization. I’m told that this cavalier, last minute approach is the norm across all government data management. Eventual digitalization starts with an understanding of the data being collected and the use to which it will be put. Almost every existing data gathering routine could be optimized for ease of digitization in the future so as to facilitate digitalization later, inclusive of the retention of data so laboriously and expensively gathered in the meantime.

The announcement also concerned me for another important reason. It was the hope expressed that it would cope with the volume of updates and not crash. Is that the level at which we are operating? nline database developers were building mission critical systems in the 90s that coped with millions of transactions daily without fail We did that using hardware and software with less than one hundredth of the capacity and performance specifications of today’s systems. This reentry application would service at best a few thousand entries per day. Please, performance and resilience should not be issues unless developed by totally incompetent persons.

Given how important and emotive the issue of of reentry applications is for a great number of people I respectfully suggest that government reconsider the decision to eliminate all the data previously submitted by applicants. I assure you that their information can be included if the need is deemed to be an essential requirement.

Further afield, if digitalization is to be the success that we claim to be aiming for, then we should already be mapping all the data that is gathered and held in every nook and cranny of the public sector. We should be forecasting, where possible, the data needs of any prospective digitalization and finding ways to accommodate same in the data gathering and digitization processes currently being used.

The digitization that I envisage and am certain that we absolutely need is a massive exercise, equivalent to designing and building a complex stricture, a city even. If our leaders understand that the benefits accrue from day one, as exemplified by the more efficient and humane treatment of our returning nationals, then I expect that they will take such an approach and begin to reap benefits immediately.

I should add that I am concerned that business applicants will continue to use emails as their means of applying. That is totally illogical. All the benefits described for the general population also apply to business applicants, in fact moreso. Is there some unspoken reason for treating business travelers differently from others?

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