Europe's public bodies are crying out for low-cost and flexible solutions to manage their workflow systems. To date, most have relied on software sold commercially. But emerging open-source varieties provide an increasingly effective alternative - as successfully demonstrated in the pan-European ASWAD (Agent-Supported Work Flow in Public Administration) project, supported by the European Commission's IST R&D programme.
Much of the impetus for ASWAD sprang from project coordinator Alastair Burt's own experience at the German Centre for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI). "Some 200 people here muddled along with a patchwork of open-source solutions, including an Apache server and a mess of scripts and HTML," he recalls. "But we needed something to manage all the content produced daily, such as the text, databases and calendars."
In 2001, Burt met with a group of like-minded people in Brussels, all eager to test and develop free software run over an intranet within the governmental domain. The result was ASWAD, made up of partners - five technology providers and three end-users - from Germany, Belgium, France and Italy. In common with the providers, the end-users already shared an interest in open-source software development.
Kicking off in March 2002, the twelve-month project provided open-source software to the Scuola S. Anna, a small university in Pisa, Italy; Belgium's Commission Communautaire Francaise (COCOF), responsible for coordinating several local administrations for the nation's French-speaking community; and Catania Council, which oversees the port city in the east of Sicily. The end-users were selected to represent different types of public administration.
Picking the right software
Underpinning the project's software stack was Zope, an application server accounting for more than two thirds of the ASWAD "tool". Why Zope and not one of the many other open-source programmes? "It's an elegant and leading-edge technical solution for groupware systems and content management," replies Burt, who was already familiar with the platform's capabilities and potential.
The two other groups of software supported by the technology partners also hail from the open-source world. OpenFlow, used mainly for workflow management, was the responsibility of software firms Icube and Redesign. Narval, an intelligent agent solution, was rolled out by Paris-based Logilab with assistance from DFKI. The fifth provider, T6, assisted Catania Council with technology take-up and is disseminating the project results.
While programmers from each technical partner worked on the project tool, the aim was to take advantage of ongoing free-software developments in the community outside of ASWAD. "For example we chose to use Plone, which is attracting many good young developers," says Burt. "Under ASWAD, this software served as a framework for localising the system for various European languages." A templating system under Zope also facilitated localisation, enabling users to translate message catalogues with their web browser.
Developed gradually during the project, the ASWAD software system officially had an initial and final version. However, each of the end-users worked with a slightly customised version. According to Burt, the system just kept being developed, with no noticeable break. "Essentially we brought together existing software components and polished them, then localised them from English into French and Italian."
In Belgium and Italy, the end-users mainly ran the project software alone, whereas Catania Council had to integrate it with legacy systems such as Lotus Notes. Burt acknowledges that software integration was one of the main challenges faced by ASWAD. "The crucial component was content management, followed closely by workflow management," he says, underlining how all these bodies combined the two in order to automate workflow.
Using the project software, Catania Council's IT department set up a transactional workflow system to manage the organisation's hardware, software and networking systems. In Pisa, the Scuola Superiore moved its procurement process and business trips workflow to the ASWAD system. Belgium's COCOF, building on existing groupware components run under free software, used the project tool for workflow management of holiday requests. All three end-users are piloting further internal applications of the ASWAD software.
Agent technology, the third component, was given less focus here. Potential applications for it include automation of daily tasks such as email handling. The project's overall system is designed for office workers accessing intranets with a desktop PC, although agent technology could be implemented wirelessly on mobile devices.
Many industries are today buying into the non-proprietary software concept, tired of being locked into contracts. Besides being less flexible than open-source solutions, not least in terms of source code programming, proprietary solutions can also prove very costly. "A basic licence may amount to several hundred thousand euros," says Burt, "and that does not include charges for customisation." Figures such as these are of particular concern to cash-strapped public bodies everywhere. But if they go the open-source route, they can seek help with product customisation from Europe's many small firms specialising in free software. No more expensive proprietary vendor helplines, goes the argument.
If nothing else, ASWAD will accelerate the drive towards open-source software in the public domain. "Our project offers a content management and workflow management solution that is low cost, highly flexible and standards compliant," says Burt with pride. He reckons governments across Europe should consider pooling open-source software developments for themselves.
Though now completed, the project and its results continue to interest others. Several public bodies in Italy have approached Catania Council for more details of ASWAD. Other project end-users report similar interest from their regional and national peers.
"We achieved the main project goals and proved our tool was capable and cost-effective," says Burt. But like many busy coordinators, he regrets the project's short lifespan: "I hope this is the beginning rather than the end of the building of a general Zope-based toolkit for public administrations and establishment of a network of small Zope firms that cooperate to serve this market."
Looking to the future he has applied for an unfunded project extension. Meanwhile, ASWAD may live on through GRACIA, a European Union-Latin America project. "The EU has singled out several cities in Europe offering good public services via the web," he notes. "Networks of cities in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico would implement similar practices locally using an ASWAD-based system."
Deutsches Forschungszentrum fÃ¼r KÃ¼nstliche Intelligenz Gmbh
Source: Based on information from ASWAD