W3C Technology and Society Domain

European W3C Symposium on eGovernment


Executive Summary

On February 1 and 2, 2007, W3C Spain Office held an European W3C Symposium on eGovernment in the Feria Internacional de Muestras de Asturias (FIDMA) at the Palacio de Congresos (International Trade Fair of Asturias), in Gijón, Spain, to understand specific government and citizens’ needs related to delivery of eGovernment services over the Web, identify aspects that put Web interoperability at risk and learn how governments can deliver better and more efficient services through computer technologies.

The symposium program had 11 invited talks and 4 panels, structured into four sessions. Most speakers came from European Governments and organizations that work closely with them. Attendance was free and open to the public.

The first session was an introductory one and the reminding three had three talks each showing the point of view of the governments, citizens and organizations. After the talks there was a panel for each session to discuss issues raised during the talks and take questions from the audience.

Participants considered a number of issues that affect eGovernment today, mainly the lack of interoperability, Web accessibility, need of Best Practices, privacy and identity theft issues, and others. These issues surfaced during several talks and panels. Some projects on how to deal with them were presented.

There is a big difference between electronic services and "old" or "paper-based" ones. Governments seem to build the electronic ones starting from the old ones, and this does not work as expected. Electronic ones require a procedural change and a totally different approach to be effective; they should not be constraint by old ones.

The organizational/political layer and the technical one should work closely together to achieve fully electronic services and real eGovernment. Sometimes it is hard for the IT layer to influence the political one, but this is a must to succeed, eGovernment has to transform procedures at all levels to work efficiently. Bottom-up approaches from IT, solving small things and showing the benefit to the political layer could show a win-win situation and achieve more interaction and better understanding between layers.

Some technologies such as XML and Web Services are much used to develop eServices. Others such as the Semantic Web are only starting to show their potential. Semantic Web is perceived as powerful but expensive and complicated, although has the potential to solve problems at a high level, and could be the right tool to cooperate between organizational/political and IT layers.

There was a recurring question from the audience to W3C Staff Members during the symposium: "what will W3C do for eGovernment?". Staff Members made a lot of effort explaining how W3C works, that the symposium was an event organized to find out what the community needs from W3C. The community should not "wait and see"; it needs to engage in such an effort from the inside and from the very beginning, participating actively. Such cooperation would make this effort a success for all the interested parties.

Governments have many common problems and they should share and cooperate to solve them, and not solve them independently a thousand times. Sharing and cooperation is in the road to success.



Symposium Discussions

Some Figures

Follow-up activities


Session 1 -- Welcome and Introduction to eGovernment

After a brief welcome from the local and regional government representatives, the symposium kicked off with a controversial talk by Peter Brown, Founder of Pensive.eu, Chair of CEN's eGovernment Focus Group, and a eGovernment consultant very well-known among EU Governments.

In his talk Has eGovernment lost its way?, Peter was very incisive showing what are the most common problems in eGovernment today:

Peter has a slightly more detailed report on the main points of his talk available.

Daniel Dardailler (W3C) took the stage next giving an overview of what W3C is, how it works, and some areas of interest for eGovernment, during his talk about Web Open Standards and eGovernment. He reviewed in detail W3C's Patent Policy and pointed out the importance for Governments to use and support open, royalty-free standards. He made a few remarks as a conclusion:

After the talks, Klaus Birkenbihl (W3C) chaired a panel where Juan Miguel Márquez (Director-General for the Modernization of the Administration, Ministry for Public Administrations (MAP), Spain), joined the previous speakers. Juan Miguel gave an introduction about the interests of the Ministry on eGovernment :

In the ensuing discussion there were a number of points which the speakers touched and agreed on:

Session 2 -- Government and Citizens

Steven Pemberton (W3C) opened this session with the talk W3C technologies for information dissemination and interaction. He began reviewing all the changes in the interaction field, since the early days of HTML. How HTML evolved, how CSS arrived, and how the battle for splitting content and presentation has largely been won. He gave some examples on how CSS makes possible this separation, and how there's no longer debate about this being useful.

He then explained how this all has been evolving in the past years to XHTML2 and XForms, and what are the main reasons that make those more powerful: better structure, adding separation of logic (besides the former separation of presentation and content), better and more consistent semantics, better delivery to different devices, more accessible, much less coding. He emphasized the power and benefits of declarative languages (like the ones mentioned) versus traditional web programming languages such as Javascript, ASP, JSP, PHP. Declarative is easier and shorter to write, more difficult to make errors, programs are lighter, easier to test and debug.

He finished giving some examples of real use in vertical sectors, mentioning eGovernment as one where these new technologies can be very helpful and powerful such us the use that the Planning Inspectorate of the UK Government is making of them.

Adam Bailin (Central Office of Information (COI), UK Government) talked about Policy, standards and legislation in eGovernment, reviewing the efforts of the UK Government. He reviewed e-GIF (e-Government Interoperability Framework) which was built to achieve interoperability between government agencies. It uses many standards from W3C (HTML, XML, Schemas, XSLT) and from others like CEN, ISO and Dublin Core. A central registry for the standards, schemas, etc. is maintained by COI and governmental organizations that want to interoperability with others have to comply with those. He gave a couple of project examples using e-GIF: Government Connect that links local and central governments and governments to the third sector, and Government Gateway for online tax returns.

The UK Government is still finding a number of challenges, the most representative ones are: Joined-up Services, it's usually difficult for citizens to find a single point of entry to conduct a procedure; Adam gave this example "Citizen needed to contact government 44 times following the death of a relative"; Data Sharing, UK Government is exploring options to protect privacy of citizens according to the national Data Protection Act; and Service Transformation, services should be driven by business requirements and not by old processes (this was also pointed by Peter Brown and others in Session 1).

He then talked about eAccessibility. The UK government conducted two important studies, one nationwide for 1,000 public & private sector websites in the UK (2004) and the other during the UK Presidency of the EU (2005) where 400+ public sector websites in all 25 EU Member States where evaluated. Regarding the latter, more than 70% of the web sites were not even conformant with WCAG Level A, and no site was conformant with Double-A, even when there are several countries where there are regulations in place. They used a mixture of automated testing & user evaluation and found that WCAG 1.0 covered only about 50% of what they needed to check for. He mentioned the British Standard PAS 78 as the legal requirement in the UK. Adam recommended a guide (developed by COI) to good practice in commissioning accessible websites that works alongside WAI Guidelines and also define an accessibility policy, and the strategic importance of eInclusion, the use of technology to prevent social exclusion.

He finally reviewed the Guidelines for UK Government Websites. COI maintains the .gov.uk domain which currently has over 4,000 web sites registered. Citizens get confused about the number of web sites and want a single point of contact. COI will close down 500+ sites in the coming months and the strategy is to redirect citizens to a single portal called DirectGov; the UK Government will run individual campaigns to achieve brand consolidation for this portal. Challenges for the near future are also to improve Web Accessibility to Double-A minimum and how to influence Ministerial policy from the technology side.

Eric Velleman talked about the Citizen experience with eGovernment (Bartimeus Accessibility Foundation, The Netherlands) focusing on the Web Accessibility problems the citizens face. He remarked that in this society that is more and more technical, technology has to be more social and universal for the citizens. He referred to several studies in The Netherlands and the EU and mentioned some numbers to take into account:

He also reviewed the results of the workshop held by a government agency in The Netherlands in November 2006 titled "What do the citizens want?" with the goal of identifying problems around eGovernment and improve eServices for the citizens, asking them directly. Analyzing the answers, they found out that citizens don't know exactly what they want, but that they expect clarity and simple answers to their problems. Attendants agreed that Information and services should be efficient, effective and accessible to all. Trust, Transparency and accountability also surfaced as one of the important issues. He mentioned an example about a site asking for credit card information from the citizen when the citizen was only requesting a new passport to be issued, and that site is not even under the control of the government but contracted to a third party; citizens are scared to use the service because of this. So Governments should review their policies and make clear to the citizens why they're asking for any given information so the citizen could know what to expect when giving the information in a given site.

He mentioned how Web Accessibility improves access to information for everyone and how it's needed to be improved. Bartimeus has a quality mark to award accessible web sites that are conformant to the national guidelines on the subject; those are mostly based in WCAG. Bartimeus runs a test of 130 government web sites every year and a very few number are awarded with the mark. What is worse, they detect the same mistakes in the same sites every year, although all new websites of the central government have to conform to the national guidelines (WCAG-based) from September 1st 2006. There is a lack of knowledge in governments about solutions, and lack of harmonization of those between agencies and countries. Encouraging government is more a question of providing access and skills, rather than tackling income, education or age. Eric cited two projects in which Bartimeus is involved as an example on improvement: Bentoweb is creating modules to test additional WCAG check points for policy support tools; and WabCluster is producing harmonized interpretation of the guidelines (Unified Web Evaluation Methodology).

The speakers were joined by Francisco García Vieira (Red.es, Agency for the Development of Information Society, Spain) for a panel chaired by José Manuel Alonso (W3C/CTIC) where the more important points were:

Session 3 -- Governments and Industry

Yves Lafon (W3C) started the session with the talk Web Services: Building Blocks and Prospective, where he reviewed the Web Services stack at W3C. He talked about the most commonly used and most known standards in the area, such as WSDL and SOAP, about how they're evolving in their new versions (currently in development), and also about a good number of new ones such as XOP, MTOM, WS-Policy and Choreography. He finally talked about ways to add semantics to Web Services: Semantic Web Services, which will allow to connect services ensuring that they speak the same language with same meaning, e.g., merging data from different sources or get the 2 services out of a list of 50 candidates that actually do what the user wants.

Serge Novaretti (European Commission) introduced the European Interoperability Framework (EIF) that is been built by IDABC, the interoperability programme of the Commission. The European Commission does not have a legal mandate by itself to become active in IT; the issues of administration or eGovernment are domains of the Member States, but the Commission is acting on explicit request of the Member States which have representatives in its management committee. IDABC promotes and supports eGovernment and interoperability with a global budget of 148.7 M EUR for 5 years (2005-2009). All its contracts are through call for tenders and its work programme was approved by Member States and the Commission. IDABC works with member states and institutions towards the establishment of real pan-European services for citizens and business and has a number of activities, e.g., the portal "Your Europe", a single access point for citizens to information on cross border activities and access to eServices.

The EIF, “European Interoperability Framework for Pan-European eGovernment Services”, Version 1.0 (published in 2004) has become one of IDABC's most widely known and influential documents. Most of the document widely accepted. Many relevant experiences with national frameworks since the creation of the document. The main EIF objectives are to support the European Union’s strategy, to supplement national Interoperability and to help achieve interoperability. Its underlying principles are:

There was some Criticism/Support/Debate around statements about openness (open standards and open source) and the differentiation between different interoperability layers. EIF is evolving to Version 2 which will be more practical; there is a preparatory study ongoing and a deep revision will follow. IDABC expects to publish final Version 2 in early 2008.

Serge also mentioned briefly two new projects in the works to support EIF: the development of a XML Clearinghouse and the analysis and use of Open Document Exchange Formats. He finally concluded saying that "thinking about interoperability is changing the way of thinking."

América Álvarez González (Director-General IT, Asturias Government, Spain) took the stage to talk about the real case of the Asturias region and its eGovernment Applied Strategy (in Spanish). She explained how the region evolved from a old IT infrastructure to a new one to deliver the best possible eGovernment experience for the citizens building a common and interoperable, open standards-based framework that connects internally all the points of the administration. A challenge is to be conformant to the standards, not because of the standards themselves but because of the number of people involved in the procedures: in Asturias, a group of 80 IT people is taking care of the technical procedures and educate 33,000 public servants used to the old mechanisms, not an easy task for them.

She mentioned several times that besides technology, governments have always to keep the citizens' needs in mind and provide the best eService to fulfill them. She recommended to start with high impact eServices and make them work well, because that shows the eAdministration potential and help move things around easier. To achieve this, a deep change of the internal administrative and organizational procedures is needed. She warned that even achieving it, it could fail if the citizens don't know that the eService exists (need to advertise it) or if the citizens don't know how to use it (need to educate them).

Interoperability is a must and a need for her at all levels: organizational, semantic and technical; it should be achieved using open standards and web services and cooperating at the different administration levels: local, regional, national and european. Not to forget: privacy and security to build trust for the citizens in order for them to use the eServices.

Miguel Ángel Amutio (Ministry for Public Administrations (MAP), Spain, and Member of the IDABC programme committee) joined the speakers for a panel chaired by Alberto Mijares (CTIC). Miguel Ángel introduced some of the work of MAP, e.g., the development of the national interoperability framework, following the EIF guidelines. Interoperability facilitates interaction of different visions in Europe at all levels, but it is not easy to achieve. A number of interdependent layers need to be interoperable, from the infrastructure to the semantics.

Accessibility and use of open standards (e.g. as defined by W3C and its Patent Policy) very important; goal: multichannel, integral and secure accessibility to information . Challenges: there is not a unique reference to choose among multiple open standards, difficult for governments to decide. Also governments don't know if the chosen standards will be developed and maintained further or if they'll expire sometime in the future; it's out of their control since they're developed somewhere else. Possible cooperation between W3C and Governments.

After Miguel Ángel's introduction, the panel started discussion and took questions from the audience. Main points were:

Session 4 -- Acquiring, Archiving and Retrieving Knowledge: The Semantic Web

Ivan Herman (W3C) started the session talking about The offer and promises of the Semantic Web, where he introduced the Semantic Web technologies from a practical problem solving approach. He began with one of the tasks users of the Web face very often: searching. So, he tried to find the answer to the question: "Who is Viviane Redding?" (note: she is EU's Commissioner for Information Society and Media). He started showing how the users search and how they have to go manually through a lot of information, and browse manually several pages until finding something interesting. Many of those Web pages are generated from databases, but databases behind them are not integrated. If some of that data is available for machines for further processing, data should be possibly combined, merged on a Web scale.

He showed an example from the beginning: how it would work to find information about a book and more information from that point. He referred to the problem of finding some bits of information here, some there, coming from different datasets, all may be of different origin somewhere on the web, all may have different formats. He emphasize the importance of URIs to address those bits in a unique way and the importance of the Semantic Web technologies that allow those bits to be merged, showing all the (combined) information in a consistent way. Several operations can be done with the new set of information, such as querying the set as a whole, and finding the information in one step. Some of the technologies that have been built and are been used for these kind of applications include RDF, OWL, and SPARQL. He also mentioned that these applications can get more powerful, for example using common terminologies that a community has produced or common rules, and mentioned some of the technologies but didn't go into detail.

He then referred to two issues sometimes perceived about the Semantic Web: it is too complicated and it's only in the research stage. In his opinion, the former happened because industry probably needs more education and outreach on this new subject and simpler examples (as the one he used); and about the latter, there are many small companies using Semantic Web technology, some even established around this technology, and some big companies have already started to use it, too, but many powerful Semantic Web applications use the semantic data internally only, and Ivan mentioned that for the Semantic Web to succeed the data should be exposed to allow queries as he explained before. He showed several examples of this technology working in different areas: bioinformatics, data integration, portals and even to express rights of digital content on the Web. He also added some figures on the use, e.g., more than one million users of Creative Commons using RDF (transparently, without even knowing it).

Vassilios Peristeras, and Maciej Zaremba (National University of Ireland, DERI Galway) presented the infrastructure and a project to achieve Pan-European web services using semantic web technologies in their talk WSMO-PA:Towards a generic Public Administration Service Model.

Vassilios emphasized the importance of services and of building a Public Administration Reference Service Model. He mentioned that it is very complicated because it needs lots of consensus not easy to achieve. The business model should be described completely independent of the IT; it should even work with no IT at all. He showed a generic model they developed over the last four years under a european project called SemanticGov, and he then went through a specific example: the driving license service model. He mentioned several benefits of this approach, such as bridging the gap between “technical” and “business” staff. Several initiatives along this line, such as the ones of OASIS, the Open Group, W3C, building service oriented and semantic technologies that can describe the meta-layer on one hand abstracting it from the IT) and the building blocks for future IT development on the other. Some specific Public Administration examples are the UK EGov Metadata Standards or the US Federal Enterprise Architecture. He finally mentioned that this approach can be used as an infrastructure for Semantic Web Services.

Maciej took it from here to explain how WSMO, a Semantic Service Model (led by DERI), develops the kind of Service Model for Public Administration detailed by Vassilios before, into WSMO-PA, a Semantic and Formal Model for EGovernment Services. WSMO-PA builds onto WSMO, and WSMO builds onto several Semantic Web technologies.

Antonio Campos and Luis Polo (Fundación CTIC, Spain) presented Semantic Tools for the e-Citizen. Antonio introduced some eGovernment concepts, and goals that eGovernment should achieve. In his opinion, when interacting with other Governments, the industry or the citizens, governments should find powerful and more efficient means to communicate, assure the quality of public services, enhance the citizens' experience and improve transparency and traceability in services. Semantic Web and information management technologies facilitate eGovernment systems interoperability and interaction with and between citizens, business and public administrations. He also mentioned that an important challenge for eGovernment services to work is to create a Web identity that is unique, shareable and trustable. In the Semantic Web, resources must be identified in order to talk about them, to be addressable, such identification already exists in the real world (e.g., ID cards, car plates, social security IDs) and that several projects are trying to the same using Semantic Web technology and metadata, such as the Common Procurement Vocabulary (CPV), to standardizing the references used by contracting authorities and entities to describe the subject of procurement contracts; a version in each of the official languages of the EU (20 languages) is been developed, and it already has 8200 concepts (codes). He believes these initiatives could in the end lead to easier-to-develop and more powerful and maintainable solutions for eGovernment. He finally mentioned some eGovernment related projects that CTIC is developing, and handed the presentation to Luis, to demo one of them.

Luis introduced a project called BOPA. BOPA is the Official Bulletin of Principality of Asturias, a collection of administrative and legal documents published by the regional government weekly. The bulletin uses a lot of legal jargon very difficult to understand for citizens and industry. The BOPA project has a semantic approach based on ontologies, and it has a semantic search engine for citizens with special focus in three domains: employment, public procurement and public funding.

Citizens don’t know the administrative and legal jargon used in the bulletins and lack expert knowledge required to be successful in their queries. So the search engine lets citizens use regular words they know and the system selects the correct words (in the jargon used) to perform the search. Ontologies guide users to the results. He demoed the tool with success. Since the bulletins are published in Spanish, the tool works with Spanish language only for now.

Mauro Nunez (W3C) chaired a panel afterwards, where the session speakers were joined by María Jesús Fernández (Zaragoza City Council, Spain). María Jesús explained how the City Council is looking into the Semantic Web technologies and building a few applications with them, such as an eTourism project that will let Zaragoza visitors plan their routes based on the time they can spend and their interest (if they prefer to see a concert, a theater play, a monument, or all of them). She also mentioned that current syntactic search solutions are well deployed, work out-of-the-box and work very well and efficiently; she expects to see the Semantic Web ones improving in the coming years.

Since this was the last panel of the Symposium, discussion between participants and the audience was focused on the Semantic Web, but some issues raised during previous sessions arose again:

Audience asked again several times what W3C will do in the eGovernment space. W3C Staff Members stated again that the Symposium was organized to hear the opinions and needs of the interested parties and try to find common problems to solve once, but that W3C itself cannot do it alone, the interested parties' help and engagement is a must.

Some Figures

Registered 348
Attendance 173
(from Spain) 85%
(from other EU countries) 15%
Countries represented 12


Follow-up activities

Several topics were recurring at the symposium, specially during the panels, and represent well the general feeling of the attendants. So, as a summary, the main ones and most discussed were (in no particular order):

Based on the topics above and discussions at the symposium, W3C staff is trying to engage those present at the symposium and other interested parties from the Government and Industry, and considering next steps to gather more information and coordinating discussions and actions for possible future efforts of the Consortium in eGovernment. This symposium had a European focus and it is likely that W3C will need to organize more events in the future to gather information and talk to the eGovernment community in other parts of the World, trying to find as much common problems as possible and consider to help solve them using common solutions.

José Manuel Alonso
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