Can We Monetizing Government Services?

On November 7, I attended a session put on by the Canadian Institute called “Government Connects“. All levels of government spoke about digital transformation of their services.  One of the speakers was the boss of all Alberta Public Servants, Marcia Nelson.  Marcia did a great job discussing what the Government of Alberta is doing in moving its services online.  Certainly Digital Government is the nirvana for most governments as they see cyberspace as being a cheaper, faster and more effective way to deliver more services to citizens.

The User as the Product

Marcia, and many of the speakers, talked about the expectations of citizens relative to their other digital experiences.  For example the ease to create a Facebook account, the functionality available via a GMail account or how a LinkedIn profile is now almost as important as a resume or a business card.  The question from Marcia, and others was ‘how can governments compete with these products?‘.

The other side of these services is a profit motive.  Facebook makes it easy to set up a profile so it can target you with advertisements. Gmail wants you as an email client so it can scan your email and target its advertisement.  LinkedIn wants you to buy a premium membership or at least get your eyeballs on its advertisements.  All of the above are examples of monetizing you as a user into becoming their product.  Assuming informed consent, there is nothing wrong with monetization.  It is an economic transaction in which a slice of your privacy is exchanged for some really good services (like watching cat videos on Facebook just saying).

The Digital Government Disadvantage

So where does government fit into this?  Firstly there is the challenge of resources.  A quick scan of the September 2016 quarterly results of Facebook shows they have about $10.6USD Billion in physical and intangible assets*.  Included in this number is $5.1USD Billion of network and computer software assets (physical) in addition to $1.7USD Billion in technologies and patents (intangible).  In other words, Facebook has excellent technical infrastructure to offer a premium product for free to users.  And if they don’t have a good product now, their $30.3USD Billion in current assets (e.g. cash, securities, etc.) can be used to buy that good product.

* Note, for those accounting weenies out there, an interesting item they have on their balance sheet is ‘Acquired users’.  I could not readily find a definition for this term but it appears that the users are really the Product!

Pity someone like the Government of Alberta (GoA).  A $50 billion a year organization in which an estimated 2.5%, over $1 billion, is spent annually on Information Management and Technology (IMT) (adapted from: GoA IMT Plan, 2016 – 2021, p. 4). From the GoA’s most recent financial statements, they have $4.4CAD Billion (about $3USD Billion) of computer assets – hey not bad – of which 78% of is fully depreciated (e.g. over 5 years old) – YIKES! (adapted from GoA 2015-16 Financial Statements, p. 63).

Beyond relying on old technology, the GoA has to do a lot more than Facebook.  While Facebook can focus on social media, the GoA needs to run registry systems (e.g. vital statistics, land titles or drivers licenses), health systems (e.g. immunization, medical records), education (K-12, student finance, apprenticeship certificates), business (collect taxes/royalties/fines) and human social functions (tracking children in foster care, seniors or homelessness).

The above is not a new story but it is worth repeating every now and then that governments do things that no one else wants to with a tiny fraction of the resources of private industry.  Governments must also build and run systems that have almost no tolerance for failure.

Risk and Skin in the Game

To the last point, risk, this is where government is at a further disadvantage.  The original investors in FaceBook backed a winner.  Those who put money in to Myspace, Friendster or DIGG did not fare so well (huh, never heard of some of these, check out the grave yard of failed social media infographic from the Search Engine Journal January 25, 2013).  Nicholas Taleb calls investors (win or lose) people with ‘Skin in the Game‘ from his book Anti-Fragile.  In contrast, public servants never have skin in the game.  We are always spending other people’s money and our fantastically worst case for abject failure is forced retirement or perhaps being fired – maybe.

In other words, governments have both an advantage and disadvantage around risk. The individuals involved do not have personal risk (advantage) but the organizations also lack the mind focusing benefit of the ‘terror of failure’ (disadvantage).

The Monetization Continuum and How Can Governments ‘Compete’

The reality is that Governments can’t and shouldn’t compete with the Facebook’s of the world.  Creating a bleeding edge user experience would be an inexcusable use of public funds and without the terror of failure would not likely be successful anyway.

But because thought exercises can lead to innovation, I am proposing the ‘Monetization Continuum‘ for governments; a government simply needs to pick a point on a line.  At one end (generally status quo) is ‘Mind and Accept the Gap‘ at the other is ‘Full Monetization‘ with other options falling between these two.  Definitions are provided below as well as way points but generally if you are Singapore you may be more comfortable having McDonald’s ads on your obesity website.  If you are at the other extreme – well this is where Minding the Gap comes in.

Monetization Continuum

End Points Definition Examples
Mind and Accept the Gap Governments acknowledge that they will lag and explain why to their citizens. Periodically, governments leap-frog into a stronger position. Status Quo
Monetize Fund digital government through ad, premium memberships or sponsorship revenue.

Premium services could even be tax-deductible!

Faster border crossing via Nexus.

On the Subject of Not Likely

The reality is that governments will and should never monetize their services.  There is a slippery slope of what is reasonable and in good taste.  Governments have something that Facebook or Google does not have – the coercive powers of taxation and legislation. Perhaps governments does not need to build systems when they can force organizations operating in its jurisdictions to offer the services.  There is a long tradition of this in the telecommunications world, for example.  This would not be monetizing users as products, this would monetizing providers as servants for the public good.  Just a thought.

DIY Sleep – Luddite’s Style

I have two shocking confessions.  The first is that my first and only smart phone to date is an employee issued Blackberry Bold.  The second is that I appear to snore – a lot.  To the second confession, I have an apology to make.  To all of those friends and family members I have shaed a room with, I am sorry about the snoring thing.  (Errr, a small explanation, room sharing means the same sleeping areas, for example a dorm in a hostel…).

The two confessions are related in the following way.  To start, I thought I had a health problem (snoring) and being a Do It Yourself (DIY) kinda guy, I went out and bought a digital voice recorder and software for analyzing sound.  Over the past few nights, I have been recording the ambient room noise and then analyzing them with the software.  I have done this to confirm that yep, I sure as heck snore.

Sound Sample from May 9th.

Sound Sample from May 9th.

The above graphic I plan to give to my family doctor physician when I see him next week.  Not sure what happens next but I do I hope to start sharing rooms with friends and family once again (in a platonic hostel-dorm sort of way).

The smart phone confession comes in when I thought, “This is brilliant, why hasn’t someone built an app for this (recording and analyzing snoring)”.  Well lo and behold, about 100 different apps available on the market (google ‘app snore sound record’ for about 700,000 hits).  Had I been more smartphone savvy and less of a Luddite, I would have realized that instead of a DIY solution, my Blackberry could have done this with an app that is either free or at most a few bucks.

Looking a head 10 years, perhaps it might be strange to your family physician if you did not show up with a record of your sleep – whether you suffered from snoring or not.  Of course the smart phone 10 years hence may also tell your doctor your average blood sugar, physical activity, pulse rate, blood pressure and karma/fung shi levels as well.  In other words, the smart phone may become our most powerful tool to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

There is an Orwellian double-edge sword here.  What happens if that information is not freely given but instead is demanded by insurance companies, employers, health authorities or governments.  This is not as much of a stretch as you think.  The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that there are 1,550 fatalities and 40,000 injuries as a result of driving drowsy.  People who do not drink or smoke get insurance breaks – why not people who sleep well?  Employers can test for drugs, why not how well you have slept over the last month?

George Orwell aside, I hope my Luddite-DIY-Snore information can help me get a better night’s sleep in the coming months.  Wish me luck!

Inventorying IM/IT in the Grey Zone

Question #2 of the SWOT+4 IM/IT Planning Model asks: ORGANIZATIONAL IM/IT: How can/does/should Information Management/Technology (IM/IT) support or impede what is important to the organization; does the organization have the right IM/IT and if not, when will it get it?

Although there is a lot stuffed into this question, in this blog I want to focus on a small but important part of Question #2, what do you currently have for IM/IT resources?  If you have read my prior blog, you will note that this is an area managed by Step 13: IM/IT Fleet and Resoure Management of the IM/IT Lifecycle Model.

Before dashing off and building new IM/IT resources, should organizations not know what they have in the cupboard to start? Over the past twenty years, I have been amazed at how hard this question is to answer. So, to find the answer, let us define the problem, “what exactly are we counting when we inventory the systems”?

Does the organization count its office productivity software (e.g. Microsoft Office)? If so, how many times should it count it? Once for the organization, once per user or once per every file created? Is a memorandum written in a Microsoft Word file an IM/IT resource that should be inventoried as a resource?

Likely most people would tend to say no to a Word file. Okay, how about a Word Mail merge file that supports an organization’s marketing effort? Perhaps this file has had thousands of dollars of custom Visual Basic scripts developed for it and links and performs unique functions within the organization. Would this Word file now count as an IM/IT resource? This mission critical ‘application’ is now entering the “grey zone”.

The grey zone is when IM/IT resources go from a commodity (e.g. Microsoft Office) to an operational, tactical or strategic resource for the organization. In developing an inventory of applications, the following graphic is my current thinking about what to count, including what I would see as the grey zone.

The Two Dimensions to Measure Which IM/IT Resources Should be Inventoried.

The Two Dimensions to Measure Which IM/IT Resources Should be Inventoried.

The horizontal axis asks the question, what knowledge is necessary to make changes to the application? As you move left to right, there is increasing technical knowledge needed to make a system change. The vertical axis asks the question, is this a purpose built application or one that was created specifically for the organization? Applications at the top are purpose built; those at the bottom are common to any organization or user.

This blog is a teaser and in the next one, I will overlay applications your organization may have lying about on top of the model. Let me know your thoughts, do I have the right measures or are there more than two dimensions that should be measured?

IM/IT Lifecycle – Re-Do

Thank you to those who provided comments on my previous IM/IT Lifecycle Model.  Your collective whacks on the side of my digital head identified a number of areas of improvement.  Thus, this is a Re-Do blog with what I think is a much better model.  Thanks again for your comments!

The previous blog introduced the SWOT+4 Planning Model. The value of the model is the ability to focus on specific elements of IM/IT planning. Once an organization is successful with one part of the model, it can move on to other areas needing improvement. This blog will introduce a tool to evaluate the robustness of an organization’s IM/IT lifecycle. Intended to be an introduction, future blogs will drill down further.

The Role the IM/IT Lifecycle Model plays in the SWOT+4 Model
The Role the IM/IT Lifecycle Model plays in the SWOT+4 Model

One of the first areas of model to evaluate is internally focused on the IM/IT needs and capabilities of the organization. In the SWOT+4 model these are represented by the organization’s IM/IT strengths and weaknesses and specifically questions 2 and 3:

  • Q2. ORGANIZATIONAL IM/IT: How can/does/should IM/IT support or impede what is important to the organization; does the organization have the right IM/IT and if not, when will it get it? (Answered by IM/IT Lifecycle Steps 01 through 16)
  • Q3. IM/IT CAPACITY: How well does the organization DO IM/IT, is it getting better, worse or about the same? (Answered by IM/IT Lifecycle Step 00)

Context for the IM/IT Lifecycle Model

The IM/IT Lifecycle Model is an adaptation of the Asset Lifecycle Model. While the Asset Lifecycle Model focuses on the management of tangible assets, the IM/IT variation is concerned with the acquisition of things like computers and technology systems. The governance, system and audit functions at the bottom of the model answer questions #3, what is an organization’s IM/IT capacity? All the other steps answer question #2, what are the organization’s IM/IT needs and are (or when/how will) these needs to be fulfilled or they support the accounting and reporting functions.

Information Management/ Techology Lifecycle Model (revised March 1 2014)

Information Management/ Techology Lifecycle Model (revised March 1 2014)

IM/IT resources move through the model from left to right and may use more or less of each step depending upon the nature of the IM/IT system. In theory the model applies equally well to both technology (infrastructure, applications) as to information itself (data, reporting, data standards, etc.).

Two steps of note are Step 03 and 13. Step 03, the Project Management Office (PMO) replaces the requirements specification in the Asset Lifecycle Model but is broader and ideally encompasses other steps. For example, a good PMO methodology incorporates procurement processes such as issuing requests for proposals (Step 04), managing resulting vendor contracts (Step 05) and managing the vendor provision of assets, software, licenses or consulting services (Step 07).

Step 13 replaces the asset management function in the Asset Lifecycle Model. It includes in or outsourced functions such as application maintenance or technology production management. In an ideal world, these processes and systems drive the accounting of IM/IT. For example, an application built, capitalized but then abandoned is identified in this Step and communicated to the accounting system for de-recognition or conversely adjustments to the amortization schedule. Step 13 also straddles the central corporate IT and business area functions as it should be a partnership between the two.

Direct Attribute Costs (Step 09) and System Business Operations (Step 10) are purposely overlapped. Direct Attribute costs are the resources the organization brings to bear to implement a system. Examples can include the dedicated project staffing or costs to retrofit a data centre to accommodate new servers supporting an application. System Business Operations by contrast are the costs and effort to commission the system and bring it online. From an organizational perspective, Step 10 asks (and answers) the question, does the IM/IT resource meet the business needs identified for the asset?

Enterprise Resource Planning and the IM/IT Lifecycle

Included in each step are possible metrics as well as the information system such as the organization’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) tool or Information Technology System that may support the step. For brevity, the following ERP components are used:

  • (1. Budgeting): the planning, monitoring and resource allocation functions.
  • (2. Procure to Pay): from requisition to payment including the treasury management functions.
  • (3. Asset management): the receipt, installation, maintenance, tracking and disposal of assets.
  • (4. Accounting to Reporting): the proper accounting, record keeping and reporting (internal and external) of assets.
  • (5. IT Infrastructure Management): the creation, maintenance of servers, networks, security systems, desktop access, operating systems and all components necessary to run one or more applications.
  • (6. Application Maintenance): the maintenance, support, bug/fix, user training, system administration and other functions necessary to maintain one or more applications that support a business process or function.

The purpose of this blog was to introduce the IM/IT Lifecycle Framework and place it in context to the SWOT+4 Model. In future blogs, I plan to drill down on each of the Steps and provide examples of systems, standards and best practices across organizations.

What do you think? Does your organization use a systematic method such as the IM/IT Lifecycle to plan, implement and manage your IM/IT investments? Where do your systems potentially lie within the model? For example, does your organization have a systematic PMO function or do you even know what is in your application fleet? Drop me a note and send me a comment with your perspectives.

Lifecycle Management of IM and IT

Note to the Reader, this Blog was superceded by this Re-Do Blog on the IM/IT Lifecycle.

The previous blog introduced the SWOT+4 Planning Model. The value of the model is the ability to focus on specific elements of IM/IT planning. Once an organization is successful with one part of the model, it can move on to other areas needing improvement. This blog will introduce a tool to evaluate the robustness of an organization’s IM/IT lifecycle. Intended to be an introduction, future blogs will drill down further.

The Role the IM/IT Lifecycle Model plays in the SWOT+4 Model

The Role the IM/IT Lifecycle Model plays in the SWOT+4 Model

One of the first areas of model to evaluate is internally focused on the IM/IT needs and capabilities of the organization. In the SWOT+4 model these are represented by the organization’s IM/IT strengths and weaknesses and specifically questions 2 and 3:

  • Q2. ORGANIZATIONAL IM/IT: How can/does/should IM/IT support or impede what is important to the organization; does the organization have the right IM/IT and if not, when will it get it? (Answered by IM/IT Lifecycle Steps 01 through 16)
  • Q3. IM/IT CAPACITY: How well does the organization DO IM/IT, is it getting better, worse or about the same? (Answered by IM/IT Lifecycle Step 00)

Context for the IM/IT Lifecycle Model

The IM/IT Lifecycle Model is an adaptation of the Asset Lifecycle Model (source pending).  While the Asset Lifecycle Model focuses on the management of tangible assets, the IM/IT variation is concerned with the acquisition of things like computers and technology systems.  The governance, system and audit functions at the bottom of the model are used to answer questions #3, what is an organization’s IM/IT capacity?  All the other steps answer question #2, what are the organization’s IM/IT needs and are (or when/how will) these needs to be fulfilled.

Information Management/ Techology Lifecycle MOdel

Information Management/ Techology Lifecycle MOdel

IM/IT resources move through the model from left to right and may use more or less of each step depending upon the nature of the system being acquired.  Of note is step 03, the Project Management Office (PMO).  This replaces the requirements specification in the Asset Lifecycle Model but is broader and ideally encompasses other steps.  For example, a good PMO methodology incorporates procurement processes such as issuing requests for proposals (Step 04), managing resulting vendor contracts (Step 05) and managing the vendor provision of assets, software, licenses or consulting services (Step 07).

Direct Attribute Costs (Step 09) and System Business Operations (Step 10) are purposely overlapped. Direct Attribute costs are the resources the organization brings to bear to implement a system. Examples can include the dedicated project staffing or costs to retrofit a data centre to accommodate new servers supporting an application. System Business Operations by contrast are the costs and effort to commission the system and bring it online. From an organizational perspective, Step 10 asks (and answers) the question, does the IM/IT resource meet the business needs identified for the asset?

Enterprise Resource Planning and the IM/IT Lifecycle

Included in each step are possible metrics as well as the information system such as the organization’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) tool that may support the step. For brevity, the following ERP components are used:

  • (1. Budgeting): the planning, monitoring and resource allocation functions.
  • (2. Procure to Pay): from requisition to payment including the treasury management functions.
  • (3. Asset management): the receipt, installation, maintenance, tracking and disposal of assets.
  • (4. Accounting to Reporting): the proper accounting, record keeping and reporting (internal and external) of assets.

The purpose of this blog was to introduce the IM/IT Lifecycle Framework and place it in context to the SWOT+4 Model. In future blogs, I plan to drill down on each of the Steps and provide examples of systems, standards and best practices across organizations.

What do you think? Does your organization use a systematic method such as the IM/IT Lifecycle to plan, implement and manage your IM/IT investments? Where do your systems potentially lie within the model? For example, does your organization have a systematic PMO function or do you even know what is in your application fleet? Drop me a note and send me a comment with your perspectives.

PHP – A Glimpse into the Future

One of the few benefits of working for a government organization is you sometimes get a glimpse of the future. Today I saw a demo of that future with an overview of the soon to be piloted Personal Health Portal or PHP.

I wrote about PHP in a prior blog which discussed Crowd-Sourcing as Virtual Medical Research. Today I saw a live demonstration which showed some of the screens and what one can do within the portal. Some possible functionality coming to a home computer (or mobile device) near you may include:

  • The ability to review medication history,
  • Add your own over the counter medications,
  • Log your blood pressure or even up load that x-ray image you got in that Whitefish walk in clinic from that unfortunate skiing accident two years ago.

The end goal is for the patient to have very similar access to their health information as what their healthcare provider has through Alberta Netcare.

Privacy is of course paramount and must be considered. However, I would suggest that policy makers need to look at what people are doing as much as what they are saying. For example, are you entirely comfortable with you privacy agreement you have with your Facebook account? Probably not – but are you willing to live with it nevertheless? Probably yes. Government policy must not discount privacy but it must provide an informed consent to the reasonable person who is willing to live with a trade-off between convenience and risk. Just like Facebook, you will be able to vote with your feet (errr fingers). Thus if you don’t think the convenience of having ready access to your health information is worth the risk – then do not sign up to use online tools such as Facebook or the PHP when it is made available to the public.

The PHP is an example of how technology can be a productivity enabler and contribute, in a small way, to an improved standard and quality of life. Examples may include:

  • Reviewing test results at home – rather than booking a doctors appointment;
  • Having a way to monitor blood pressure over time – rather than keeping scratch logs or excel spreadsheets;
  • Having one place to remember when you had that tetanus booster – rather than that shoe box under the bed.

The PHP is a great start on a much better way to understand and be responsible for our health. I am glad to have had a sneak peek and I am looking forward to it being part of the Alberta Health landscape. As I can, I will let you know more about the technology and possibilities.

DISCLOSURE and DISCLAIMER: the above comments and thoughts are exclusively those of Frank Potter.  Although Frank is an employee of Alberta Health, the above opinions do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Department or Ministry.  The functionality described of the PHP is purely speculation on Frank’s part; it does not necessarily represent the intended, planned or desired functionality of Alberta Personal Health Portal.

Crowd-Sourcing as Virtual Medical Research

An interesting article came through the email pertaining to the The Internet of Humans.  The gist is that an increasing amount of information is being generated by the machine versus the human.  While this is an interesting concept in its own right (so interesting I shamelessly reproduced it below), I was more intrigued by the following paragraph:

PatientsLikeMe.com, which, as Weinberger explained, “not only enables patients to share details about their treatments and responses but gathers that data, anonymizes it, and provides it to researchers, including to pharmaceutical companies.  The patients are providing highly pertinent information based on an expertise in a disease in which they have special credentials they have earned against their will.”  The intriguing term Weinberger used to describe the source of this crowd-sourced amateur knowledge was human sensors.

Now compare this to the 2011 announcement of Alberta’s own Personal Health Portal or PHP which will allow for things such as:

  • Secure log-in for individuals who want to track their own personal health data such as blood pressure readings, insulin levels, weight, immunizations, and much more.
  • When complete in 2015, MyHealthAlberta will provide individual access to Alberta’s electronic health record system.

My thoughts when I combine the Information Management article with the PHP is a made in Alberta crowd-sourcing opportunity.  Assuming suitable provisions for privacy and informed consent, there is an opportunity for Albertans to contribute to the body of knowledge of both their specific disease condition and their state of wellness.

At its most voluntary basis, PHP subscribers with a specific disease condition, would be asked to contribute pertinent information (blood pressure readings, glucose levels, thoughts of depression, weight gain/loss, etc.) via a computer or smart phone application.  The results, would then be used by both health planners and researchers for the effectiveness of treatments, disease prevalence and health resource planning.  Key to this contribution would be to honor those patients (and their families) making contributions as being part of the larger benefit to society.  My own view is that a person suffering from a chronic condition would likely provide very credible and valuable information – if they new this information was being used and was valued by their peer-patients; healthcare providers, researchers and future patients.

In a less voluntary model, instead of a health premium, for example, one could agree to participate and provide factual information about their health condition. This would capture not only information about a specific disease condition but also the general health state of the population.  e.g. how many 30 year old males are overweight, smokers, moderate drinkers who have high blood pressure.

Once again, insert strong privacy considerations here along with a myriad of details about data collection, quality, validity and audit controls.  Nevertheless – a very interesting thought exercise!  Feel free to comment with your own thoughts.

DISCLOSURE and DISCLAIMER: the above comments and thoughts are exclusively those of Frank Potter.  Although Frank is an employee of Alberta Health, the above opinions do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Department or Ministry. 


Information Development has posted a new item, ‘The Internet of Humans

The Internet of Things became a more frequently heard phrase over the last decade as more things embedded with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, or similar technology, allowed objects to be uniquely identified, inventoried, and tracked by computers.  Early adopters focused on inventory control and supply chain management, but the growing fields of application include smart meters, smart appliances, and, of course, smart phones.

The concept is referred to the Internet of Things to differentiate its machine-generated data from the data generated directly by humans typing, taking pictures, recording videos, scanning bar codes, etc.

The Internet of Things is the source of the category of big data known as sensor data, which is often the new type you come across while defining big data that requires you to start getting to know NoSQL.

In his book Too Big to Know, David Weinberger discussed another growing category of data facilitated by the Internet, namely the crowd-sourced knowledge of amateurs providing scientists with data to aid in their research.  “Science has a long tradition of embracing amateurs,” Weinberger explained.  “After all, truth is truth, no matter who utters it.”

The era of big data could be called the era of big utterance, and the Internet is the ultimate platform for crowd-sourcing the knowledge of amateurs.  Weinberger provided several examples, including websites like GalaxyZoo.orgeBird.org, and PatientsLikeMe.com, which, as Weinberger explained, “not only enables patients to share details about their treatments and responses but gathers that data, anonymizes it, and provides it to researchers, including to pharmaceutical companies.  The patients are providing highly pertinent information based on an expertise in a disease in which they have special credentials they have earned against their will.”  The intriguing term Weinberger used to describe the source of this crowd-sourced amateur knowledge was human sensors.

In our increasingly data-constructed world, where more data might soon be constructed by things than by humans, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the phrase the Internet of Humans needs to be frequently heard in the coming decades to not only differentiate machine-generated data from human-generated data, but, more importantly, to remind us that humans (amateurs and professionals alike) are a vital source of knowledge that no amount of data from any source could ever replace.