Imagine the next time you’re visiting Rīga you pull your iPhone or Blackberry out of your pocket and point it to your favourite Art Nouveau architecture to receive more fascinating facts about the building.
Or you are waiting for the next tram to take you to the Forest Cemetery (Meža kapi) and your mobile device notifies you that the service is running three minutes late, because it knows you are currently located at the corner of Dzirnavu and Barona streets. And when you arrive at Meža kapi you need to take the first right and then the second left to get to the Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics memorial grave site, which you couldn’t find the last time.
And you’re getting mighty hungry, so your device presents you with a choice of three nearby eateries, only a few minutes walking distance away, offering good and wholesome Latvian traditional food.
Most of what is described above is already available today. With further consolidation and standardisation of information technologies (IT), particularly in the Latvian government sector, not only will we see considerable cost savings, but even more new and innovative applications will begin to emerge, some of which we might have not even thought of today.
This was one of the recurring themes discussed at the 11th annual Latvian Information Technology and Telecommunications Association conference held Nov. 27 in Rīga. The conference primarily focused on a more effective IT operating model for the Latvian government sector. It makes perfect sense. Why should each ministry continue to maintain its own IT department, operate separate systems and databases, and make important strategic decisions independently? Why should Latvian citizens have to request information from multiple institutions if the process can be simplified and the results achieved in a few mouse clicks?
The Road Traffic Safety Directorate (Ceļu satiksmes drošības direkcija) is a good example of a government institution that has cut through the bureaucratic red tape and focused on the customer—the Latvian citizen. When I recently applied for a Latvian driver’s licence the whole process took no more than an hour, including completing the 30-minute theory examination and receiving the final product—a shiny new plastic card—in my hands. The process was remarkably smooth thanks to the customer-focused processes and consolidated IT systems. Add the e-signature service and next time I’ll be able to repeat the exercise from the comfort of my home.
The EME e-signature product offered by the Latvian Post Office was supposed to reduce waiting in queues getting unnecessary documents (izziņas), but in its three years of operation the number of users has grown to no more than a few thousand (officials were expecting 10,000 in the first 12 months) and the number of institutions and businesses making use of the technology is less than a handful. In order for this to really take off we need to see more commitment from the government, including a major overhaul of how IT is managed. The thinking of three years ago just doesn’t cut it anymore. I can still clearly remember a presentation from a representative of the Latvian Notary Association stating that its services would not be affected by the introduction of this technology. Who are they kidding! I would much prefer the Estonian way, where using the e-signature service it takes no more than 15 minutes to register a new business, compared to the several days of running around various Latvian institutions getting all kinds of documents, some of which have to be notarised as well.
The LIKTA conference was also the opportunity to highlight achievements, including new IT products and services introduced in the last 12 months.
This year’s Platinum Mouse Awards (Platīna pele 2009) were divided into three categories. Ideju Forums (Idea Forum) took the “Best Service to the Community” award with its online digital library project, www.e-biblioteka.lv, launched just two months ago. The library contains more than 5,000 e-books in various languages, 1,200 audio books, 430 videos and a growing number of audio and image files. Ideju Forums is also known for creating audio books for the vision-impaired as well as maintaining the popular children’s stories portal at www.pasakas.net.
The “Business Development and E-commerce” award went to Lattelecom, which has become a world leader in rolling out a new high-speed optical Internet service in Rīga. Customers living in the outer suburbs of Pļavnieki, Purvciems, Ziepniekkalns and Imanta should feel especially privileged since as of the beginning of November they are now able to connect to a blindingly fast 500Mb Internet service—the fastest consumer Internet service in the world. If these residents can’t afford the LVL 50 per month, they can still choose from the 100Mbps service at a very affordable LVL 11.90 per month. Lattelecom hasn’t yet managed to get to the centre of Riga so I’ll have to cope a few more months with my “slow” 10 Mbps Internet service.
Lattelecom was also nominated for its new digital TV product called Interaktīvā TV. What makes this different to the other TV service providers is the ability to watch programs that you might have missed during the previous week. On the night of the Nov. 18, I was among many other thousands of people who sang the Latvian anthem and watched the fireworks on the banks of the Daugava River. When I got home later that evening I switched on my iTV service and relived the event, but this time on my TV. I was also impressed how simple it was to set up the iTV service. The easy-to-read manual and online video set a great example of how new products and services should be rolled out to customers.
The “Best e-Government Solution” was awarded to the Ministry of Agriculture for creating an online solution, E-Pieteikšanās sistēma, that enables farmers to apply for subsidies from the European Agriculture Fund. Several other e-government initiatives were also nominated, but with consolidated and centralized IT infrastructure the number of applications should grow even more. A proposal was also put forward to adopt the ppen data standard that could make Latvian government more open and transparent, similar to the initiatives already started by the U.S. government (see, for example, Data.gov) and several other countries.
The “Special Mention” award went to the Web site Lielie bērnu slimnīcai, which uses various social networking technologies to collect donations for the Children’s Hospital.
The mentions and awards shouldn’t stop there:
- The parenting portals www.mammam.lv and www.tetiem.lv, in 10th place in terms of Web site popularity, provides a useful forum for mums, dads, grandparents and anyone else bringing up children.
- Eurotermbank is the largest online terminology resource encompassing more than 2 million terms in several European languages, including all three Baltic languages and should be included in every translator’s arsenal of translation tools.
- Drošs Internets educates children on the risks of the Internet.
- The Mobilly service provides an alternative way—using your mobile telephone—to pay for a car parking space, a ticket on the Liepāja tram, a ticket on the train or your next taxi trip.
Many more businesses and individuals were not nominated simply because they have been too busy working on their next creations.
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