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The Technology of Advice.

\ By Gareth Morgan Managing Director, Ferret Information Systems.\

In November 1996 the UK Government released a Green Paper: 'Government Direct: A Prospectus for the Electronic Delivery of Government Services'. ( The Green paper indicates strongly that Government expects that within ten years many systems which are currently paper based will become electronic, with citizens accessing information through public kiosks or 'set top boxes' linked to TVs.*\ \ There is already some experience of these systems. Here Gareth Morgan, Managing Director, Ferret Information Systems, explains potential benefits.

Information technology is increasingly being seen as an effective way of providing information to the public. The growth in means of delivering information has been progressively in the direction of interactive delivery, that is where the person seeking information is able to ask for, or seek from a list of some sort, information which he or she specifically wants.

This use of technology encompasses a variety of delivery systems including telephone advice lines, viewdata systems using computers and modems, teletext systems such as Ceefax from TV broadcasters, much information on the Internet and the World Wide Web as well as the more familiar media such as public information broadcasts and advertising, which are targeted by the providers rather than searched for by the user.\ \ The advantages of providing information using new technologies are clear.

  • They allow for control over the content so that the information should always be current and accurate, there should be no danger of somebody making an important decision on the basis of information contained in a 3 year old leaflet, long out of date.
  • They remove the need for expensive staff to spend time repetitively providing the same information to different users.
  • They allow for different language versions to be available where provision of multi-lingual staff would be impossible, and in some cases they allow for versions appropriate for disabled users to be provided.
  • They allow valuable expertise to be captured and distributed in an effective and easy to understand way - if well designed!

Extended Interactivity

What they do not allow, is for the information to be specific to the circumstances of each individual user. There will often be much which is not relevant to the needs of the user in the information provided and much which would be important may not be included.\ \ It would be impressive, technologically and in terms of resources, if a user could look up a list of available information which included “Mrs Jones, 25 The Crescent, information about when the council will repair the back door”. Even ignoring questions of data protection, it isn't going to happen.\ \ To provide tailored, personalised information and advice requires a further step in interactivity beyond that of choosing a prepared information item from a list of those available. It needs a way of passing information to the provider. Fortunately that can be done in many of the systems now available.\ \ It also requires a method of linking databases to public access technology, an area which is attracting much interest and activity.\ \ Let me divide the information and advice provision into two categories.

Personal information

The first is, as in the example above, where the information required is absolutely personal. When is MY door going to be repaired? For this sort of information there are a number of criteria which must be considered.

  • There must be a way of ensuring the identity of the person asking the question, PINs or smartcards are potential ways of controlling this even from public information kiosks.
  • The information should be well protected from unauthorised access.
  • The information must be available in some form which can be accessed by computer, there is not a lot of point in allowing someone to ask the question if it requires the person with the information to have to run around in person trying to find out the answer.
  • The information is only going to be provided for the people in the provider's area of concern, a user will not be able to rely on getting information anywhere outside the local area.
  • Any follow up will generally involve the information provider directly.

Tailored information

The second category of provision is that where the information is tailored to the circumstances of the enquirer but not necessarily unique to them. It is often unnecessary to know who the user is when providing such information.

Welfare Benefits as a Model

\ Entitlement to welfare benefits, the area my company specialises in, is such an example.\ \ Entitlement to benefits depends on a large number of factors including the number and ages of the people in the family, their savings, their pay and hours of work, type and cost of housing, their health, other people in their house and many other items. But this information when provided will allow an accurate estimate of their entitlement to a variety of benefits to be calculated without requiring them to identify themselves. For a demonstration of this see the on-line calculator of this on our WWW site at\ \ How much better this sort of tailored information and advice to the user is than the electronic equivalent of a leaflet and a list of benefit rates.\ \ This sort of information differs from the personal type in a number of ways.

  • There is no need to know who the enquirer is.
  • The information does not require protection from unauthorised access although the advice giving software must be protected.
  • Again the information must be available in some form which can be accessed by computer but for this type of information provision those areas which are particularly appropriate are those where there are clear cut rules which could be expressed in a flow chart or which require standardised calculations.
  • The information is not only going to be of use for the people in the provider's area of concern, users outside the local area may find the information useful.
  • Any follow up may involve agencies other than the information provider, for example the Benefits Agency may receive the queries generated.

Information and advice provision in this tailored form carries many of the advantages of the less personalised versions, for example in multilingual provision and staff savings, but it requires an even greater commitment to maintenance.\ \ Information provision of this sort should never be considered unless the provider recognises the very real resource implications involved in keeping the systems up to date. There is little as dangerous as an out of date information system. Personalised advice systems require a constant effort in ensuring that external and internal information is monitored. This means that someone has to be responsible for ensuring that the current house repairs status is on-line or that court cases on benefits law are being monitored and taken into account in the information provided. Again some of this must be done by the provider while some may be done more appropriately by outside specialists. The vital point is that it must be recognised as a continuing task.\ \ However if this commitment is taken on board then the scope for advice work of this sort, and the value of the information to the user, is enormous and the benefits are very real for both the user and the provider.\ \

\* Posting from David Wilcox to the IACN mailing list summarising key points\ \ Back to the Guide to Community Internet

partnerships/articles/advice.txt · Last modified: 2017/06/12 10:20 (external edit)