In-house data integration: the tech side of the Victorian EPA’s grand designs

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday August 1, 2018

Victoria’s Environmental Protection Authority is looking to in-house data integration as a way to create a more complete picture of how the state’s economic growth affects its natural environment, so it can deploy its regulatory resources where they are most needed.

The EPA is going through the organisational equivalent of a knockdown-rebuild renovation after nearly 50 years in operation. Guided by a comprehensive independent inquiry held in 2016, this truly generational reform involves major change to the agency’s legislative underpinnings, governance arrangements and business processes, leading to new capability requirements.

For the IT team, a new data integration platform is like a key piece of furniture that has to go in now, as other elements of the new organisation will be built around it.

Chris Moon

Among many other things, the reform plan called for the agency to maximise the utility of all data that is available to it, explains chief information officer Chris Moon. To do that, it needs the capability to combine information from various disparate systems and sources like databases, scientific monitoring equipment and reports from other government agencies, members of the public or organisations licensed by the EPA.

“This is the first piece in the puzzle,” Moon told The Mandarin. “We needed to make sure that this was the right underpinning platform, because now, every technology choice we make needs to be able to work with this integration piece.

“So, we know that it doesn’t matter what the system is we’re buying – it could be a case management system or it could be a notification system or something like that – we have to be able to make sure it works with this integration platform.”

Moreover, getting the EPA’s new IT environment right is crucial to the successful introduction of new business processes over the next few years as part of the wholesale organisational overhaul.

“We’re just the very start of the actual journey,” Moon added. “We’ve done a lot of prep work up until this point, in terms of determining what the technologies are going to be and how they’ll work together, and now in the next few months we’re moving into the actual phase of starting to build these new systems and capabilities.”

After trying out several similar cloud-based data integration solutions, the agency went with Dell’s offering, Boomi.

“From our point of view, to really test out the product to make sure it does what we wanted, we actually had a set of technology use-cases that we wanted to demonstrate,” Moon explained.

The technology evaluation process involved EPA officials with no prior experience of the particular systems going through the same standard set of tasks in a week-long trial with each contender. Most major cloud providers will allow try-before-you-buy.

Moon said it suited the agency’s need to link up information from multiple systems and several other separate cloud services in a way that is scalable and, importantly, easy for all staff to use.

“So, typically, integration’s been a very specialist capability in IT and you’ve only had one or two people who’ve had the skill set to do it,” he explained.

“The new Boomi product is much more drag-and-drop, and allows people to connect things up very simply. So we want to be able to extend that usage out in future to our scientists and our analysts, who are gathering all the information together to give us that really good idea of what’s happening in the environment, and to make informed decisions.

“And we didn’t want that to be restricted to one or two really technical people in IT; we wanted it to be dispersed out to more of the organisation.”

A press release from Boomi puts it in more technical terms; the remotely hosted integration platform replaces “a series of bespoke, on-premise middleware connectors” that did the job for the EPA in the past. “That’s something that we’ve built ourselves in the past,” Moon explains, “so for example, if we wanted to connect up our licensing system with all the pollution reports that we receive, we’d have to write that ourselves and it was a fairly technical exercise.”

Creating new connections to cross-reference different kinds of data that become available to the agency should be much quicker and easier in future with the new platform.

This is in line with a general shift towards off-the-shelf enterprise IT products, which have come a long way in a couple of decades, and away from bespoke systems that are built, modified and maintained by specialist technical experts and engineering types, which was once the only option for

There is growing acceptance that pay-as-you-go cloud services can give an agency like the EPA in-house capabilities it could not afford otherwise, with high levels of security and resilience as well as regular updates as the technology advances. Switching to a different service in future is also a realistic option, although this would not be entirely without cost and inconvenience.

Moon points out it’s best to take cloud services as they come, where possible, as the ongoing costs increase with customisation. “There’s always going to be specific use cases where that can’t happen, but for a lot of the very general things we try to stick with as standard as possible.”

On the Boomi website one immediately sees a collection of logos for other companies, mainly software makers whose products interoperate with it. It’s not a platform that encourages the customer to stay inside a particular application ecosystem.

While it may seem like sticking with one IT supplier for a range of computer systems to support different functional areas of the organisation would make the task of integration easier, this can also create other limitations.

“The flipside of that is that it really ties you very closely to that one [IT vendor], whereas the benefit of a product like this is it allows you to choose specific platforms [from various vendors] for specific functions,” said Moon.

“So for example, you can choose to use a specific system that works really well on mobile phones, for your staff who are out in the field, and then have a different system for those people who are in finance, working on a desktop with two 24-inch monitors.

“You tend to find no single system is the best fit for any one purpose, so you end up with a sort of common denominator that doesn’t really excel in any of the particular areas you want.”

In the IT overhaul, Moon says he is trying to keep one eye on the user experience of both external stakeholders and his EPA colleagues. His goal is that “it’s actually a pleasant system to use” and not one of the many digital offerings we’ve all experienced that are supposed to make life easier, but mainly deliver confusion and frustration.

“What I hope it’s like for a user in two or three years is they come to work and they’re pleased with the technology and … it just helps them get on with their job; they don’t really pay attention to it.”

Outages and failures quickly would quickly undermine that aim, however. Moon points out that one of the advantages of cloud systems is their hosts provide standards of reliability and availability that many of their clients could not muster themselves.

For an organisation the size of the EPA, having the kind of redundancy that Boomi delivers has been “prohibitively expensive” until recently, he explains. “But you get that out of the box with most of the cloud providers, because they’ve got the scale that they can invest in that.”

Top image: An Airlab unit that feeds data into the EPA’s air quality web page. 

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