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Infoville: A Large-scale Implementation of a Smart Community Model

Manuel Pérez Muro
General Manager
Oracle Spain


In 1996 the Regional Government of Valencia (Spain) launched a project to improve the region's overall competitiveness by implementing an Information Society strategy for all of its four million citizens and public and private entities. So far the project is expanding successfully, and nine cities are already using this model. The basic principles that made it successful are explained in the paper below.


1. Introduction

There is a strong push from governments around the world to promote access to the Information Society. This is as a result of an increasing awareness of, and concern about, the digital divide between those citizens who are connected and those that are not.

The benefits of adopting this new model are enormous. It will enable citizens to have better access to public services in a more cost-effective way. It will also, by integrating access to public and private services, such as Healthcare, Police, Schools, Employment, Shops, Associations, etc. enable the Information Society to become a reality, increasing the quality of life and productivity of its participants.

There is a clear political reward in promoting this new model.


2. The Importance of the Local Portal Concept

The importance of a portal (a door into the virtual space of the Internet) is that it is the only place where a user is under some degree of "control" or guidance. By creating an attractive portal, with a high degree of retentiveness, users will be willing to use it as an entry point to conduct their transactions. Portals are valued on the basis of the number of subscribers or users they attract, and are becoming highly valued assets.

Local portals are becoming increasingly important as they have the potential to attract a large sector of the population that until now has had little interest in participating in the Internet revolution. This sector invariably requires more local than national information. For example, such users might not be interested in accessing the web site of the National Education Ministry to learn matters of general interest. However, they might often access a local school's site to learn how their children are progressing and discuss their school's methods or activities with teachers and other parents.

The Region of Valencia in Spain felt that the creation of a local city portal would be extremely beneficial to its organisations and citizens.

3. Implementing Infoville

Infoville was initially launched with the aim of modernising the Public Administration in the Region of Valencia. Almost immediately, it became a more ambitious programme with the chief objective of increasing the Region's overall competitiveness through the adoption of Information Society tools and methods. To make things happen, the regional government (Generalitat de Valencia) enlisted the help of two entities. OVSI (Oficina Valenciana para la Sociedad de la Información) was responsible for the sociological aspects of the project and TISSAT, a private company, partially owned by Generalitat, created the solution from the technological point of view. A number of public and private organisations with a regional or national presence were invited to participate including for example, Telefónica, which became a major sponsor and contributor to the project. Infoville also won the support of the European Commission within its 4th Framework Program, and other European cities became participants.

The city of Villena was chosen as the pilot site to launch the program as its sociological mix and degree of awareness of information and communications technology was considered to be representative of the whole region. This first implementation took six months and enabled the creation of a model that would be replicated by other cities in the region. OVSI learned the best way to deal with citizens and deliver training, as well as promoting the success of what was being achieved. TISSAT partnered with leading IT and communications providers to join components and make the developments of what was going to be a real city portal. Some of the most important technological decisions were made at this time, such as the use of Java throughout as the programming language. Also, the Network Computing model proposed by Oracle, that would allow portal access to be independent of device, and the use of Oracle's database to solve potential scalability problems.

Villena's citizens as well as public and private entities enthusiastically supported the initiative, and a good number of services were quickly added to the portal, most of them with a high degree of personalisation. By the end of 1997 Villena was the most advanced city in Spain, in terms of its citizens' involvement in the Information Society. People living in Villena could make a restaurant reservation, ask for a certificate from the Town Hall, send a mail to a relative, update personal data with the bank, participate in a discussion about a local school's performance, receive local news, create personal web pages, or even select a time slot on a doctor's agenda. It was also a huge change for local organisations. Without major cost they became content providers: banks, hospitals, clinics, the local police, shops, private associations, the football team and most of the existing businesses were connected and started experiencing the Information Society for themselves. All this made the Villena experiment very popular in the region and paved the way for the other cities that applied to follow the initiative.

Since its launch in 1996 Infoville has been implemented in nine sites in the region: Villena, Catarroja, Torrevieja, Altea, Oliva, Gandía, Burriana, Vall d'Uixó and University Miguel Hernández, while some others are been implemented these days (Benicarló, Castellón, Alaquás, Biar). Using Oracle technology to offer inherent flexibility and scalability, Infoville is rolled out via each local authority incorporating specific local information and data, simply, quickly, and cost-effectively. This technological platform also enables local businesses and local administrations to add their own services to Infoville with minimal investment.

User access was originally via PC, but it is now possible through interactive TV, and soon through WAP technology as well, driving down the cost of participation for the citizen.

Uptake has been impressive. Some 7,000 terminals already provide access for more than 20,000 users, and Infoville is also available in over 130 schools where children learn how to use the system and understand the power of the Internet. The average time connected per user is 49 minutes each day, with 85% of this time spent inside Infoville and 15% outside on the World Wide Web. Average training time is just four hours.

Typical activities, in the cities where Infoville has been implemented, include requests for certificates from the municipality, access to personal data (such as paying bills through a local bank account), viewing balances and changing address details. Local businesses - even small shops - have created Web pages and promote their businesses through the portal. Citizens participate in chats and discussions, both in public and private. Local authority queries can be dealt with online and citizens can even contact their children's teachers for school reports and other information.

A local news service keeps the population informed of up-to-the minute news in their city, and there are specialist areas for farmers and agricultural businesses which provide access to bulletins from the regional government covering everything from the weather to pest control and the latest market prices. The local Electricity Company allows people to enter their meter readings online and local hospitals provide information and an appointments system.

Both public and private sector organizations find that they can add their services to the portal at minimal cost and this has encouraged new growth paths. In the private sector, e-commerce participation is higher in the region than would normally be expected. In the public sector, self-service and access for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, has relieved pressure on local administrations. Many citizens will now make enquiries via the Internet instead of visiting or telephoning the town hall, enabling administrations to focus resources on those citizens who feel they need a more personal service.


4. Lessons Learned from the Infoville Project

Advanced as it is from the technological point of view, probably the best lessons came from the human and sociological aspects of this implementation. Everything was conceived to minimise the fear many people would have of using a computer. As far as possible, the system avoided the use of concepts such as navigation (substituted by a two-dimensional menu always present in the screen) or the use of hyper-links, cut-and-paste, or other technical tricks, maximising at the same time simplicity and personalisation features. The aim was to make the portal personalised and as attractive as possible so that each individual felt it was his or her own portal.

At the same time, great effort was dedicated to include some segments of the population typically left out of the most innovative new solutions. New sub-projects to develop specific sets of services for them were launched, such as Infosenior for older people, Infodona for women, or Infocole for teachers and children at school.

Another important lesson was that there are no "killer applications" in this type of system. Each person will use it in his or her own way, and only having a critical mass of services guarantees the portal's attractiveness and frequent access. Infoville also solved the problem of how to create a local content-based portal with an industrial scope or vision. This means that it can conjugate both the artisan-type of solution for local services while maintaining a highly effective approach to replicate this model in many places at a very fast pace. This is shown by the following statistics:

  • While the first implementation (city of Villena) took six months, the most recent ones are becoming operational in just two to three months.
  • An initial offering of about one hundred services are easily available each time a new city portal is launched.
  • Telecom usage (paid by users) has increased threefold in the cities where the project has been implemented.
  • While in the region of Valencia the service has already been implemented in nine sites, the telecom operator (Telefónica) is promoting a similar approach to 35 other cities across the country.
  • Other European cities and regions are considering the same model. It has proven to be a highly successful one amongst the many initiatives launched in this area.

Thanks to the relatively low implementation costs associated with the model, there are many different approaches where government, telcos, utilities, services or any other type of organisation can play a role, either leading or partnering in these projects. The common interest is for the City Portal to become the place citizens will connect to.


5. The Oracle Proposal to Build a Smart Community

Because of our participation in many of these initiatives, we are well placed to help with general recommendations and specific details on the partners, and much of the technology used.

Our aim is to become an active contributor to the success of these projects by reinforcing the initiatives that have proven to work well, whilst avoiding the usual traps that, in other cases, have delayed the implementation of solutions and put whole projects at risk.

For Smartcity projects the Internet model has to be re-thought and carefully deployed to guarantee a critical mass of users, services and content providers, and highest level of use by the citizens. These two factors determine the success or failure of a Smartcity project. A number of measures and actions can be taken to maximize both.

To obtain a high rate of usage, everything must be conceived from the average citizen's point of view. Therefore, concepts such as user training, citizen's interface, personalisation, data protection, cost, affordability and others, have to be built-in to the solution. To achieve a critical mass of services and content-providers, the early involvement of every potential content provider is key, but it is essential to avoid relying exclusively on their commitment or ability to make their services available through the new portal but, provide the tools to integrate their legacy systems with minimal effort and cost instead.

In summary, Oracle can contribute to the success of these projects by:

  • Partnering with the key project players and proposing solutions based on our experience.
  • Bringing adequate products and partners that can guarantee the achievement of the projects objectives, while transferring the know-how that will ensure its continuity with local resources.