Wednesday, 25 June 2014

IT in government services: my first-hand experience

Technology enabled analytics might be bread and butter for many of us in the IT/analytics industry. We get to see that in the past one decade, technology services has really redefined the way we did things – be it banking/retail shopping/social networking. But is it really changing anything in the public sector organizations or government agencies? There is some amount of computerization to the extent of getting computer generated bills/applying for documents online. I have always believed in the power of IT to improve the existing processes in the government sector. A real life incident in the past month just showed me how technology coupled with analytics has already made its way into the functioning of the government services sector and is looking more and more promising as we move forward.

The Trigger
It all started with an inland letter arriving through regular mail to our house a week ago (snail mail they call it, in comparison to the faster e-mail). It had a notice from the Bangalore traffic police asking us to pay a fine of 100 INR because our Honda activa had violated a traffic rule 3 weeks ago. The details were mentioned as:

DATE: 12/05/2014 09:00 AM
REGN NUMBER: ********181

Now, this was a bit confusing when we checked back. Among my family members, my bro and I are the ones who use the ACTIVA. These days it is just me, mostly for commuting to and from office. And the day in question was Monday, and there was no way I could pass through Basaveswaranagar, early in the morning. And chances of my brother using it were ruled out. Gut feel told me that something was fishy but was not able to narrow it down to anything. A year and a half ago, we had received a similar notice for breaking a traffic signal, but then the spot of violation was nearer home. And we had simply ended up paying the fine that time, trying to rationalize that maybe we had indeed committed the offence. These notices come after 3-4 weeks after the offence has been committed and the timings/places/type of offence given is so hazy that it forces you into thinking that it might as well have been you. Even on this occasion, in spite of having a clear memory of not having taken my ACTIVA to anywhere near Basaveswaranagar on that date, I thought to myself that maybe it was some other place, but the vehicle could be indeed, mine. And, like the previous time, I decided to pay the fine online when I spotted the following on the last line of the mail notice:

For proof of offence, log on to

Wow… It seemed to me as if the authorities had complete telepathic powers and wanted to leave no doubt in the mind of the offender! I decided to check it immediately and logged into the website. And true to their word, they had these links up there:

Links on the traffic police website allowing to search for information

There were few technical issues on the site, like non-compatibility with an office network and non-compatibility with web browsers like Chrome/firefox and when I finally managed to get it right on IE, this was the dialog that popped up:

Pop-up showing the nature of offence

And when I clicked for proof, this is what loaded (to my surprise)

Shankar Mutt traffic signal and a vehicle crossing the line

It also gave a zoomed in view of the vehicle:

Blue pulsar zoomed in to view the number plate

I could not believe my eyes! I cross checked every character on the nameplate and it was the same as my vehicle’s. Even my brother came and checked it again for confirmation. But the vehicle in the picture was a Bajaj PULSAR while my vehicle was a HONDA ACTIVA. Was it a criminal case of someone cloning our nameplate? Was it some fudging of the image on the website? Was it just a simple error, which we were not able to spot immediately? We could not say! But one thing was clear – it was not us who had committed the offence. And that was such a relief!

But I was too involved now, having found out that it could be a case of data anomaly. I had to get to the root of this issue. So, I decided to contact the traffic enforcement authorities for help. I scanned through their website and found nothing helpful. Fines could be paid online, or at numerous BangaloreOne centres in the city or even at their ‘traffic management centre’ main office. I decided that I would go to the main office directly with the notice, my vehicle and documents and ask them directly what was going on.

Dealing with the government – over the years
Now, anyone who has lived in our country for a long time would know the difficulty involved in dealing with the government agencies, especially the service providers (telephone, electricity, gas, passport, driving license, etc). At some point in the late 90s and the early 2000s, these had become so messy and intricately woven mazes that the common man just felt trapped once inside. I remember going to get my driving license done at the RTO during college holidays, roaming around in the corridors, finding out who would be the right person to contact, observing the sea of middlemen bullying everyone right under the ‘Do not contact middlemen’ board. It had taken me 2-3 visits just to understand what needed to be done. And a further 4-5 visits to finally get a learner’s license. The authorities would be so lethargic and would take their own sweet time to get even the simplest of things done. When I went to get my passport done, we had waited in the queue for over 4 hours only because the authorities did not know how to enter the correct ‘supporting document type’ into the system. They had retorted to manual files, and kept chit chatting with one another all the while (students anyway have a lot of time to waste, no?). And then, there were middlemen/brokers who would charge a hefty amount just to get things done which the government would anyway provide for free, only to spare us the hassles. No one I know has got a PAN done themselves – either the process is too cumbersome, or the number of middlemen who do it for us are too many. One of the biggest complains that we all must have had with the government agencies would be the lack of follow up. Even after successfully submitting the application, the wait would go on for days (sometimes months/years) for you to hear back from them. Most of us would have faced this issue while applying for (landline) telephone or LPG gas connections.

Winds of change came in during the past decade with the introduction of IT in the public sector. Although the bureaucratic process was still cumbersome, the computerization of few processes made things better. Introduction of payment kiosks, one-stop bill payment/application submission centres like Bangalore One, webpages for all government agencies, etc made things a little easier. Even though the websites were badly designed, it was good enough to atleast find information and the right point of contact for submitting applications/ grievances. The online/kiosk bill payment facility helped to save time by avoiding the long queues at the counters. And most of the processes were still offline and had to be done via the cumbersome offline route.

Experience at the traffic management center
I left office quickly on a weekday afternoon and visited the police commissioner’s office infantry road to inquire about the wrong notice. I happened to visit the police control room on the 5th floor. There were server rooms, clean offices and all the police officers’ desks had sleek workstations resembling any other IT office in E-City/Whitefield. This was a pleasant surprise. I was told that the entire traffic operations had been moved to a completely new building called ‘traffic management centre’ (TMC) further down the street. I drove down to the TMC and even here the story was the same – basement parking, elevators with automatic closing doors, and high speed workstations – it was intriguing to note that these organizations were able to quickly transform themselves.

I went into the ‘Enforcement automation centre’, expecting to be re-directed atleast to 3-4 people and find empty seats with coats hanging on the chair. I was immediately attended to by a staff who asked me to occupy a seat, while the officer on duty came back from his break. I expected a long wait, but this staff asked me about the problem, logged into their portal and was able to retrieve the offence image on the desktop in a matter of two minutes! He asked me for my vehicle’s documents and acknowledged the mistake, and asked me to write a letter describing the mistake instead of wasting time by waiting! Not only was I pleasantly surprised by this person’s knowledge of IT, I was delighted by his concern for my time. This was something which was unprecedented in a government office, at least for me.

My complaint letter
The officer then arrived, and allowed me to finish writing my complaint letter. Once done, he scanned through the documents of my vehicle and the picture of their camera carefully in order to make sure that the offense was not actually committed by my vehicle. And then took the written letter of complaint with me. He even got the vehicle documents scanned in no time. As a documentary proof, he wanted a picture of my vehicle. I said I did not have a picture ready, but the vehicle itself was parked in the basement of the building if he wanted to inspect it. I was thinking if he would ask for the picture in a pen drive/CD ROM drive or even worse, a photo print of my vehicle, when he suggested, ‘why don’t you email it to me?’ and even gave me the gmail address of Bangaloretrafficpolice! He then told me that he would get back to me very soon with his findings.

When I left their office then, I just felt good that I had invested time wisely. Of course, there was still mystery shrouding why I was sent the notice in the first place. However, the quick acknowledgement by the authorities that it was indeed a mistake from their side and the subsequent help they offered in following up was really commendable. They had not only setup an automated surveillance system that would track offenders, but also backed it up with proper training to the officials on the possible errors it might cause.

The follow up
I was at home that evening around 6.30 PM when the landphone rang. The person on the other side asked for my father and then kept asking me questions like he was a matrimony broker! He had questions on my education, work, and family background and I was wondering if it was some stupid RJ pulling a prank on me. I played along for some time and then, he introduced himself as the officer whom I had met a couple of hours ago. He had traced the vehicle as a pulsar with number ending ‘484’ instead of ‘181’. It was the way in which the pulsar fellow had painted his nameplate, the ‘4’ on the nameplate looked like a ‘1’. And that vehicle had a whooping nine cases of violation, all of them in the same place! He said that I don’t need to mail the photo of the vehicle and can relax as they had found the root of the issue and could consider the case as closed!

Number of repeat offences commited by the blue pulsar
Closing thoughts
I had just thought I will mail them the photo of my vehicle and absolve myself from any liability and forget all about follow-ups. Owing to my past experiences with the government agencies, I never expected any follow up from them. Though, here they were, coming back with a follow up within 2 hours of the complaint, having traced the real offender in their database even before I could mail them the photo of the vehicle! They had surely exceeded expectations this time. The experience this time was certainly lot different than any of the earlier interactions which I have had with government agencies. Some of the key takeaways from this experience were:

  • Surveillance systems and real time analytics have already made their way into the police departments. So, next time you think of jumping the red because there is no cop watching, beware! 
  • Technology is no more a taboo for the employees of the government sector. They don’t need ‘computer guys’ to operate these systems anymore. The employees realize that these systems ultimately make their jobs easy and are very keen to learn.
  • Private firms (both local and MNCs) have realized that there is huge value in partnering with the government and are competing to grab a share of this valuable (till now overlooked) segment. Ex: Mindtree provides the IT systems for evidence management and Bosch Sicherheitssysteme GmbH (Germany) provides the camera/video recording equipment for surveillance to the BTP.
  • There is lot of scope for technology and real-time analytics to further improve services provided by the public agencies. And the administration has already taken huge steps towards implementing some of these.

Implementation of technology and automated systems in governance is really capable of bringing radical changes in the coming days. I am really optimistic for the future. Are you?


yannifan said...

This is really cool. Hope it propagates to all sectors.

Santosh Kumar said...

This is good news for namma bengaLooru...!