Modernizing Freedom of Information with Open Source Low Code Development

  • News

In this article:

      • Government of British Columbia
      • Freedom of Information
      • AOT Technologies
      • formsflow.ai

Introduction:

Here’s how the Freedom of Information Department of the Government of British Columbia is using low code and open source to provide vital services to citizens.

Adoption of low-code development platforms is growing rapidly. Gartner predicts that 70% of all new business apps will be created using low-code technologies by 2025. Furthermore, the vast majority of these will be based on cloud-native platforms.

Yet despite the meteoric rise of low-code software development, concerns persist with regard to who actually owns the architecture behind your apps and the data it processes. Data privacy and the regulations surrounding it are therefore squarely in the spotlight.

Open-source licensing addresses these concerns. Open source and low code are a natural fit for one another, simply because open source democratizes data in the same way that low code democratizes web app development and digital transformation. When it comes to the modernization of freedom of information, that’s a combination that can change everything – for the better.

70% of all new business apps will be created using low-code technologies by 2025.

Source: Gartner

In this article, we’ll explore how the Freedom of Information Department of the Government of British Columbia used low-code software development services, including formsflow.ai, to achieve that goal.

How freedom of information (FOI) works in British Columbia

Loren Mullane is Director, Digital Operations, Information Access Operations at the BC Government, and a member of the BC Developer Exchange, a rapidly growing network of digital specialists tasked with advancing the digital government initiatives of British Columbia. In recent years, the team has successfully leveraged the power of platforms like GitHub and open-source licensing models like Apache 2.0. To that end, the community has been instrumental in the growth of open source across the BC public sector.

One of the core responsibilities of Loren’s team was to modernize the government’s freedom of information workflows using open-source and low-code technologies. It was a process that spanned the entire software stack, from architecture to implementation and the development of user-centered custom apps.

Like many government bodies around the world, British Columbia places stringent regulations on access to personal information. In particular, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) establishes a formal process for accessing copies of personal and general records, including those created and compiled by public bodies in the province. For example, a request for personal records might be made by the individual to whom the records pertain or by someone acting on their behalf, such as a healthcare professional requesting access to medical records. By contrast, general requests don’t seek personally identifiable information, but instead, serve to enable accountability over things like government decision-making. This data can be made available, in whole or in part, to anyone who requests it.

Being home to over 5 million people, it should come as no surprise that the Government of British Columbia receives thousands of FOI requests every year, all of which must be processed in accordance with FIPPA. In 2020-2021, the government received 10,265 FOI requests, which involved the processing of 1.6 million pages of information. Each request costs an average of CAD$3000 to process, and on-time response rates currently stand at around 85%. Moreover, it took an average of 58 calendar days to process an FOI request in 2020-2021 – a significant increase over the 49 days during the previous year.

In 2020-2021, the government received 10,265 FOI requests, which involved the processing of 1.6 million pages of information.

Source: FIPA

Given the significant costs to the taxpayer, along with the need to improve response rates, the government of BC needed to develop a more efficient solution for handling FOI processes. In an ideal scenario, all FOI requests should receive a response within the legislated 30 days, but the time limit can be extended in certain circumstances allowed by FIPPA.

These metrics play a vital role in informing the digital transformation and software development initiatives put forth by the BC government. The open-source, low-code technologies and digital transformation services provided by AOT Technologies proved vital in advancing those goals.

Building a holistic integrated platform to manage FOI requests

The Ministry of Citizen’s Services has been working hard to modernize the way the province manages the thousands of FOI requests it receives every year. This involved building a new software system to enhance efficiency without making any compromises on data privacy and regulatory compliance. The product vision was to develop a holistic and integrated platform to manage every aspect of the FOI process while providing timely responses, adding the ability to track performance, and enhancing compliance and privacy.

Defining user segments

Citizens request personal or general records for various reasons. To build an efficient process, it was important to segment and group these end users. By far the biggest user group is applicants themselves, of whom around 40% are people requesting access to their personal records, while others include journalists requesting general records to report on government decisions. Other segments include the ministry coordinators responsible for responding to FOI requests and analysts responsible for redacting records for compliance with FIPPA.

Building a user-centered design

One of the biggest benefits of low-code development, especially when combined with an open-source licensing model, is standardization. By relying primarily on predefined building blocks based on industry-standard models like Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN), which uses standard business language for building workflows, the team could build user-centered apps with ease. These building blocks present proven user-friendly features and functions that align with specific needs and usability tests. During the research phase, the team conducted over 120 research sessions with users of the new service.

Empowering agile delivery

Agile delivery is about reducing software development times, while at the same time reducing risk, enhancing flexibility, and ultimately, delivering higher-quality products. Low code is a solid fit for agile delivery, as it facilitates continuous feedback loops and continuous improvement. To achieve this, Loren’s team uses the SCRUM framework with two-week Sprints, which start with the team committing to specific development goals. At the end of each Sprint, the team demonstrates what they’ve built to stakeholders at the Sprint Demo. Finally, once they have a working product that meets all requirements, it’s deployed and reviewed in a retrospective Sprint, the conclusions of which will inform future development and updates.  

Measuring success

In the early days of software development, success was largely measured by feature delivery. Today, given the greatly increased emphasis on user-centered design, measuring success is all about measuring business value. Low-code development solutions like formsflow.ai use data-driven analytics to track the metrics that really matter. For Loren, the key success metrics included the reduction of FOI request processing times, an increase in on-time percentages, and a decrease in average processing days for said requests.

Key technical considerations for modernizing FOI workflows

The basic technical building blocks of the FOI process involve three primary user groups and three main workflow stages. Firstly, an FOI request is made by an applicant, such as a general citizen, law firm, media company, or other business entity. Secondly, the request goes through the management and line-of-business application. Thirdly, the data collected from the process is fed into the FOI data warehouse for reporting and analytics. Analysts, along with various ministry and division-level coordinators, are involved with the latter two stages.

There were several important technical decisions for digitally transforming this workflow:

  • Microservices architecture: Microservices allow for a far more flexible approach to the overall tech stack since it involves building apps from a collection of modules (i.e. services), rather than a monolithic architecture that can’t easily be updated or redeployed without reworking the entire tech stack.
  • Event-driven design: Low-code development typically uses event-driven designs, in which a series of immutable changes of state automatically lead to the next stage of a workflow. For example, in the FOI process, an event might be a request being made or a request being flagged for review due to it asking for access to regulated data.
  • Avoid coding where possible: Unlike no-code development, low-code gives teams the building blocks they need to implement and customize a wide range of features, while also allowing manual coding in more complex and less common use cases. This approach greatly reduces the need for manual development time and expertise.
  • Isolated line of business data: Data privacy and security are clearly vital for handling potentially sensitive data, so Loren and his team needed a way to isolate data in such a way that the risk of leaks would be minimal. An open-source approach to low-code development makes that easier by giving developers greater control over their data.

How formsflow.ai helped create a fully custom solution

formsflow.ai has been instrumental in helping the government of BC to develop a modern, digitally transformed FOI process workflow. Loren’s team used formsflow.ai to build a user-friendly, customized user experience for applicants requesting access to personal and general records. These requests were then fed into Camunda 7, a universal process orchestrator, to simplify FOI request management. Finally, data inherited from formsflow.ai goes into the Redash business intelligence platform to support reporting and analytics.

Thanks to its compatibility with any OpenID-based system and microservices architecture, the formsflow.ai platform made it quicker and easier for Loren and his team to create integrated forms and support decision-making workflows with the BPMN-compliant Camunda platform. The end result is a seamless and modern user experience that has already played a key role during the pandemic and will continue to help advance British Columbia’s e-government plans.

AOT Technologies is a pioneer in open-source low-code development. Our solutions allow for faster software development at lower costs, particularly for SaaS companies that are rapidly scaling up. Tell us about your project today to find out more.