9 July 2012, 19:10

Moscow IT Department does not rest: submitting documents online and new QR codes

Moscow IT Department does not rest: submitting documents online and new QR codes
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I would like to kick this week off by giving a little update on digitization of Moscow - just last weekend I mentioned how the city IT Department rounded up their efforts so far, and they're already introducing new services! Well, July has just started, but it's already been a fruitful month in terms of e-governmental improvements.

I would like to kick this week off by giving a little update on digitization of Moscow - just last weekend I mentioned how the city IT Department rounded up their efforts so far, and they're already introducing new services!

Well, July has just started, but it's already been a fruitful month in terms of e-governmental improvements. For starters, Muscovites now can reserve a time for marriage registration in any of the 34 Moscow Civil Registry Offices with the schedule available four months ahead. Well, that was the case once the service was made public. I just checked in and was offered only 6 officers with only a few days in September and October left open - looks like the service is a pretty popular one. This a great improvement over the existing tedious process of people creating queues that last more than 12 hours - I personally remember how me and my friends camped out overnight in shifts near one such office just so a couple could submit their documents and reserve a spot for the actual ceremony. While currently the soon-to-be-newlyweds still have to submit documents for marriage in person, they reserve that timeslot as well the one for the actual ceremony- the web service offers 10-minute slots to choose from, making sure such campouts become a thing of the past. Oh, by the way, while I did want to thoroughly test functionality, I chose not to - the message in this section of the city service portal reads "Please don't make test reservations [...] as it can lead to you needing to use it for real, but then you won't be able to." Wow, serious business - but after all, if people just fill up the timeslots with no intention of using them, it disrupts the whole process, so I guess this is only just.

But wait, there's more! This whole 'submitting documents in person' is also becoming a thing of the past as well. Why go somewhere twice if you can do it just once, where's you're picking up the document you need, be it a marriage certificate, a new passport or a hunting license? Yes, hunting license - for some reason this is the first document that can be officially procured through one visit only. Sure, one saved visit for some obscure governmental service may seem like a drop in sea, but I assure you it's more than that. Turns out that it wasn't a random choice - each month 10 to 15 thousand Muscovites receive their hunting licenses - imagine if about an hour is needed to submit the documents. Then collectively this new service would save its citizens up to 625 days per month - and given that there's commute and human lines to take into consideration, it's safe that removing just one visit to a governmental office can save up to 2 'man-years' in a month - you have to admit, that is a lot of newly-freed time. Would-be hunters now need to login to pgu.mos.ru, fill in a simple form, attach a scan of their passport, attach a digital photo and submit - if all data checks out in 5 working days they will be able to get their hunting license in the ecological control office assigned to their area of residence - this time in person, by showing up with their actual passport. As most state services provided digitally, this one also allows online tracking to see the status of the request. A similar service works for car and motorcycle registrations in a sort of a trial run phase - only two Police stations can be chosen through the web portal.

But of course you have you leave your home and office some time, right? Well, for those geographically impaired, or just visiting Moscow for the first time, the city plans to introduce QR codes - I've briefly mentioned this initiative before, but looks like it has just been boosted to the next level. And again, the Moscow IT Department is responsible for this. While some cities have already gone full-QR, such as Monmouth, Wales which has transformed to Monmouthpedia this May, Moscow has begun by treading waters quite carefully. However, it appears that the initiative was off to a rocky start - bloggers who spotted the codes, while praising the idea, did not like the overly-formal style they were written with - stale bureaucratic text in Russian and English was hardly progressive or inviting. Moreover, the QR codes translated into links that automatically sent users to a Russian page dedicated to the historic object the code was painted on. I'm pretty sure that this kind of kills the idea becoming truly tourist-friendly. I mean, why provide an English description near the code if it leads to a page in Russian? For example, the Monmouthpedia that I've mentioned uses the QRpedia project - upon scanning the code the mobile device is redirected to the Wikipedia page in the language that the mobile OS is running - if that's not available, it offers either machine translation courtesy of Google or other languages the relevant article is available in.

 

Of course, while the majority, at least the majority of those that blog or write to social networks agree QRpedia or the general idea of using QR codes instead of traditional small informational plaques are pretty awesome, there are those that focus on the downsides. First of all, by planning an exhibit or a tourist guided program around QR codes, the number of those that will benefit from it drastically smaller than the number of actual museum visitors and travelers - after all, one needs a smartphone, a stable mobile internet connection and a third-party program that translates QR codes. And even if everyone does have their hardware and software ready, what's stopping them from typing in the building's or exhibit's name into Google or Wikipedia? Oh, and of course there's another possible problem with QR codes - vandals and criminals can easily swap the code, leading unwary visitors to potentially distressing media or even phishing websites. But placing codes out of arm's reach can significantly reduce the risk.

So, having this in mind, I still believe the five seconds or so that using QR codes saves significantly add up - just refer to the example with hunting licenses. Convenience is a game of diminishing returns - the more effort someone has to put in towards improving a product or a service, the greater the difference is between the costs and benefits - but that doesn't mean we should stop trying make lives easier, right? With this little detour addressing so-called flaws of ubiquitous usage of QR codes, let's get back to Moscow. So, a few weeks have passed since the first few QR codes have popped up on various landmarks. The new idea is to use these codes not just for static information, but for receiving a themed tour that includes the building or object with a given code. For example, if one is located on the Pushkin monument, scanning it will give information on the actual monument and affiliated data - you know, the poet himself. The themed route will then include other cultural objects linked with this famous Russian poet, like the Pushkin Museum. In order to centralize data and make it more accessible, a new portal will be launched. Called "Get To Know Moscow", it will host the database of landmarks that have been tagged with QR codes as well as routes that could interest both Muscovites who, frankly, rarely know the city well except for their usual commute, and, of course, tourists, both domestic and foreign.

By August the developers hope launch the portal with three themes: Old Arbat landmarks, Zamoskvorechie district landmarks and historic sites of 1812 - the latter, if your European history is a little rusty, is about Napoleon's invasion to Russia and a turning point for Napoleonic Wars. This year Russia celebrates the 200th anniversary of the nation's victory over previously-undefeated menace, which is a pretty big deal as you might imagine. Planned themse include "Moscow in Movies", "Theatres of Moscow" and "Back to the USSR". However, I have to admit that this is somewhat confusing - after all, there does exist travel.mos.ru - a web portal geared towards tourists that, apart from other features, also offers themed routes, although with no QR code support. I'm not sure what compelled Moscow authorities to cultivate such redundancy - but after all, travel.mos.ru is working in test mode and hasn't even been publicized yes, so hopefully they will sort it all out and integrate all services under the .mos.ru system without unnecessary overlapping. While the potential lack of tourists that will be able to access the QR codes is not addressed, their national diversity is - all themes will be available in several languages. And here's the best part - crowdsourcing ideas are increasingly becoming appealing to public officials, it seems - at least in Moscow. The IT Department is looking into wikification of the database - in other words allowing users to add interesting historic facts, photos and videos related to various landmarks around town. While the perks of this approach are obvious - greatly expanded access to human resources and maybe even unique first-hand accounts of historic events, the downsides are also not far to seek - vandalism and unverified information. Well, currently the Moscow IT Department has chosen middle grounds of sorts - they're working with NGOs interested in saving and promoting history of Moscow. Their previous attempts at crowdsourcing including gauging mobile connectivity – an app was provided for all to use that checked the cellphone’s signal and report any problems it was experiencing, mapping out problematic spots around the city. And of course the projects such as gorod.mos.ru, doroga.mos.su and dom.mos.ru are all perfect examples of crowdsourcing – citizines helping the central administration check up on whether municipal bodies are doing their jobs. Anyway, back to the new QR-enabled tourist website.

So, we'll see how that turns out - I have high hopes for the project, seeing as how for the past several months the department has been working hard on creating websites that not just exist, but are actually popular. Meanwhile the city is holding a design competition for the new QR codes - see, people didn't like the old ones and the city listened. The competition is powered by free-lance.ru - a freelance website that I've already covered on .Ru that gives the best of free market relations and crowdsourcing.

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