All of Hessen at a Single Click

Feature Article | April 23, 2008 by Winfried Winterstein

About 6 million citizens live in the federal state of Hessen, located in the heart of Germany. Government agencies use more than 300 Web sites to provide information on all topics related to Hessen – political, social, and cultural. The portal receives about one million hits each day. Specific requirements on constructing homes, cultural events, or the educational opportunities offered by the state all find a home on the portal. In addition to the 300 Web sites, the Hessen portal also serves as the employee portal for about 60,000 PC employees.

To create a uniform optical appearance and free all its internal and external Web sites from barriers as much as possible, Hessen had to redesign the portal. Part of the task was to maintain the rules of Hessen’s corporate identity. Before the project began in 2004, the structure and administration of Internet and intranet sites differed considerably from each other. Each department maintained its own content with a different content management system (CMS), and the sites offered very few similar characteristics.

Based on a modified version of the SAP NetWeaver Portal component set up by SAP Consulting, CSC Deutschland Solutions GmbH, a software firm, has been working to develop and maintain a uniform platform. Hessen’s Internet portal is the central access point for information and services for citizens, employees, businesspeople, and investors.

Hessian agencies as service providers

Along with the overarching goals of Web accessibility and establishing the corporate identity, the project also had to offer practical applications. For example, citizens had to be able to register complaints electronically or ask for assistance over the Internet.

In addition to a new Web site, Hessen wanted to create a platform for portal applications. Drivers could use it to find up-to-date traffic information and employees of cities could use it to maintain information on state-sponsored foundations like those that support sports. Companies could use it to access the current bid-invitation database for Hessen.

Exact requirements determine how interfaces must be designed for applications. The Hessen portal has defined content and technical guidelines for the integration of applications. The guidelines cover options for anchoring applications in the portal, for working with legacy applications, and for working with third-party applications. The guidelines also include a code library with sample implementations and style templates. IT-supported coordination of conformity with the style guide guarantees the desired recognition factor. If an individual site strays too far from the corporate standard, the Hessen portal does not integrate it. Instead, the portal links to it so that the federal state’s corporate identity remains intact in the portal.

Editors use portal navigation to link to the maintenance of information on foundations. Portions of the application appear in the portal only after user authentication. To avoid degrading portal performance, the applications run on dedicated servers, the portal shared application platform (PSAP) instead of on the portal itself. The PSAP can be scaled independently of the portal and can run with various releases of the application server. Applications can – but do not have to – use all layers of the PSAP: front end, back end, and database.

Combined solutions for seamless integration

To meet all its requirements, the government of Hessen decided to use the SAP NetWeaver Portal component as the foundation for its portal. The federal state also began using IC Content, a CMS platform developed by ICT Solutions AG in Trier, Germany. The portal seamlessly integrates the content of the CMS, including navigation. For integration, CSC developed a customer-specific solution for Hessen that replaces the standard page builder of SAP NetWeaver Portal. SAP and CSC jointly developed a slim portal framework (Slimp) to implement Hessen’s specific requirements. The framework no longer determines the size of a page – the number and size of the linked graphics do. Thanks to the thin structure that contains only a few Java scripts, pages load quickly and performance is good.

Editors and Web accessibility

Slimp and the CMS templates had to meet a portal requirement for Web accessibility for those with limited motor abilities and sight. A basic principle of the portal is to ensure that users can navigate with simple movements, and a screen reader must be able to read documents out loud to users. The screen reader must be able to recognize the structure of a document so that users can go to specific locations within it and not have to “read” the entire document in sequence. That can occur if the portal output appears in structured HTML pages.

Editors have a great deal of influence on the Web accessibility for a given site – how they create content, which media they use, and what metainformation they supply. Editors must populate the alternative text attribute so that the information is visible when an image cannot be displayed. The creation of bookmarks for navigation and tags for the correct reading sequence when converting documents into PDF format also affects the level of freedom from barriers of an Internet site.

Hessen wants to eliminate even more barriers with the portal. It is optimizing the framework of the portal and the templates for editorial content so HTML output is structured correctly. Training courses show employees how they can create content with few barriers. External experts check the sites and the employee portal at regular intervals based on regulations for the creation of accessible IT according to the German law on equality for disabled citizens.

Build logically, manage simply

To manage individual sites more simply, Hessen set up multisite management for the portal. A microportal approach enables development of all the federal state’s Internet sites with a logical portal. Each site has its own independent navigation, header image, publication data, and contact options, and each site can be called directly with a URL.

The portal and the CMS share the work of maintaining content. Basic navigation is created in the portal; the rest of the navigation is created in the CMS by editors. They also link navigation to editorial content in the CMS.

Employees now work with a uniform editorial system and use synergies much better than before the conversion. They provide information and services in near-real time. Hessen has also set up product processes to provide new sites in a short time. Such sites might become necessary during elections, when current projections are published, or when a crisis drives extraordinary need for public information.

When creating CMS content, the editor decides where the content should appear. The editor uses the same editorial system for Internet content and the employee portal.

Reacting more quickly with the multisite manager

Hessen has come a long way in its corporate identity and Web accessibility, but the project is not yet complete. By the beginning of 2009, about half of the 300 sites have to be migrated from the old platform to the new one. Hessen also wants to integrate additional applications tightly into the portal – the SAP Supplier Relationship Management application, the SAP NetWeaver Business Intelligence component, the SAP E-Recruiting application, e-payment software, and a location finder in the Internet protocol.

Hessen wants to use automated functions to react to current situations more quickly – hurricane Cyril in 2007 is a good example. A multisite manager, a portal-based application, will enable editors to perform all editorial configurations from one interface with a single click in the future. That will make it easier for them to maintain existing content and provide new content in near-real time.

“With the Hessen portal platform, the federal state of Hessen has taken a big step toward standardization and Web accessibility in internal and external sites. That also applies to the availability of integrated applications, where economic considerations must not be lost sight of during creation and integration,” says product manager in the federal state of Hessen, Stefanie Schmidt.

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