Focus on Users’ ACCESS to the System, Users’ Capacity to Use the System, Possible TECHNOLOGIES to be used and the SECURITY and SUSTAINABILITY of the System

(Culled and edited from A Previous Facebook Posting)

By Dr. Darren Wilkins ([email protected]| Phone: 0886703789/0777129092)

In my article published last week, I provided some insights into ICTs as they relate to President Weah’s Pro-Poor agenda, specifically referencing the Universal Access Program and a few technologies that are available. I also endeavored to provide a realistic perspective of the traditional barriers to ICTs integration facing developing countries like Liberia; barriers which strangulate sustainable economic development and growth. In today’s article, I discuss the development and deployment of a DIGITAL REGISTRATION SYSTEM at the MAIN CAMPUS of the UNIVERSITY of LIBERIA with the intention of throwing insight into users’ ACCESS to the system, Users’ Capacity to use the system, possible Technologies to use, SECURITY and SUSTAINABILITY of the system. You will find that most of what is being said in this article are based on past experiences.

The advent of ICTs decades ago, brought a paradigm shift from manual systems to computerized systems. Various systems involving manual work have been automated efficiently. This did not preclude the student course registration process in colleges and universities, which previously involved filling registration forms manually, getting it signed by respective subject instructors, and then getting the documents acknowledged by the concerned advisers, college deans and accounts officers respectively. Ostensibly, this process is/was very laborious and time consuming. Hence, it is imperative that a digital and online Student Course Registration System needs to be developed to replace the current manual system. I applaud the President and his advisors for including this innovative initiative in the Pro-Poor Agenda.

There is no doubt that the development and deployment of a DIGITAL REGISTRATION SYSTEM at the University of Liberia and the provision of wireless CONNECTIVITY to alleviate the MULTIPLE challenges STUDENTS experience during registration, are EXCELLENT, TRANSFORMATIONAL and TIMELY PRO-POOR initiatives. This is an indication that the President is listening to the masses and is keenly and meticulously watching the situation in the country.  Yet, there are a few things that must be considered as we embark on these initiatives: Users’ ACCESS to the system, Users’ capacity/ability to USE the system, possible and available TECHNOLOGIES, and the SECURITY and SUSTAINABILITY of the system.

USERS’ ACCESS to the system: High Speed INTERNET ACCESS for ALL students is possible because, the UNIVERSITY currently enjoys FIBER CONNECTIVITY provided by LIBTELCO. And, it’s just a matter of putting a few radios (ACCESS POINTS) around the CAMPUS to achieve this goal. Moreover, the GOVERNMENT OF LIBERIA has allocated 10% of its 55% share in the ACE Optical Fiber System for EDUCATION, E-GOVERNMENT, E-Health, etc. With this, we must not just stop at the UL Main CAMPUS, but we must expand beyond to FENDELL and other areas, LEVERAGING LIBTELCO’s network as well as the networks of other operators including the Google/CSquared network, that is currently being built. Access also means that students will need SMART phones because the $10 mobile phone may not suffice. CAN ALL STUDENTS AFFORD SMART PHONES? This is where MOBILE OPERATORS (LONESTAR, ORANGE, et al) can help GOVERNMENT… that is by either donating smart phones to students who can’t afford to purchase one, or by providing some other option that can enable students garner access to SMART phones to benefit from the “new” system.

USERS’ CAPACITY: The intended system is expected to provide students access through the use of mobile phones; smart phones. This means, there must be some form of training via print, electronic, and social media to ensure that students garner the ability to utilize the systems. Anything otherwise will force students to revert to the “old system”.

TECHNOLOGY USED: If we are advocating a Pro-Poor solution, then we should be talking about Free and Open Source Software Solutions (FOSS); something like MOODLE or SAKAI. But I will not dwell on those now. Let’s talk about what are needed to facilitate the development of the DRS. To begin, a software design document that demonstrates how the design will accomplish the functional and non- functional requirements, hopefully captured in the Software Requirement specification (SRS), must be provided to guide the process. This document will provide a framework to the stakeholders, especially developers/programmers by describing the high level components and architecture, sub systems, interfaces, database design and algorithm design. This is achieved through the use of architectural patterns, design patterns, sequence diagrams, class diagrams, relational models and user interfaces.

Many universities’ registration systems are built using ORACLE (a relational database), even though there are a lot of other robust FREE and OPEN SOURCE (FOSS) database management systems. ORACLE is often used because its database engine looks after its DATA INTEGRITY. Even in the case of a system down time, all the committed transactions would be available once the system is restored. The database’s built-in data dictionary and the triggers and validations programmed in the system would also guarantee the CONSISTENCY of data across different databases.

Another alternative to developing the Digital Registration System or DRS could be by using PHP, jQuery, Apache and MySQL. The front-end would be designed using PHP with excerpts of code written using jQuery and back-end designed and managed through MySQL or other FOSS DBMS MariaDB, PostgreSQL, IBM DB2, NuoDB, Apache Cassandra, etc) . This system software is more secured, user-friendly and less time-consuming.

SECURITY: With the major and global threats that plague IT/ICT systems today, we must put in place ROBUST security measures that will ensure our efforts do not go to waste. Security measures MUST affect PEOPLE, PROCESSES and TECHNOLOGY; not just TECHNOLOGY as folks WRONGLY perceive. Educating folks about security is key to achieving security in an IT/ICT environment. CAPACITY BUILDING is a MUST!

SUSTAINABILITY: Sustainability has been our MAJOR CHALLENGE in LIBERIA. We rush to set up systems or engage projects without plans or a comprehensive and practical strategy to SUSTAIN them. For example, if we look back at the many (mostly donor funded) IT/ICT projects embarked upon over the years, we’ll discover that millions of dollars (donor funds; now donor fatigue) have been spent to develop systems, but previous governments were not able to sustain them, due to COMPETING PRIORITIES. We had the ASSET MANAGEMENT SYSTEM at GSA (developed and funded by USAID-GEMS), CONCESSION MANAGEMENT SYSTEM, E-LIBERIA, etc. These are just a few systems/initiatives that were developed and are probably not being used anymore because of SUSTAINABILITY challenges.

My personal experience was with the E-LIBERIA project; a WORLD BANK funded project. Despite the significant work and sacrifice we made for that project, our EXODUS was the GENESIS of its DORMANCY, if not DEMISE. The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications did not have the resources (Human Capacity, finances, technology), to sustain the project after the EXODUS of the World Bank. There are several others I could name, but I’ll stop here.

Finally, the UNIVERSITY of LIBERIA will have to put in place MECHANISMS that will ensure that the DIGITAL REGISTRATION SYSTEM being proposed, is SUSTAINED, after all, it is a PRO-POOR initiative that is intended to benefit the students; many of whom form part of the POOR, MARGINALIZED and VULNERABLE “group” of our society.

Until next week, Carpe diem!


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