Farewell to the Wanganui Computer

For many New Zealanders, the Wanganui Computer was their introduction to what computers can do in public life.

Set up by the New Zealand State Services Commission early in the 1970s, the Law Enforcement System (LES) — better known as the Wanganui Computer -- handled all operational, management and historical information needed by justice sector agencies, most notably Police, Justice and Land Transport. Later, the Serious Fraud Office and authorized local authorities were given access to the information stored at Wanganui.

At the time it went live, in 1976, it was regarded as ground-breaking and a unique and efficient collaboration between agencies. The then-Minister of Police, Alan McCready, described it as "probably the most significant crime-fighting weapon ever brought to bear against lawlessness in this country".

It had its own Act, the Wanganui Computer Act, to recognize privacy concern. This was replaced in 1993 by the Privacy Act.

At its peak the center employed 150 people, in a 24x7 operation. In 1986, the newly formed Government Computing Services took responsibility for the center. There were hundreds of terminals around the country, at police stations, court offices and Ministry of Transport offices.

The Wanganui center was not without its dramas. There were several protests about privacy issues, the most notable being in 1982 when a 22-year-old anarchist punk rocker, Neil Roberts, walked up to the gates of the center and blew himself up with a homemade bomb. The blast was heard all round Wanganui. Roberts was identified by the grisly remains of a tattoo.

Another well publicized incident involved a youngster escaping through the window of the nearby police station, only to be caught in the act by the center's security cameras.

As time progressed, various Justice sector agencies decided to take their computing in-house, though several retained access to the Wanganui Computer. Police will be the last to go. The center itself was closed in 1995, and the mainframe moved to an EDS data center in Auckland, though it has retained the "Wanganui Computer" name.

The Wanganui Computer is regarded by long-term industry identities as a visionary system. The original Sperry mainframe was installed at a time when New Zealand had limited skills to manage such a task.

Wanganui was chosen for the site because it was relatively central in the North Island. Bandwidth was an issue.

For the same reason, Databank considered at the time installing its second mainframe at Taihape. That plan was abandoned because there was little attraction to staff to move to the country town.

Police had planned to move off the Wanganui system in the 1990s. That led to the INCIS (integrated national crime information system) project. INCIS became an embarrassment to all the parties concerned and in 1999 the Government pulled the plug on the project, which had over-run its initial $98 million budget by some tens of millions of dollars,

The State Services Commission immediately went into talks with EDS about the need to prolong the life of the Wanganui Computer.

There was plenty of finger-pointing between INCIS project leader IBM, Police and the government. A subsequent inquiry led to the recommendations around projects that government agencies today follow. The agencies became very wary about high-cost projects that could lead to high-profile publicity if matters went sour.

But life moves on. Police have since been incrementally migrating the Wanganui Computer functions to their National Intelligence Application (NIA) -- one of the legacies of INCIS.

The final phase of the migration will take place next month, and the venerable Wanganui system will finally be decommissioned.

Police's NIA is an in-house system developed in conjunction with IBM. The application was ported from the IBM mainframe platform to Unix (Sun/Solaris} in 2000 and has been enhanced since.

The database management system is DB2, and some capabilities of the application are implemented under IBM's WebSphere application server.

Police national manager of applications Ian Smith says the main functions of NIA are being implemented under a three-tier client/server architecture, which is still considered to be the most appropriate design for this type of application.

"The migration from the Wanganui system has been carried out in a number of phases," he says. "The most recent phases are the infringement bureau, which was migrated in January 2005, and charge processing, which was migrated in March.

"The charge phase required interfaces between NIA and the Ministry of Justice case management system to enable the exchange of charge-related information between Police and the ministry."

Smith says there are no plans to outsource the support of NIA and that Police intends to progressively enhance the application to ensure it remains supportive of information and operational needs. However, the infringement bureau processing has been outsourced to EDS.

Police to chase cars with GPS

IBM and Ericsson are understood to be piloting an AVL (automated vehicle location) project for Police.

Based on GPS technology, the AVL should enable the department to know at all times where its cars are. That would go some way to alleviating some of the concerns expressed in the recent report into the 111 system, that some police cars were not logging on or making themselves available for jobs.

National manager of applications Ian Smith says only that Police are looking at future directions in IT, "which will most likely include the expansion of AVL".

Computerworld understands those future directions are likely to include front-line applications being rolled out to police cars. This would eliminate a lot of duplicate handling.

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