Stories by Rob Hosking

E-FILES: Clear sells mobile phones online
Use of the Web to automate business processes is one of those promises which often doesn't seem to quite come off, but it appears to have done so for Clear Communications.
The telecomms company staged a major revamp of its Web site earlier this year. The move followed a profound restructure and reorientation of the company to becoming an online business services provider. The boost to the Web site now means that transactions such as ordering a mobile phone or signing up for Internet and land-line phone services can be done with a few points and a clicks.
Late last year Clear signed a reseller deal with Vodafone, and new users can sign up on Clear's Web site and have the mobile handset delivered within 48 hours, says marketing and online services director Ian Scherger.
For the customer, there is no waiting on the phone while an automated voice assures them that their call is important, and no complicated forms to fill.
For Clear, it means a much more efficient business process.
"The revamped Web site has really enhanced what we do," says Scherger. "We can take the order, run a background credit check and get the whole deal signed up and the handset sent to the customer without anyone at Clear having to touch the order. The first thing we know about it is when the mobile phone interfaces into the Clear system. Using the Web in this way has taken a whole transaction loop out of what we do."
The site is understood to be the first in New Zealand which allows a customer to make a purchase, choose a pricing plan and whatever enhanced features and accessories they may want, without physically signing a contract.
Nearly a quarter of the firm's new mobile services are signed up this way, he says.
All transactions and customer details are encrypted for security and are managed via a secure Oracle database. Customers are automatically notified by e-mail once the order has been approved and despatched. If they want to, they can check its progress with a courier tracking code.
The site can also be used to sign up for the mobile messaging service, which allows users to check their email on their mobile phone while they are away from their computer.
Last month the company added a domain name registration feature to the site. Instead of the usual 24 hours it takes to register a domain name, users can register a name online and have it cleared in an average of 15 minutes.
The service, which is fully automated, is called DNS (Domain Name Service) Plus, and also allows users to register multiple domains at the same time, track the process online and manage their domain names.

E-FILES: NZGO readies for e-government
One of the oldest New Zealand public sector Web sites shifted location earlier this year as part of preparation for the government's e-government push.
NZGO was begun by the Department of Internal Affairs back in 1997. With the Labour-led administration¹s adoption of e-government as a method of bridging gaps between the governors and the governed, the site, now transferred to the State Services Commission, will become the "centrepiece" of that project, NZGO chair Russ Ballard says.
The site began as a "bottom-up" development where the department saw the opportunity for making information available over the Web.
In the ensuing three years 285 agencies, both in central and local government, have linked to the site and can be accessed using it.
"While we¹re still working out the details of the policy, what has been decided is that NZGO will be the gateway for information on central and local government," project manager Teed Christensen says.
NZGO is quite different from many other similar government online sites around the world. The tendency has been for these to be initiated and run from the top. The US equivalent, for example, is run from the White House because it was felt the authority of the President was needed to make sure the various agencies worked together.
By contrast, Ballard says that NZGO grew out of a "bottom up" initiative from public sector officials who saw a need to work together to "enhance the collective interest of government."
The site has been run by an advisory board, headed by Ballard, and funded on a "club" basis by those agencies taking part.
"While this 'club' funding of NZGO has been appropriate up to this stage of its development, it is no longer a sustainable means of funding given the growth of demand, and the essential role of NZGO in the infrastructure of e-government," Ballard says.
And Christensen says that the move to State Services, accompanied by a dedicated funding for the site, will free up opportunities for further development.
"Up until now the agencies who were involved were basically given a small bill, but now its directly funded we can get on with things and not worry about petty cash. This is going to be the New Zealand government's face on the Web, and you can¹t do that with a petty cash approach."
Interest in the site has surged over the past year. Last June the site had 884,000 visits; a year later the total was more than two million. Numbers have slightly dipped since then but are still running between 1.6 million and two million.
Traffic on the site is a good reflection of what is happening in government and how it is affecting citizens. The two most high traffic sites accessed viz NZGO over the past month have been the ministries of Economic Development and Education ­ probably reflecting, in the first case, the spectrum auction; and in the second the abolition of bulk funding. The details of which schools would get what were posted on the site.
The most popular document downloaded from the site has been the e-government vision, says Christensen.
Just how the site will develop is still very fluid.
"Many of the projects of e-government will require NZGO as host, for example provision of integrated services across departments such as e-billing, payment of benefits or grants, forms online, business and public registers," says Ballard.
Ultimately, says Christensen, the site will be where people will go if they want to interact with government ­ be it to get a policy document or get a dog licence.

E-FILES: Retirement site aims to get personal
Probably the most vexed political issue of the past generation ­ and almost definitely of the next one ­ is superannuation.
Just quietly, while the debate rages about the new government's proposed dedicated superannuation fund, the Office of the Retirement Commissioner is getting on with the job of encouraging New Zealanders not to rely on the politicians.
It's Web presence is a big part of the office's push to encourage New Zealanders to save more for themselves, says communications manager Liz Read.
"Until now we've had very much a generic message ­ which was basically pay off your debt and save for your retirement," she says. "However, the Web site enables us to segment that far more."
Within the next 18 months to two years the site will have a number of "front doors" on the site for specific audiences such as students, employers, Maori and women.
The most used part of the site at present is the calculator, which allows people to nominate how much they want to have saved for their retirement and, by giving their age, how much that translates into monthly savings.
Such tools are not uncommon now ­ a number of financial houses have similar devices on their Web sites ­ but the retirement commissioner's site will go a step further, Read says. One of the "front doors" for young people will include a calculator which covers student loans; another option is to have a package enabling young people who are flatting together to work out a flat budget.
"What the Web site enables us to do is take the message much wider than saving for your retirement ­ the message is that good financial management skills can help you no matter where you are in life."
Another part of that process is linking in with other groups. The office has to downplay the word "retirement" when trying to reach a younger audience, sways Read, as this is usually a turn-off. The office is linking up with schools, universities and employers to make the financial advice it has available to a wider group than just the traditional target audience for such information.
However, many of the people the office wants to reach with such financial planning information do not have ready access to the internet.
"That is one of the things we see as important ­ a parallel strategy to increase overall access to the internet. Maori rural people as a rule don't have high levels of access, so if we can work with schools, marae and other groups we can reach them with budgeting assistance and help to reach financial goals whether they are modest or ambitious."
The message the office takes from the its online experiences over the past two years is that interactivity attracts use, she says.
"Visitors to the site are interested in current consumer-oriented information; they respond to interactivity and therefore keeping the site fresh and up dated regularly is very important."
The presence online is also linked in with other promotions. As the accompanying graph shows, usage lifts when the office engages in other advertising promotions.
However, it was only the latest television campaign which specifically mentioned the Web site ­ the other rises were the result of people seeing a promotion, wondering if the office had a site, and finding it.