Semantic Web in E-Government (information science)


Today, in many countries, looking for government information, filing taxes, renewing a driver’s license, obtaining a certificate and notifying of a new address anytime, anywhere are becoming mundane online operations. For the satisfaction of their constituents, local governments are striving to deliver more effective and efficient online services through the use of innovative information and communications technologies.

E-government also known as “digital government” can be defined as the civil and political conduct of government using information and communication technologies (ICT) (McIver & Elmagarmid, 2002). The most accepted picture of e-government is that of a provider of online services to citizen (G2C), businesses (G2B) and the administration (G2G). The real value of an e-government rests on the effectiveness of its programs, the broad availability of its enhanced online services, the satisfaction of customers and the tangible savings in time, money and human resources (Kone, 2005).

E-government expansion and adoption by communities, citizens, businesses, and public administrations in most countries is generally seen as a four-step process: presence phase, interaction phase, transaction phase, and transformation phase. The goal of the last transformation phase is to integrate several internal services at the vertical and horizontal levels, into a one-stop, whole-of-government with innovative services operating seamlessly across departments, agencies and programs. To address the problems of seamless integration and interoperability (D’Auray, 2001), some actors in e-government are experimenting with the semantic Web promoted by Tim Berners-Lee (Berners-Lee et al., 1999, 2001), Web service technologies (McIlraith et al., 2001) as well as service oriented architecture (SOA) as a means for achieving integration and inter-operation in the service transformation phase.

Scope and Structure of the Article

This chapter aims at presenting the semantic Web technology applied to the transformation and advancement of e-government. After this introduction in the first section, we expose in the second section the nature of the semantic Web and e-government. Then, we explain in the fourth section, how semantic Web technologies can contribute to solving known issues in the transformation of e-government. Given this background, we are able to propose a simple illustration of our ideas: Web services and semantic Web-based architectures within the e-government proj ect of Quebec, Canada. We then give a glimpse of some future trends in the fourth section and the conclusion in the fifth and last section.


Semantic Web Technology

If the Internet is said to be “the place where one can find anything,” there are still concerns about really finding what one is looking for. In this context, Berners-Lee proposes (Berners-Lee et al., 1999, 2001) a whole new vision of the Web called the semantic Web. This semantic Web is ” an extension of the current Web, in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and human to work in cooperation’ (Berners-Lee et al., 2001). In line with this vision of the semantic Web, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has developed a number of ontological languages for specific purposes. The following languages (Asuncion & Corcho, 2002) displayed in Figure 1 are called ontology languages because they can formally describe the meaning of terms and relations in Web documents.

• The resource description framework (RDF) is a flexible data model for resources described as objects and the relations among them. It provides a simple semantics for this data model, and these data models can be represented in XML syntax;

• RDF schema is a vocabulary for describing properties and classes of RDF resources, with semantics for hierarchies of such properties and classes;

• The Darpa agent modeling language (DAML) has been developed as an extension of XML and RDF. It is used to explicitly represent the meaning of terms in vocabularies and the relationships between these terms;

Figure 1. The Semantic Web ‘layer cake’ as proposed by Berners-Lee

The Semantic Web 'layer cake' as proposed by Berners-Lee

• The ontology Web language (OWL) is intended to provide a language suitable for describing the classes and relations inherent to Web documents. OWL has more facilities for expressing meaning than XML, RDF and RDF-S.

A more detailed and in-depth description of the semantic Web technology is given in “Semantic Web fundamentals” by Antoniou and Plexousakis in the topic of Information Science and Technology, 2005.


Considerable progress has been made in e-government over the past decade. A recent major study, in which 21 governments were surveyed, showed that e-government has created major changes along several dimensions: services, modes of operation, and organizational structures (Accen-ture, 2006). In particular, unified contact centers have been created to help government provide single entry points for citizen services.

Two broad classes of e-government technologies exist (Ashley, 1999). As seen in Table 1, one class comprises externalizing systems which provide interfaces to government entities through which citizens and other government entities can obtain services. The level of service of this range from one-way information delivery to complex transactional interactions, whereby legally-binding tasks, such as vehicle registration, can be completed. Another class comprises systems which provide:

Table 1. A summary of e-government characteristics

• Civil and political conduct of government using ICT;

• Provision of online services to citizen (G2C), businesses (G2B) and the administration (G2G);

• Two broad classes: externalizing and internalizing systems;

• Evolution through presence, transaction and transformation phases.

1. Integrative communication functionality to improve intra-governmental workflows;

2. Domain-specific processing and knowledge management, such as data mining for public health or support for law enforcement investigations.

The needs and trends in e-government parallel those of the broader computing community with respect to semantic Web research. The current generation of research in e-gov-ernment reflects an effort to make:

1. Services more widely accessible;

2. Services more integrated within organizations; and

3. Information more “intelligent” (Cencioni & Bertolo, 2006).

In a government context, the accessibility and integration of services is being addressed through Web services and business processes. Bringing intelligence to information has involved the injection of semantics into content as meta-data, largely XML-based, and corresponding processing techniques that allow those meta-data to be interpreted.

semantic web in e-government

There is a need within e-government services to provide information whose format and methods of delivery are adapted to users and situations (Accenture, 2006). In its evolution, e-government is expected to format information from a given knowledge domain in different ways when presented to senior citizens, youth, or government officials.

E-Government Evolution

E-government expansion and adoption by communities, citizen, businesses and public administrations in most countries is generally seen (Government of Canada, 2003) as a four-step process: presence phase, interaction phase, transaction phase and transformation phase.

The initial presence phase is implemented through the publication on the Web of static information on government operations and services. Starting with few services, the initiative expands to a broad range of services with basic capabilities like official publications, newsletters, e-mail contact and a FAQ section.

Figure 2. E-government maturity model based on Gartner Research 2000

E-government maturity model based on Gartner Research 2000

The interaction phase appears through the building of basic Web portals containing online forms, requests for proposal and opinion surveys on critical issues of interest to citizen and local businesses. In addition, some kind of cross-agency cooperation appears: government agencies start to reach out to one another through links in their official Web sites.

The transaction phase offers online operations like a driver’s license renewal, a car registration, a request for a new passport and requires payment of fees in a complete and secure online setting. The proper implementation of these online transactions draws much from the technical aspects of similar transactions in eCommerce. An e-government architecture, at this stage, uses complete multi-tier architectures with authentication and digital signatures.

The transformation phase aims at integrating several internal services at the vertical and horizontal levels, into a one-stop, whole-of-government with innovative services operating seamlessly across departments, agencies and programs. These services are therefore tailored to the needs of businesses, communities and citizens.

current challenges in E-Government

Significant challenges remain in e-government, for which Semantic Web technologies might offer solutions. The coming generation of research (Oreste, 2005) will focus on moving from intelligent information to information that is “actionable” (Bertolo, 2006). The Seventh Framework Programme of research of the European Commission has taken this view after extensive consultations with experts in this area. Semantic Web research directions that are relevant to e-government include:

1. Social networking;

2. Service composition and collaborative workflow;

3. Security and trust;

4. Automated collection and processing information; and

5. Adaptive information delivery.

As countries like United States, Denmark, Australia, Finland, United Kingdom, Germany, Ireland, and France are making remarkable progress in mature service delivery, questions arise about the appropriate technological platform for reaching the next level of service transformation. Until now, to design a platform for its service delivery, some government have quietly followed in the footsteps of the successful e-commerce where Web services technology with its Web services description language (WSDL), simple object access protocol (SOAP) and uniform description, discovery and integration (UDDI) protocols, appears to be the most popular. However, government providers not only have different goals in the design, organization, management and delivery of services than the private sector but face massive challenges under different constraints. According to D’Auray (2001), the most important of these challenges are safety, security, and integrity of online interactions with government; privacy and confidentiality of personal and business information within government; information management with respect to accuracy and relevance when merging data across departments and agencies. Although security technology for Web services addresses the safety, integrity and confidentiality concerns through cryptography, digital certificates and trusted third-party authorities, it is neither convenient nor stable enough to inspire trust. In addition, current research has shown that it is possible to automatically discover, select and compose Web services on a syntactic, semantic and pragmatic (location, QoS, policy) levels. However, to date, no Web service infrastructure has the capability of dealing with laws (e.g., the Privacy Act in Canada mentioned in D’Auray, 2001) related to the use and sharing of personal information where the explicit written consent of a subject is required.

In Europe, there are a number of e-government projects using semantic Web technology. Access to e-government services employing semantic technologies (Access-eGov) is a project which aims at increasing the accessibility of public administration services for citizens and business users by supporting the interoperability among existing electronic and ‘traditional’ government services. Access-eGov is partially funded under the IST Programme of FP6 (e-government research). Its main objective according to the project designers is to create a server reference ontology covering basic domain knowledge and processes; rule-based editorial addon component for Web sites and Web applications to insert semantic mark-up within public e-Gov applications.

SemanticGov ( is a project which aims at building the infrastructure (software, models, services) to support semantic Web services for interoperability across local or transborder public administrations (PA). It is based on the Service Oriented Architecture and Semantic Web Services technologies for enabling the discovery and execution of complex PA services.

e-govRTD2020 is a project co-funded by the European Commission under the 6th Framework Programme of IST. It aims at sketching e-government in 2020 through the identification of future strategic research fields in e-govern-ment. This project intends to use ontologies and well known knowledge management tools to provide information quality and economy.

The Online Address change Service of Quebec

In Quebec, Canada, online services are organized according to visitors’ profile (citizen or enterprise) and gathered according to specific topics such as finances, industry, business, education, employment, and legal matters. To have access to online government services, one must visit a constellation of Web sites whose architectures does not allow integrated service provision like a one-time change of address in several administrations. In addition, the personal data protection law requires each government organization in Quebec to build and manage its own secure online database with no possibility of sharing personal information on citizen and businesses. Unfortunately, each of these organizations has its own concept of identification with rules and restrictions. The best example of this problem is the online address change Service of Quebec1. Here, the process of changing one’s address has been made easy by a single online form which serves six ministries and agencies simultaneously. Then, each destination still bears the burden of validating the address changed. In the province of Quebec, official records show that about 66 % of online address change requests through this traditional system is rejected during validation. Therefore, we proposed the design and implementation of an e-government Web service platform described in figure 3 (Ben Fadhel & Kone, 2005). This platform supports functionalities and modules made of a Web service-based portal which plays the role of online middle man; the services request folder, an emulation of an electronic commerce shopping cart system; the service search module as a channel to available government services and an online address change service.

We designed an appropriate ontology for government services with the Protege ontology editor to support these operations. With the local information at ministries and agencies being processed as Web services, our platform is able to efficiently collect and process data then display query results to consumers. Here, as required by the law, there is no need for interaction between the players.

A similar approach using semantic Web services technologies has been used by Medjahed, Bouguettaya, & Ouzzani (2003) for the automatic selection, interoperation and composition of e-government services in the context of the Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) of their community.

future trends

There are a number of semantic Web technologies which promises to bring significant innovations to the field of e-government. One remarkable example is the service oriented architecture or SOA based on semantic Web services (Erl, 2005). SOA is a reliable and relatively simple infrastructure which is flourishing and promises to spark greater data integration and interoperability between heterogeneous systems in administrations. It can articulate a process independent of any technology and allow the coordination and use of a collection of Web services. A number of e-government programmes (e.g., the state of Kentucky, in the United States, and Dubai Municipality) has already adopted this paradigm to support their ongoing effort in service transformation. Fortunately, SOA seems to help avoid the duplication of infrastructure and data across agencies and ministries. Therefore, coherence, accuracy of information, and trust among citizen are the first benefits in implementing this paradigm.

Figure 3. Proposed structure of the online address change service

Proposed structure of the online address change service


In this chapter, we first explained what e-government is and the state of its evolution. Then, we introduced the field of semantic Web applied to e-government to overcome the obstacles in achieving the last service transformation phase. As an illustration, we presented a couple of noteworthy ongoing projects in Europe called Access-eGov, SemanticGov and eGovRTD2020. Then, we presented an interesting online address change application that we suggested to the e-govern-ment of Quebec in Canada to improve its architecture.


E-Government Web Services: E-government applications deployed over the Web within a Web service infrastructure. This technology becomes really useful only when an ensemble of related distributed e-government services are composed in order to create a new one.

Interoperability: The ability of several software components based on different platforms to interact, exchange services and cooperate in solving complex tasks. ISO TC204 defines interoperability as “the ability of systems to provide services to and accept services from other systems and to use the services so exchanged to enabled them to operate effectively together.”

Ontology: Originally used in philosophy to refer to the kind of things that exist, an ontology is interpreted as ” a specification of a conceptualization” (Tom R. Gruber) in the context of artificial intelligence. In practical terms, an ontology is the set of terms of a vocabulary about a given domain and all the relationships between these terms. It can be written as an RDF document with classes and properties available for creating instances and making assertions.

Semantic Web: The best and most well known definition of the semantic Web is given by its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee in the May, 2001 issue of Scientific American as “The Semantic Web is not a separate Web but an extension of the current one, in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation.” To achieve this goal, a data model called resource description framework (RDF), several data interchange formats like RDF/XML and N3, notations called RDF schema (RDFS) and the Web ontology language (OWL) have been developed and proposed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to give formal descriptions of concepts, terms, and relationships in a domain.

Semantic Web Services: When Web services and their related messages are semantically described (capabilities, interfaces) with appropriate ontologies, they are called semantic Web services.

Service Oriented Architecture (SOA): is literally an architecture which relies on service-orientation. It is a reliable and relatively simple infrastructure which allows greater data integration, interoperability and the coordination of a collection of heterogeneous systems. OASIS (the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) defines SOA as: “A paradigm for organizing and utilizing distributed capabilities that may be under the control of different ownership domains. It provides a uniform means to offer, discover, interact with and use capabilities to produce desired effects consistent with measurable preconditions and expectations.”

Web Services: Web services are a set of protocols named Web services description language (WSDL), uniform description, discovery and integration (UDDI) and simple object access protocol (SOAP) used to exchange data between applications regardless of their platform, language or object model. In this interaction, there are three actors:

1. A service provider defines with the WSDL language the format for request and response of services it generates;

2. A UDDI registry stores the services descriptions published by the service provider;

3. A service consumer in need can make a request and find a particular service description in the UDDI registry. It subsequently calls this service through the SOAP protocol and requires it to perform some action at the provider’s location and send back the result.

Current examples Web services are weather information service, authentication service, Foreign exchange service and Knowledge base service.

World Wide Web: A system of interlinked multimedia documents distributed over the Internet created by Tim Berners-Lee around 1990.

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