Situations in Life

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Wolf-Gideon Bleek
University of Hamburg

Typical web-based Municipal Information Systems (MIS) make it necessary for users to collect activities to solve their current problem and find related online-services. These websites lack support for the current situation a user is in and do not offer interactive applications.
In detail one can state the following problems in day-to-day access:
· Citizens have to identify their situation by themselves and need to envisage a plan for solving it on their own
· Citizens cannot find all types of service at the same site; combining public and private services is not intended
· Citizens have to combine the offered services and information by themselves
All of the municipalities following that path can only offer simple services.


Designing web-based Municipal Information Systems that intend to cover a full range of public and private services.


This leads to the question of how one can design an improved MIS. An approach is required that makes use of situations in the life of citizens and offers guidance on different levels of system design. The result should be a process description of how to construct flexible and open MIS. This raises the following questions:
· How does one select content (including informational texts, applications and references to services offered elsewhere), and how is the process of content collection organised?
· What are the principles for the user-interface and the dialogue design?
· How must the system architecture be structured to be as flexible as necessary?
From the perspective of software development these questions can be formulated as questions concerning the design of a MIS. With regard to content selection, an editorial process needs to be supported. Both system and software need to support editorial work on the content and on the special design of Situations in Life. The user-interface must be so designed that a user can collect and annotate information gathered. The dialogue design must enable users to easily switch between informational parts of the system and applications and personalised pages. The seamless transfer from synonymous to pseudonymous access must be possible ensuring data protection. Thus, the system?s architecture design must provide flexibility in terms of content types and combination, flexible generation of pages and the possibility to store user-related information in a secure area.


The social sciences in Germany have coined the term ?Lebenslagen?, which can be translated as ?Situations in Life?. This term is used for analysing citizens? perspective while getting in contact with the authorities. Situations in Life denominates a certain situation in the life of a person or a family. Common examples are ?Marriage?, ?Birth?, ?Death?, ?Moving house?, ?Unemployment? etc. They are used to reflect the needs of a person in a given situation.
In contrast with other approaches it is important from our point of view that a Situation in Life contains the following salient features:
· Time
· Planning and Acting
· Reification in a Checklist
It lasts for a certain length of time and guides actions in that respect. ?Birth? for example, as a Situation in Life includes all activities from medical care, diet plans, collecting diverse information to buying necessary goods, etc. This, of course, also includes, but is not limited to, activities that are authority-related, like birth certificate and nationality statement. The time constraint is important for the notion of what a Situation in Life is. Thus, ?marriage? can be regarded as a Situation in Life but ?going out tonight? is not.
Additionally, during that period of time, planning work and activities alternate. People collect actions and start to manage them. At the same time, they perform a number of actions with respect to the current Situation in Life. This planning work is usually done with a checklist that is completed every time a new topic arises. Tasks already performed are marked as done, others are grouped or assigned. Depending on the situation, a checklist can grow up to more than 100 items.
This notion of a checklist may or may not be embodied by a real checklist. The important aspect is that a communicative process is initiated in such a situation. First of all, one gathers tasks to do and information needed. Other persons may suggest things typically done in that kind of situation, and depending on certain factors a shared understanding of ?what to do? exists. Factors for such a shared understanding depend on ? but are not limited to ? region, religion, social status, and ethnic membership.
Neither is the order of items on the checklist predefined nor is their order of execution fixed. Both heavily depend on personal preferences and the environment. Many tasks are performed situated and cannot be formalised. The important aspect of the checklist therefore is its collection of relevant tasks and topics rather than a workflow description.
With these characteristics of Situations in Life we feel confident that this is a useful concept in user-oriented software design and which is therefore transferred to systems design. The next section shows what it takes to use Situations in Life for designing municipal information systems.

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