Saturday, January 17, 2009

Prague's New OpenCard: Process and People Are The Problem

Prague's new OpenCard project is already in trouble. The card is supposed to make life easier for residents and visitors, enabling access to multiple services provided by the city, but instead, since its introduction on January 1, 2009, it has caused mostly confusion and aggravation.

The concept of OpenCard may be sound, but its execution is reminiscent of the "service with a sneer" mentality that reigned in Prague for several years after the Velvet Revolution. The problem is not necessarily with the technology, but mostly with the process and the people.

To start with, the application forms for OpenCard are only available in Czech, which is not a problem for me since I'm fluent in the language, but unfortunately the form itself is poorly worded and the options unclear, even for Czech people, who were asking each other many questions while waiting in line, and only two of three available windows were functioning on the day I was there to get my card during the first week of January, so there was a long wait. Bear in mind that this was at the main location for obtaining the card. Three windows for a city of over one million people. The electronic system that issues each applicant a ticket with a number and matches these to the next available window is actually worse. In my case I was directed to a window that could not provide the service I needed, issuance of the card on the spot for a slight additional payment. I was sent back to the the ticket machine and asked to press an option that I discovered did not even exist on the list. I selected "Other" and hoped for the best. After another long wait I was served at the second window, where the woman was not only unable to answer simple questions about the application but also refused to take my large banknote, which was slightly more than enough to cover the cost of the card and one year of public transportation, the main reason I was getting the card. I was told that I would have to pay for the public transportation at a different window and she was unable to make change. I had to dash out and buy something at a store next door to get change and returned just in time to be served as the last customer of the day, even though a sign indicated that the place should be open for two more hours.

I did manage to get my new OpenCard, but now I had to go elsewhere to pay for the yearly transportation option. Luckily there was a metro station nearby, and a sign by the window inside indicated it was possible to purchase what I needed, so I got in another long line. Unfortunately, after waiting for half an hour, I was told that they didn't sell what I needed, even though the sign said otherwise, and I was sent to another metro station. At the other station, nothing was clearly marked, but I got in another long line in front of an "Information" window, and asking someone to kindly hold my place, I went closer to the window to make sure I was in the right place. Sure enough, a tiny little sign on a white card just above the window said only in Czech, "Card Charging Here". Nothing else. So after being given the run-around in two different places that were supposed to "make my life easier" and wasting a couple of hours into the bargain, I finally had what I needed, a card with my yearly transportation pass. In past years this took me about ten minutes and no aggravation.

Will the citizens and visitors of Prague benefit by having just one card that lets them ride the public transportation, use the public library, check to see if they have traffic violations online, and pay for parking in the city center? These are the only options available right now. My answer is a resounding "No!", unless immediate and serious improvements are made. A closer look at the processes and people surrounding the introduction of the OpenCard reveal that the system was extremely poorly conceived and implemented. Additionally, the privacy issues surrounding the data (photo, date of birth, etc) that are collected and used with the OpenCard, which is contactless and probably uses RFID or some variant, are so poorly thought out that the city has class-action lawsuits pending as a result. City Hall has already been forced to respond with an anonymous version of the card due to be out soon.

As an IT and process expert, and as someone with direct experience introducing western style customer service successfully into e-commerce in this country where it didn't exist before, I can fix most of the problems with the process and people surrounding OpenCard quite easily. Maybe someone from Prague City Hall will see this and take me up on it. At least that way, dear readers, yours truly here won't start out next year with this unecessary aggravation, and if you live here you won't either!

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Second Crisis of the Czech's EU Presidency Hits Closer to Home

Prague - The Czech Republic assumed the Presidency of the European Union for six months starting on January 1, 2009, amidst a flare up in the Middle East. Unfortunately the message which the Czechs intended to carry with their mission to try and settle the crisis in the Gaza Strip was poorly communicated, leaving the world to think mistakenly that the Czechs (and by proxy the EU) considered Israel's aggression to be "defensive". The poorly worded statement was retracted the next day and amended to call for an immediate cease-fire.

The second crisis of the Czechs' EU Presidency arrived on January 2, when Russia cut off the flow of natural gas to the Ukraine after accusing it of stealing gas from the pipeline, which flows across the Ukraine and continues into Europe, supplying eighteen countries including the Czech Republic. So this second, as of yet unresolved, crisis has hit much closer to home. In fact, if the natural gas supply is not resumed within a few short weeks the Czech Republic's emergency reserves will be depleted, shutting down factories everywhere and even threatening citizens with lack of heat in their homes, and the Czech winter is pretty harsh.



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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New "EU" Year!

Prague - Today the presidency of the European Union passed from France to the Czech Republic, and for its duration of the next six months it will be the focus of this blog, which will be covering the politics, special events, and international reaction.

Here is the official web site: www.eu2009.cz

The Czech Republic's presidency of the EU may be interesting for some of the following reasons. First, Czech President Vaclav Klaus is openly skeptical of the EU, likening it to the Soviet Union of the old communist days. Second, the Czech Republic is one of three European countries (most notable being Ireland for its outright rejection) that have yet to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. Third, the Czech Republic will be the first former Soviet satellite state to hold the EU presidency. Additionally, the Czech Republic's minority government, lead by the ODS party's Mirek Topolanek as Prime Minister, is fairly weak and unstable.

Immediate challenges facing the new presidency include facilitating a European reaction to the crisis in the Gaza Strip, and developing policy to offset the looming long-term effects of the current global economic crisis.

Happy New "EU" Year!

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PragueBob's Prague Blog by Robert Starr Morrison is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.