The journey to New South Wales’s digital driver’s licence and photo card

From creating the app that houses the digital licences to dealing with unexpected popularity, Service NSW details how it built and launched the New South Wales digital driver’s licence and photo card.

nsw digital driver licence
Service NSW

Several Australian states have been working to create digital driver’s licences and photo cards. New South Wales launched its digital licence in late 2019, after several years of effort and a 2017 trial; the digital photo card (ID card) is still in trials and will be based on the digital licence system. There are now 2.4 million digital driver’s licence holders in New South Wales. South Australia launched its digital driver’s licence in 2017, and Queensland trialled a digital driver’s licence in 2020 but has not yet launched it as a standard option.

Mel Faeghy, New South Wales’s director of digital channels for digital licences at the Service NSW agency, detailed the state’s digital licence and photo card efforts to Computerworld Australia. The digital licence and photo card efforts are part of a broader innovation plan by the New South Wales government.

The system was mostly built in-house by digital team at the Service NSW, a statutory agency within the Department of Customer Service. There were a few exceptions such as the security element, for which the digital team chose to use a third party.

Building a new app to house the digital licences

The first step was for Service NSW to create a team to develop a new app to replace its existing one; the new app would need to house the upcoming digital driver’s licence.

“We built this team to create this new app with the whole vision of it being that the digital driver’s licence is going to be the first key feature that it’s going to have within,” Faeghy told Computerworld Australia. “We put this team together, we trained this team in extreme programming, we trained the designers in user-centred design and product managers in the Lean agile approach to product development. All with the purpose of ‘we’re going to build an app that’s going to be able to scale out to do many things, and its first key feature is going to be housing this digital driver’s licence’.”

The initial team had about eight people, with a few more engineers joining later. After launching the revamped Service NSW app, the agency split the developers into specialty teams. The newly mobile apps team focused on all existing and future licences. Now there is a team that focuses on the integration of digital licences with other back-end systems and a front-end team focused on the delivery and costumer experience.

One of the benefits of having different focus teams was clearly demonstrated in response efforts to the coronavirus pandemic. The mobile apps team delivered several COVID-19 features in the revamped Service NSW app, including negative pathology results, updates on restrictions, and the now-centralised checkin and checkout system for when locals go to cafés and shops.

With the app covered by that team, the digital licence team was able to continue to focus on the photo card system and to get it ready for the pilot.

Working with agencies across New South Wales

To develop the digital licence system, it was necessary to work with other government agencies’ IT teams to learn the systems they had in use so the new Service NSW system could communicate with those existing ones. Those agencies included Transport for NSW, which holds the data that needed to be accessed for the digital driver’s licence, and NSW Police, which needs to check driver’s documents.

Faeghy said that Transport for NSW—previously known as Roads and Maritime Services—had to make a lot of changes for the digital driver’s licence to be accessed. The main concern was to ensure the systems could support the load to provide real-time access. The system Transport for NSW uses has been in place for some years, so it had to be assessed to ensure it could manage the load of checking the latest information attached to a driver’s licence.

“That has increased the load requirements of Transport systems significantly, so they had to make some changes to make sure it can accommodate that load,” Faeghy said.

Agile vs. waterfall: How Service NSW worked across development methodologies

One of the challenges the Service NSW team had to overcome was how to work with other agencies that had a different approach to systems development, yet keep everyone working per each team’s requirement to deliver the final product.

The Service NSW team works in a Lean agile approach, which Faeghy said is extreme programming with test-driven development and engineers working in pairs and working in CI/CD (continuous integration and continuous delivery). But some of the partnering agencies were using the old-style waterfall approach.

The agencies had to come together and find a pace that all were comfortable with, without breaking each other’s systems. Finding this balance and understanding other IT teams’ way of working came in handy when the time came to digitise the photocard.

They also had to learn to work with the other agencies’ existing plans as they could not stop and focus only on digitising photo cards or driver’s licences—each team had their ongoing projects and the digital driver’s licence and photo card work had to fit in.

How Service NSW dealt with unpredicted demand

Documents such as the digital driver’s licence do not serve only one purpose; it is used broadly as a mean of identification in different premises, including liquor and gaming.

To deliver a successful new system across such a range of needs meant it was important that all involved parties were willing to adapt. “We need to take into account that we can’t deliver something that everyone else can stay still on. … Everybody has to evolve and everybody has to change. And those were some challenges that we had to face,” Faeghy said. They had to consider how much is too much change, whether the system put people in a position they could accept and use the DDL, and how Service NSW setting the conditions for success.

Faeghy said that Service NSW is still working with industries that were not able to use the digital driver’s licence straight away, and are helping them to find the best way to work with a digital rather than a physical form of ID.

It is no secret that the launch of the digital driver’s licence was postponed more than once. The delays were caused by discovering issues that hadn’t been previously anticipated or by opportunities that arose to make things better than previously planned, Faeghy said.

One thing the team got wrong was how popular the digital driver’s licence would be. So when the system went live in, in what was supposed to work as a test made with no formal announcements, the demand was too great and the system could not handle it. The unofficial launch had 600,000 people creating the digital version of their driver’s licence in its first week.

“It was a pleasant surprise in the sense that people were excited about it. And we’re in a hurry to get it on Day 1,” Faeghy recalled. “But we did not anticipate it was going to be as popular as it was. We wanted to stay quiet about it and just get a few thousand people—and it ended up being a lot more.”

That unprecedented demand caused the system to be unavailable for several hours in October 2019. So the digital team changed the system from always making a call to Transport for NSW’s driver and vehicle system Drives to only retrieving information if something has been changed, such as an updated address or the status of the licence. Faeghy said the system now is much more efficient, and there has been no issues resulting from the change.

The same approach has been applied to the digital photo card, so a call to the API or the system holding the data is made only when it suspects a change has been made to the details of the document.

Next steps for New South Wales digital licences

The driver’s licence was not the state’s first digital licence. There were already four digital licences available in New South Wales: boating licence, fishing licence, responsible service of alcohol, and responsible conduct of gambling.

The digital photo card should go live statewide between March and April 2021, but there is no official date yet. Faeghy made it clear that if they find an opportunity to make something better or if an obstacle arises, they will take the time to make it right before a wide launch.

It would have been easier to deploy the digital photo card before the digital driver’s licence, given fewer people hold one, reducing the system-demand issues that the driver’s licence experienced at launch. But Faeghy said the agency decided to deliver the digital licence first, because that was the document most citizens rely on.

The broad use of the digital driver’s licence also got people more familiar with the use of a digital document, and a result Service NSW saw a bigger uptake on the digital fishing licence following the digital driver’s licence launch. “New South Wales license holders and checkers are now used to a digital experience when it comes to a license or a form of ID,” Faeghy said.

Service NSW doesn’t plan to stop with the digital photo card. Faeghy said that the digital licence space has a lot of opportunities and he is now thinking through them. “I don’t think we’ve barely scratched the surface on that. We now have these in a digital format, so what can we do with it? How can we change the way that we think of licenses, credentials, and identifications?”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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