Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Dubai Municipality Notice Board.

If my information are correct, the concept of e-government in Dubai is very simple; the various departments are linked to a central server, who's in turn controlled and maintained by the IT specialists at the Ruler's Court (Diwan Al Hakim). This control entails everything that could be computerized; including revenue accounts, budgets, expenses, etc... The system is good. I wasn't here before it kicked off but I'd like to believe that things have gotten a lot smoother after the launch of e-government.

But I am not concerned about the e-government as a whole, my primary concern as an engineer is Dubai Municipality and its on-line services.

Before I start dissecting the services Dubai Municipality (hereinafter referred to as Muni) offers online, let me start by giving you a background of how we, consultants, operate under the statutory umbrella of the Muni. We are required to submit all project we design to the Muni, and they are required to approve it, if and when it conforms to their Rules and Regulations (hereinafter referred to as R&R).

It sounds simple, but it really isn't.

The R&R will vary according to the type of the building and the various functions within it (functions: the Muni likes to refer to those as 'Usages'). You see, the Muni can't invent types of building, or limit them. They are subject to the law of demand and needs. People need hotel apartments; the Muni will pen down the R&R vis.a.vis Hotel Apartments. The People need desert resorts, the Muni will jut down the R&R. Ditto for Malls and Amusement parks. The R&R are themselves split into several categories. Zoning regulations (those will vary from a plot in one area to another). Building design regulations. Environmental Regulations. Health and Food Safety regulations. ....etc...

You see, it's very complicated. And for each set of those R&R there is a separate department in the Muni. And although there is an annually updated book with all the Building Design conditions and requirements; a lot of the design work we do is pure guessing, shooting in the dark, filling the gap between one statutory item or the other, or just pure old circumvention.

Since it is the Building Department's job to review and approve (or reject) our (constulants') submissions; it was also their job to develop this service and bring it to the web-based era. Within the light of what I explained earlier of the complicated process, and the various departments involved, the evolution of this service to the E level did improve things but also made the complication clearer more quickly .

See, I am not criticising anybody. (do I dare to?) I am just voicing my observation that working with the Muni through their online system is becoming more exhaustive by the day. The obsessive disposition of some of the architects there to get all the on-line information correct to the letter doesn't help much either. There was a small revision on a project that I was in charge of designing (a Hotel Apartment building) couple of weeks ago. A small glitch in the electronic building card made the Muni architect's eyes pop like that of a frog. It turned out that the dude (no other than my own colleague) who was commissioned with the task of converting the description of the building from Residential Apartments to Hotel Apartments has bugled up the job so bad and left many information out. So what we had in hand was something that defies all technology in its hilarity; we had an electronic building card that says one thing on one hand, a different Muni record and approved drawings to match on the other. Now we (i.e. myself) were in a conundrum; do I, dear Muni engineer, submit to you the status quo of the electronic record, or the status quo of the defacto building? The first answer was that I may submit the former. I did. Submission rejected. Why? Because your status quo submission doesn't match the status quo of the approved drawings. My dear engineer, I did tell you that there was a discrepancy didn't I? I told you we're ready to correct it didn't I? Yes you did, but you should submit the status quo of the defacto building. I did. Rejected. Reason? The status quo of the building doesn't match that of the electronic record. SIGH. Listen my dear engineer; why do you care about the status quo if the end result is CORRECT? ...No! Status quo shall be rectified or else we can't accept your submission. And it is at this point that you realize it's not really healthy to develop an OCD about web-based statutory procedure. I gave up. After my final submission and the obligatory heated exchange in which I was called names; the project gets approved.

The project got approved because it was perfectly conforming to all R&R from the beginning, what held up the approval (the final seal with the fanfare and trumpet blowing) was the fact that nothing is official until the online system says so. And the online system is ....restricted (for the lack of a better word), by many internal softwarish impediment designed to ensure there's no manipulation or working around it. That's understandable. Web safety is important. Lots of viruses out there. Lots of fraud and Nigerian scammers. My butt being fairy white isn't enough reassurance.

Don't get me wrong. I am not blaming the Muni engineer. He/she is under pressure to ensure the system is being followed. I empathize with them, and they empathize with me, but because we both have different sets of allegiances, we end up shouting at each other when the crap hits the AC diffusers.

Now to add insult to injury. There's a new, massive, revolutionary and state-of-the-art service the Muni is introducing: online submission of drawings. Yes, ladies and gentlemen. We no longer need to print 100s of sheets and carry bundles like porters to the Muni HQ. We only need to follow a simple procedure. And that's that.

Oh, scratch that: did I say simple? It's not really simple. I refuse to utilize a singular adjective to describe it. Even 'complicated' falls short. Now before we submit our lovely drawings we need to 'convert' them to DWF format. (my brethren-in-the-craft of you will know that we do handle all our files in DWG format; the standard Computer-Aided-Design software file extension). But we can't convert to DWF right away. We need to arrange all sheets in a layout format. Fix the size. Fix the size. The size does really matter, you know. There are few standard sizes for any engineering drawings. A0-A1-A2-A3...etc.. Once the size is fixed. We go on about converting. Once the conversion is complete. We go on about uploading our files to the Muni website. Once we hit the crucial button of 'submit', a Muni engineer will be notified. one engineer at each department, actually. And they will review our drawings. 99% of the cases they will have comments. When the comments show up on the system once again (one of the advantages of it, I must concede) we travel to Muni HQ, our hands flailing empty at our sides (because the submission was electronic, no need to haul drawings! hehe, hoho!) to see the engineer, check up on him/her, send out some feelers about what mood he/she might be in, and then discuss the comments (which we already know and are prepared for, thanks to the genius of the system).

This process of online submission was explained to us (consultants) by one of the Muni's long term experts and, to give credit where credit is due, one experienced and old-school engineer who knows what he's talking about, most of the time. We were in a packed Al Madina hall. There was a cacophony of protests and grumbles of disappointment when he finally declared the importance of the size: "if there was one single discrepancy in the sheets' size of your submission, you will lose the submission and all the subsequent approvals, and most of all, you'll lose the deposit .."

Let me tell you about the money. Are you bored yet? good. The deposit is intended to make sure that the client; the owner of the plot of land, is serious about his intention to build the aforesaid plot. The deposit is calculated on the basis of square foot of what we call 'built-up area'. Simply put, it's the collective floor area of the building you're designing. The deposit can amount to hundreds of thousands of Dirhams in case of big projects.

I shudder at the thought of losing such amount of money just because one single sheet slipped undetected in different size than the one announced. I notice that my fellow consultants from other offices are shuddering in unison too. Every human being of a consultant in the Hall is pretty much aware of his capacity for Human Error. People start arguing. The experienced guy then explains that the IT company who's developing the submission software for the Muni is unable to find a software that could inspect the sizes of DWF files and detect discrepancies. He actually asks the consultants if they know of such a software, and if they do to please notify him, he doesn't offer a reward though. (but nonetheless, to all of you silicone valley zealots out ther; does such a software exist?) He then opines that we, engineers and consultants, should start to take responsibility for our professional conduct just like Doctors and Surgeons!!!!!!! do they not take responsibility when they operate on someone and leave the scalple or the latex gloves inside?!!!!

Surgeons!!! for God sake, Surgeons!!!

Surgeons? wait a minute; how could you compare me with a surgeon? with all due respect Sir, I didn't study for 6 years the theory of your system, and then specialized for 2 or 4 or 6 years to operate on your system. I didn't watch senior professionals operating at length on your system. I didn't read reviews written by other consultants about your system. How could you compare me with a surgeon?

Besides, surgeons could apply for, and get themselves shielded with, Professional Indemnity. We, engineers, do get these too. But it mostly has to do with structural engineering, since it's a speciality that is quintessential to the safety and security of any building's occupants. I know that speciality designers of Shoring and Post-Tensioned slabs do get them. And they're probably happy to pay the high premiums because by doing this they absolve themsleves from all liabilities. The insurers are happy to provide it for them too, because there are clear international practices with regards to Shoring, Piling, and Post-Tensioned slabs. And because the quality of their work is assessed by a third party....I could go on and on...

But what incentive could I offer any insurance company to cover me against my Muni system fuck-ups? for them it must be an un-heard of thing. Okay, all good things start with an initiative, so I may as well take it upon myself to start up the trend:

Service Needed:

An Architect is looking for an insurance company who is willing to offer him a Professional Indemnity Policy. The policy shall cover the architect against ALL the financial claims and professional consequences that might occur because of any screw-up he might perpetrate while operating on the Dubai Municipality Online Submission System. The nature of these screw-ups will be explained to the insurer in details upon contact. Other screw-ups may be unforeseen. He'd like to be covered against those too. He's ready to pay a premium of up to 500 DH per month. And the policy value shall not be less than 200,000 Dirhams per year. Interested parties may contact the undersigned.


the real nick said...

I guess most government departments are not better...

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Anonymous said...

I operate on the system too. I do decor (AKA interior design) work. The horror of finding out the building is non-existent on their system however the 10+ years since the building has been built on physical land. And, and.. on usages, what's the difference between modification and say addition and subtraction - aren't the latter terms considered as under modification? sometimes the system (online/offline) can be so vague it almost feels like a dream.

Dubai Jazz said...

Anon, (April 19)

Wholeheartedly agree with you. Regards.