Beyond map mash-ups: State and local gov. wades into the cloud

Last Thursday, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced that his company was going “all in” when it came to building software and hardware solutions for the cloud. He said a concerted effort was underway to have 90 percent of Microsoft’s 40,000 workforce focused on solutions related to cloud computing over the next year. CivSource spoke to Steve Read, Microsoft’s National Azure Lead for State and Local Government, after the announcement to discuss the implications of cloud computing for state and city officials.

“Cloud is changing our DNA,” Mr. Read said, “A lot of our smaller city customers are saying, ‘This is what I’ve been waiting for – get rid of the servers and the hardware, so I can save money.’”

In November of 2009, Microsoft launched a contest which made available the beta version of Microsoft’s cloud platform, Azure, to third-party developers. They began tinkering with ways to use public data inside the cloud, combining data with their own applications and tools like Bing maps.

“The intent of the contest was to provide a little kick. We wanted to say, ‘This is where we’re going, where we think you should be going.’”

The contest winners were announced at the US Public Sector CIO Summit held last month with Miami’s 311 System, garnering top honors.

Miami 311 is a public facing solution that integrates with a Motorola CSR system in Miami-Dade County. Citizens can track non-emergency requests, like a pothole repair, graffiti or trash, submitted to the system from 3-1-1 callers. Miami 311 also serves as a dashboard for City Commissioners to see and monitor citizen requests in their district. The Miami 311 application and all supporting data are stored in Windows Azure.

Another winner, called iLink GIS Framework, allows government agencies to share location information using map-based solutions that can cover social services, health services, public safety, schools, arts, recreation, and more. The demo map integrated Los Angeles County information on where to find flu shot centers, for example, using Bing and county information.

“The apps that won were good examples of apps interfacing with on-premise resources, overlaid with Bing maps and other tools in the cloud.”

Read said at the end of the day, the eye candy (map-heavy) apps were the ones that got the most attention, but he also believed there is a huge potential for enterprise applications to help deliver real savings and efficiencies.

“When you go down a layer, you get the real meat and nutrition,” he said. “The enterprise applications that are a little more boring are where the real savings are.”

For example, Mr. Read said the most useful apps are those that can generate revenue, like permitting and license applications. “State and local IT departments spend so much time keeping [these kinds of apps] up and running. If they could save money by using Azure, they could really start to get ahead of the curve.”

Mr. Read said that Azure-based apps for state and local governments was in its first wave, and moving forward, a lot of third-party developers are working on the more robust features for the cloud.

One company Mr. Read singled out as being an example of the next wave of cloud-based applications that would be available to local government officials comes from Total Computer Group. Total Computer’s Total Enforcement 2 is an enterprise level Computer Aided Dispatch and Records Management system, which is based entirely on the Azure platform.

“They figured out no one has a great solution for justice and public safety in the cloud – others are selling on-premise solutions, but this is the new frontier.”

Read also stressed the importance of building a community of applications over the next several months and how the savings could begin to snowball for Azure users.

“Once someone creates a solution, you can put it in Azure and they’ve open sourced a lot of that code. Anyone that wants to use it, they can plug-in and use it.”

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