Voices of Digital Communities

Intelligent Communities Find a Silver Lining in the Cloud

Whether you call it cloud computing or software-as-a-service, it means purchasing hosted IT solutions from third parties.

by / September 29, 2010

Bad times, like clouds, can have silver linings, just as good times may rest on rickety foundations.  That is the message of "New Normal" Success: A CIO Survival Guide from the Digital Communities Web portal.  The Guide is based on interviews with the chief information officers of US cities and counties large and small, who are all coping with the decline of budgets and simultaneous calls for their departments to contribute to greater efficiency.  

Most are taking a fresh look at cloud computing, which has been adopted so enthusiastically by business.  Whether you call it cloud computing or software-as-a-service, it means purchasing hosted IT solutions from third parties instead of providing all applications and maintaining all data in-house.  

It is a dramatic way to leverage the power of broadband to cut costs.   Michael Armstrong, CIO of Texas city Corpus Christi (an ICF Smart21 community), has already shifted some applications to the cloud and sees it as a way to "reduce the amount of stuff we have to manage" during difficult times.  Other CIO's worry, with reason, about ensuring the privacy and security of applications containing the public's information.  Yet as Richard McKinney of Microsoft put it in the Guide, "I clearly remember those same levels of concern at the dawn of the Internet and services like email."  It seems likely that economic pressures will gradually overwhelm FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) and make the cloud a serious option for more communities around the world.

There are also opportunities for savings closer to home.  In Palm Beach County in the state of Florida, CIO Steve Bordelon has cross-connected individual networks from Palm Beach County, surrounding counties, school districts and some of the municipalities in the region.  The result has been a "cloud" of their very own: a regional public-sector network that has boosted bandwidth by a factor of 10 while reducing costs by 50%.  

But for Mr. Bordelon, cost-cutting is only half the equation.  His department recently became a service provider for hosted business applications and Outlook email for the US Virgin Islands.  The county has plans to market other internal applications for planning, zoning and building applications in a fee-for-service model to other governments.  Instead of turning to the cloud just to save money, Palm Beach County is become a provider of cloud-based services itself.

Radical as this vision may seem, it is not new.  In 2002, ICF named the city of LaGrange, Georgia, USA as its Intelligent Community of the Year.  To gain access to broadband, this city of 26,000 funded and constructed a total of four networks serving businesses, institutions and residents in LaGrange and the neighboring four counties.  They introduced free Internet access for residents in 2000 and successfully used the network to attract call-center companies, ISPs and TV production companies.  The network also made it possible for LaGrange's IT department to become a service provider to other local governments within range of the network.  In the year we honored them, ICT services were contributing almost US$1 million to the general fund.

In Dundee, Scotland UK, the IT department – under its visionary leader Ged Bell (no relation) – has saved a lot of money through rationalization and outsourcing of IT services.  They have done the same by building their own wired and wireless networks to reduce operating costs.  But one of its biggest successes is with a citizen relationship management system called the Citizen Account.  It captures data on citizens, with their permission, and uses it to create a single record of the citizen’s interaction with government, which is saving the Council £400,000 per year.  It captures, for example, the citizen’s use of the Dundee Discovery Card, which replaced 10 separate card-related services in the city, for everything from bus service and parking to social services and student accounts at Abertay University.  So popular has it become - with 44,000 cards issued, used by 87% of 12-18 year olds for school meals and bus travel - that the Scottish Government decided to deploy a multi-application card for the whole country.  Who gets to run the program?  Dundee.      

There is no real reason that cost-cutting, which has become the priority for so many local governments, cannot also be economic development.  Faced with great challenges, local governments are pioneering innovative solutions.  Some have real market value.  Rather than staying in their silos, re-inventing the wheel over and over again, Intelligent Communities look for solutions they can import, using the power of broadband, and also for opportunities to export their hard-won expertise to colleagues near and far.

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.