An Economic Argument for Cloud Computing

The government is about to open up vast data stores for public consumption. It should be done in the cloud, says one industry expert.

by / October 21, 2009

Photo: Kevin Merritt, CEO and founder, Socrata Inc./Photo courtesy of Socrata Inc.

Now is not the time to take on large capital expenditures. Yet with the federal government and an ever growing number of states, counties and cities focused on making more and more data available online, the challenge is daunting for CIOs. The federal government alone has more than 24,000 Web sites, many of which host data.

Government transparency is not a trend that is going away anytime soon. CIOs will continue to be measured by their ability to make public data available to the masses. As we recently commemorated the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, we remember that for many the answer was "blowin' in the wind." Today, for CIOs and CTOs, the answer to reduced budgets and increased expectations may be living in the cloud.

Cloud computing will allow CIOs to pay for what they use and combine purchasing power across agencies, states, towns, cities or counties. At the same time, it still allows governments to control their data, monitor and measure the data's use and deliver the promises of government transparency. Many may argue -- fallaciously -- that cloud computing is not secure. However, these arguments are largely focused on private information, whether it be personally identifiable data or classified. The cloud actually lets the government better monitor the use of public data. Also, let's remember the data that is being made available to the public at large is just that, public, so it does not require the type of security needed for classified information.

CIOs face three key challenges as the pent-up demand for government data reaches its apex:

  1. Political: From President Obama to our nation's governors and mayors, there is a commitment to open communication, transparency and civic participation.
  2. Technological: Most government data sets are not in a format for consumption by nongovernment audiences.
  3. Economic: Now is not the time to ask for added budget.

The true measure of success of the myriad of government transparency and data projects will be the ability for governments to make the data usable and shareable for a wide range of audiences from scientists to statisticians to entrepreneurs to everyday citizens.

The first generation of government data Web sites has merely focused on the posting of downloadable files in arcane formats. The data is difficult for the end user to find and download. For the government entity, the data is expensive to store and data usage analytics are difficult to track.

Now is the time to transform the way governments of all levels make data available to the masses. Governments need to implement solutions that enable both technical and nontechnical audiences to interact with data online, without the need for file downloads. A common user interface needs to provide accessible data sorting, searching and filtering capabilities as well as community features for commenting, rating and discussion. Furthermore, users should be able to share data easily with other citizens.

But how do we do that without added budget? From a fiscal perspective, cloud computing provides CIOs with the flexibility to make data available in numerous formats that are both machine-readable and accessible via a simple Web browser at a significant cost savings. Cloud computing allows for a pay-per-use model that can be scaled as site traffic increases. Cost savings can be as much as 50 percent compared to the current "post-it-and-forget-it" model on many public data sites. When compared with creating and maintaining a custom data store, government CIOs can expect to save on server infrastructure and maintenance, bandwidth, storage, software development and maintenance, support staff, and training.

The technical and fiscal resources required to address the three key challenges of a government data site project are massive. CIOs must look outside their organizations for solutions that enable them to meet the new demands set by their president, governor or mayor. With unreasonable deadlines and massive amounts of data to upload, it is time to look for a new way of doing government business.

Cloud computing has enabled the private sector to launch massive data stores known as Google, and Facebook. American citizens will require the same ease of use and functionality from their government sites.

It seems rather clear that the answer is in the clouds.


Kevin Merritt Contributing Writer
Kevin Merritt is CEO and founder of Socrata Inc. Merritt focuses on enabling national, state and local governments to achieve new levels of transparency and citizen participation while significantly lowering the costs of serving online data.