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Iowa Will Launch New Cloud-Based Unemployment App this Summer

The Iowa Department of Workforce Development's HTML 5 interface aims to improve customer service, protect against fraud and reduce errors.

When Richard Thielman took the job as application development manager of the Iowa Department of Workforce Development (IWD) almost two years ago, he was immediately tasked with making the state’s online unemployment claim interface more user friendly, less prone to errors, and accessible to users regardless of what platform they were using. 

Meanwhile, Thielman began looking for ways to ensure the platform granted access to claimants during all hours. And decreasing up-load times. Also, Thielman had to protect the personal information against theft and breaches. And just to pile up the pressure, he had to develop this while it seemed almost every tech-analyst in America was suggesting the internet was a dinosaur, and would soon be replaced by platform-specific applications. 

“A year ago, you could have got every pundit saying the Web is dead,” said Thielman. “I would listen to that and kinda laugh to myself, and think, ‘Responsive Web design is where it’s going.’”  

Now, after two years of infrastructure overhauls, employee training, numerous RFPs and several months of beta-testing, IWD is close to launching an HTML5 Drupal-based platform that Thielman said will meet all requirements, and possibly save the state money by cutting hours of overtime as errors and identity theft problems are reduced. Drupal is a widely used, open-source Web development platform for online content.

Paid for with the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, the platform's interface will be largely hosted through Amazon’s cloud-based services, according to Thielman.

“To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time Iowa has developed an application in the cloud,” said Gary Bateman, CIO of the Iowa Department of Workforce Development.

“When Gary hired me, one of the things we noticed was that the agency dealt with claims, it didn’t deal with people,” Thielman pointed out. But the new system treats people like people, and adds many benefits to unemployment claim management. 

A Uniquely Unemployed Workforce 

Because Iowa has a large number of farming, manufacturing and other seasonal jobs based in rural areas, many workers routinely file unemployment claims during the year. Last year, Iowa processed 190,000 unemployment claims, paying out approximately $432 million in benefits in 2012 and 2013.

“For their entire careers, they’re repeat customers," explained Bateman. "So one of the concepts we floated was – as you file a claim, year after year, because you’re registering – I can send you an identity proofing to determine who you say you are, [and] there’s more of the information that I hold so I can verify.”

The department should be able to track the person through their routine filings, and not the claim. With that information, IWD can easily protect against fraud, errors and identity theft. Thielman explained that just like credit bureaus can ask consumers to verify their identity by answering questions about personal information (i.e., "Which bank did you finance your car loan through?"), so can IWD. 

Because many of these workers are shift-employees, access to the service at any time became very important to the department as it developed the Web-based application. 

“Right now the agency, and the state as a whole is not a seven [days a week] by 24 [hours] shop,” said Thielman. So, the department turned to the cloud to host most of the information, where accessing data can occur around the clock. 

“Going to the cloud will reduce our costs significantly,” he said. “I can go seven-24 without tripling my support staff.”

The HTML5 Drupal interface will also ensure that these workers – with dramatically varying computer literacy and device access – will be able to access the new interface, at a potential dramatic savings to the state.

“Exact numbers are hard to come by,” said Bateman. But he added, “one of the things that we did was deploy our analysis, and the ratio was about a 10 to one savings – that might not be true, but even if the costs are the exact same, we get better benefits with this system.”

Cloud Security

When Thielman and Bateman began the RFP process for cloud providers, Amazon was one of the only companies large and secure enough to accommodate the department’s needs. “Two years ago, the only place you could go with government services was Amazon,” Thielman explained. 

Front end services are provided by Drupal experts from Acquia, a company that partnered with Amazon for the RFP, according to Bateman.

The department worked with the companies to provide a safe experience for users and the state.  “Once you have been verified who you are, it goes into a fully encrypted database that resides here locally [with the state] – the only thing that is used for is data to your user profile,” Thielman said. “Even the user will never see that information again. It becomes embedded and encrypted. So even if someone were to get your password, they would never be able to get that information.”

And this is where treating the claims as people, and not numbers, goes beyond providing better customer service. “I no longer need access to that Social Security number because you stopped being a number and started being a person,” he explained. 

Personal information will not be stored with Amazon or another third-party vendor, but rather by the state. In order for IWD to pull the information and display it through Amazon, a host of VPNs will be built to connect state servers with sensitive information to the cloud, according to Bateman.

The cloud will also host all publicly available documents, including redacted unemployment appeals, which become public record under Iowa law. Most of these will be stored as XML documents for easy search ability, and even include things like elevator inspection records. 

“My staff is going to have to learn a number of new development techniques, some are nervous, some have stepped out,” said Bateman. “[But] this new system will reduce the bulk of identity theft. It will be much more difficult to use the wrong Social Security system. About 50 percent of the user errors are about the last employer, and if we can clear that up, that will reduce man-hours.”

John Sepulvado is from Southern California. He enjoys writing, reading and wants to take up fishing. He wrote for Government Technology for a short time in 2014.