Local, state, and federal government agencies are looking for innovative technology solutions that are more responsive to citizen concerns and more efficient in delivering services. These solutions need to be quick to deploy and open and flexible, and they must also meet stringent standards for security, privacy, and scalability. Many of these solutions are coming from civic and government technology partners that are using Microsoft Azure and Microsoft Azure Government to ensure security, compliance, and scalability.
It’s no secret that mobile technology is increasing demand for services in virtually every industry and level of government. However, government organizations have fewer resources to provide those services, so they are looking to technology to make their services more accessible to citizens and more cost-effective. But not just any technology will do.
The new solutions need to be open and flexible so they work seamlessly with a wide range of systems and applications. They need to comply with a vast range of security and privacy standards. And they need to be quick to deploy, easy to use, affordable, adaptable, and highly scalable. No small challenge.
Many technology partners are harnessing rapidly evolving mobile and cloud technologies to address their government clients’ needs with innovative solutions that help make communities safer, smarter, healthier, and more efficient. They are building those solutions on Microsoft Azure or Microsoft Azure Government because both cloud platforms provide robust services, speed, scalability, and compliance with public sector security and privacy requirements. For example, both meet the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Security Policy, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) requirements, among others.
Microsoft Azure Government is a government-only cloud platform that has physical and logical isolation at all layers and provides products and technologies that organizations can use to build applications that are more open from the ground up. The Azure Government platform allows for new forms of cross-agency collaboration, application development, and integration.
Microsoft partner companies also benefit from Azure’s comprehensive array of tools, technical resources, and outreach opportunities to enhance their ability to creatively solve challenges and deliver value for government organizations.
The following are just a few examples of how these partners are helping make federal, state, and local agencies more responsive, efficient, and productive.
Crowdfunding for local government projects
On every community’s wish list there are projects without the available funds to make them happen. The Citizinvestor crowdfunding and civic engagement platform was developed to allow citizens to make tax-deductible investments to fund these projects.
In addition to the Citizinvestor.com website, where individuals or government entities can post projects to be funded, the firm created Citizinvestor Connect, a white-label software product for government entities to create their own custom site. Citizinvestor Connect sites are used to encourage citizens to submit project ideas, fund them, and monitor their progress.
The Citizinvestor platform was moved to Azure Government in early 2015 to take advantage of the government-specific security and privacy features. “Migrating to Azure Government went very smoothly,” says Tony DeSisto, CEO and Co-founder of Citizinvestor. “Microsoft provided us with development assistance, and we were able to switch over our existing sites in a couple of days.”
Since its inception in 2013, government partners have posted more than 60 projects on Citizinvestor.com, including:
– A statue honoring veterans in Napeville, Illinois.
– A summer program for at-risk youth in Gainesville, Florida.
– Trash can and recycling bin units for a park in Central Falls, Rhode Island.
Approximately 60 percent of the projects posted to Citizinvestor have been successfully funded, including those mentioned above.
Engaging citizens with city services anywhere, anytime
From finding potholes to accepting parking payments, cities are increasingly looking to mobile technology to engage with citizens and provide services more efficiently. Many cities, schools, and utility companies have turned to the CitySourced mobile solution to achieve those goals. Developed as a platform as a service (PaaS) offering, CitySourced integrates with cities’ IT systems to offer a comprehensive group of services through a single smartphone app.
CitySourced chose to build its application on Azure to take advantage of the platform’s support for the broadest group of operating systems, programming languages, and databases, and for its scalability and versatility. “The government space encompasses a wide range of on-premises, cloud, and older legacy solutions that may all require different integration. It’s mission-critical to know that you’re going to be able to integrate with those different systems,” says Jason Kiesel, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at CitySourced. “Building our application on Azure gives us the comfort of knowing that the platform that we’re on is going to work with what our customers have today and evolve with the space that we’re working in.”
Some recent examples of successful CitySourced clients include:
– Longview, Texas: Shifted 15 percent of service requests for issues including abandoned cars, broken street lights, and graffiti to the mobile app from more expensive channels, and expects this trend to continue.
– Los Angeles Unified School District: Projects savings of up to $1.25 million per year in locating and reporting damage to school property.
Upping the odds of recovering stolen goods
In 2014, an estimated $5.5 billion worth of thefts occurred throughout the United States (FBI Uniform Crime Report 2014, Larceny Theft). The vast majority of stolen goods are never recovered. Changing that outcome is the driving force behind Rejjee—a mobile crowdsourced application built on Azure that helps restore stolen goods to their rightful owners.
Users can download the Rejjee app to their smartphones and register their property in 13 categories, including bikes, tools, jewelry, and even pets. If any of those items are stolen, the user simply files a report through the app and publishes it to the crowdsourced lost and found. Registered law enforcement organizations have secure access to the reports through the Rejjee Law Enforcement Portal, and if they find the stolen items they can reply to the owners directly from the Rejjee platform. Theft victims can report their losses on Rejjee even if they haven’t registered their items previously.
One of the big reasons Rejjee developers built the application on Azure was its compliance with security standards. “In working with law enforcement, we need to meet several security and privacy standards—particularly CJIS,” says Ken Smith, Co-founder and Head of Product at Rejjee “Microsoft Azure and Azure Government are the only major platforms that meet those standards.”
In the first four months of operation the “Rejjee Your Ride” campaign:
– Registered hundreds of bikes in partnership with several law enforcement agencies around the greater Boston area including the Boston Police and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
– Had 61 lost bikes posted to its site.
– Helped recover about 14.8 percent of lost/stolen bikes, which Rejjee estimates is seven times higher than the national average of recovered bicycles.
Turning input into action
Executives know that one of the biggest challenges in making decisions is how to effectively gather all the most relevant information in an easily digestible form. Insights.US has developed a decision-making tool to address that challenge.
The process starts with a decision maker asking a question through online and offline channels. The responses are collected in one place, and the Insights tool helps to curate bottom-line insights so the decision maker doesn’t have to wade through all of the responses. Once the decision is made, the system sends a personal impact update to each person, who submitted a response, based on the advice that person submitted.
“With about 60 percent of the decisions made after using our tool being fundamentally different from the decisions made before using our tool, we turn stakeholders into a strong policy-making resource,” says Gal Alon, PhD, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Insights.US.
Insights.US chose to build the application on Azure because it integrates well with the technologies it already uses. “With Azure, we didn’t need to invest a lot of time in modifying our code,” says Ady Rosenbaum, Chief Technology Officer of Insights.US. “Azure also provides additional services such as database solutions, virtual machines, a load balancer, a web app firewall, and the Azure API, which allows us to scale up when we need to.”
Some of Insights.US recent successes include:
– Austin, Texas: Gained input from thousands of citizens on how to increase recycling. Produced 11 insights that are leading to policy changes and more effectively targeted education and outreach efforts.
– Arlington County, Virginia: Reached out to hundreds of organizations, citizens, and employees for input on how to design its digital strategy.
An online marketplace for public real estate
Online marketplaces for private commercial and residential properties have long been available, but public real estate has been harder to find, much less purchase. OpportunitySpace, a Boston-based technology provider, has created an end-to-end real estate management solution and online marketplace dedicated specifically to publicly held and administered land and buildings. Running on Azure Government, OpportunitySpace empowers administrators to strategically manage real estate using data analytics and then connects real estate entrepreneurs and investors to the government entities that own or control hundreds of thousands of real estate assets. It takes data that already exists in paper or digital form and makes it easily accessible and searchable.
Prospective buyers can review zoning information, incentives, and relevant programs related to the properties so they’re aware of the requirements for redevelopment before they make an offer, which they can also do online. On the back end there are several tools that help government sellers identify their available real estate holdings and determine how to best repurpose or sell them.
OpportunitySpace built its marketplace on Azure Government mainly for its flexibility, interoperability, and security. “A lot of the data we work with is public, but we still feel comfortable with the level of security that comes with Azure Government as well as its compliance with standards,” says Alexander Kapur, CEO and Co-Founder of OpportunitySpace. “Azure also enables us to easily package our solution for white-label delivery, and the cloud-based data behaves seamlessly with existing government systems and firewalls.”
OpportunitySpace is already in 25 cities including:
– Louisville, Kentucky: OpportunitySpace has helped real estate investors identify properties the city has made available for sale, including vacant lots, vacant residential properties, an underutilized parking site, and other assets.
– Kansas City, Kansas: The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas Land Bank displays more than 1,500 properties through OpportunitySpace, allowing developers to target infill development and consider land assembly options.
– Providence, Rhode Island: The city’s Department of Planning + Development uses the OpportunitySpace integrated analytic dashboard and workflow management tool to target vacant, tax delinquent, code-violating or other problem properties. The system drives efficient policy interventions such as code enforcement, demolition, receivership, and tax foreclosure to restore the properties to productive use.
The security, scalability, openness, and flexibility of the Azure cloud, and the additional technical and business resources Microsoft is providing, help US civic technology partners meet their government customers’ requirements more effectively.
Security is perhaps the number-one technology concern of government agencies. Azure meets and maintains rigorous and changing federal, state, and local compliance requirements for US government cloud solutions, including FedRAMP, CJIS, ECSB, and HIPAA. Azure Government builds in further security with physically and logically isolated datacenters and assurance that all Azure Government operators and administrators who control the environment are screened US Citizens.
This level of security allows solution partners to pass one of the first tests when engaging with government and law enforcement agencies. “When I talk to Chief Information Officers for law enforcement organizations, one of the first questions they ask is ‘Are you CJIS-compliant?’” says Rejjee Co-founder Smith. “If you can’t check that box it’s a nonstarter. Azure gives us that compliance.”
Building credibility is one of the most important requirements for a technology provider, especially when working with government entities. “We’ve been around more than three years so we have some credibility, but we’re still a relatively small company,” says Citizinvestor CEO DeSisto. “So when we tell our customers that we’re powered by Azure Government and partnering with Microsoft, they feel more comfortable with us as a vendor. It makes it easier for them to sell to others within their organization.”
Dr. Alon from Insights.US has had similar experiences. “When you come to a city or government agency with Microsoft Azure as your solution platform, it’s a different atmosphere,” he says. “It’s a solution they’re already familiar with, and they trust Microsoft, which means that we can get through some of the initial barriers.”
OpportunitySpace also benefits from the credibility of the Azure platform. “We’ve been building white-label pages for a lot of the cities we work with, and they are definitely more comfortable knowing that those pages are hosted on Azure Government,” says Kapur.
Although decisions from government agencies can take some time, once the projects are approved it’s important for partners to move quickly to deliver the solutions. Azure core capabilities include a rich set of compute, network infrastructure, storage, and identity management services to expedite building, testing, deploying, and managing applications.
“Azure has made it possible for us to say that once they get approval we can get them up and running in as little as a week,” says Citizinvestor’s DeSisto.
Strong support for partners
Several of the partners mentioned in this article note the value of both technical and business support from Microsoft in helping them resolve issues, find opportunities, complete requests for proposals (RFPs), and collaborate with other partners.
The Microsoft partner ecosystem has helped CitySourced find its place within larger opportunities. “It’s a massive advantage for CitySourced to work with our Microsoft partner manager, who makes connections between disparate partners who have complementary offerings,” says Paul Malin, Vice President of Business Development at CitySourced. “Often our functionality is part of a broader solution that the government is trying to put together. We might not have heard about an RFP that fits our solution, or we might not know some of partners who are responding to it. Our partner manager helps us make those connections.”
Each type of compute service within Azure supports auto-scaling to balance performance, resource allocation, and cost, based on customer objectives. This scalability is particularly critical for government solutions.
“The ability to add servers quickly and scale up or down based on demand is hugely important for CitySourced,” says Kiesel. “You never know. You add a city and a whole bunch of people download the app, and you have to be able to immediately respond to that. That’s the kind of table stakes now for development and Azure gets us there.”
Rosenbaum from Insights.US shares that view. “Azure gives us the infrastructure to scale up whenever we need to by adding more servers automatically,” he says. “You never know when you start a project how big it’s going to get. Azure is sort of like an insurance policy so that when a project becomes bigger, you know that you have a platform that you can trust to handle it.”