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Today’s post was written by Ron Markezich, corporate vice president for Office 365

Our mission at Microsoft is all about empowering every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Today more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and it’s forecasted that by 2050 more than 6 billion people, about 70 percent of the population, will live in urban areas. That means city governments must find ways to do more with less, showing civic and fiscal responsibility while continuing to innovate new services to respond to citizens’ needs. City governments are one of Microsoft’s highest priorities as they turn to us to help solve those challenges. With our Office 365 Government Cloud, we want to help cities digitally transform their processes so their employees can be more productive and innovative in developing products and services for citizens.

I’m excited that Microsoft will be participating in Smart Cities NYC’17, an international event that focuses on the global movement of urban and civic innovation and building better, safer, and smarter cities in the 21st century. This is an area where Microsoft is providing leadership by enabling our Microsoft platform to support Microsoft CityNext solutions, which we’ve designed to empower city governments around the world to create more efficient operations. I like to tell people how the City of Chicago found that the flexibility of Office 365 enabled it to streamline processes, better connect with citizens, and put information at employees’ fingertips. With Office 365, it is providing citizens self-service options for reporting problems or getting information, while employees use secure, cloud-based Office apps to work from anywhere on any device, from Android smartphones to tablets.

We’re also providing services through the Microsoft Government Cloud to help city governments meet security and compliance challenges. As part of the Microsoft Trusted Cloud initiative, the Microsoft Trust Center provides clear documentation that describes Office 365 Government compliance and any updates and changes in regulations. Accessibility is also important to enable our partners to use CityNext cloud solutions to drive inclusivity. City governments can use Office 365 to create a sense of inclusiveness, not just between employees but between the government and its citizens. At the highest level, Microsoft follows US Section 508 and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines when building our products and services to help ensure we’ve incorporated digital accessibility into all our designs. Even today, city governments can be locked into paper-based processes that require citizens to spend long hours waiting in lines at government offices, posing significant challenges for citizens with visual or mobility impairments if they need to get something done.

Let me tell you about some of the ways accessibility in Office 365 can help city governments empower employees and engage citizens. As I mentioned before, we use an inclusive design process when building capabilities for Office 365, and we continuously validate and refine those designs through conformance and usability testing. Inclusive design has led us to build in capabilities such as Immersive Reader in Office 365 desktop apps like Word and OneNote so people can control things like color contrast, font size, and text spacing, personalizing their reading experiences to their specific needs. We’ve even built in the capability to have documents be read aloud, with the user controlling the speed. That means employees with print disabilities such as dyslexia can listen to complex government documents instead of struggling to read paper versions. And citizens can have the same experience with online forms and other government documents as these capabilities are also in Word Online and OneNote Online.

Consider how governments reach citizens. Today they may have a press conference and depend on the media to report the story. With Skype Meeting Broadcast, leaders can hold virtual town hall meetings to reach citizens directly. With intelligent services coming soon, it will become possible to automatically transcribe and translate these meetings, so citizens who are hard-of-hearing or whose first language is not English can more easily be included. Government officers and citizens can also use Skype for Windows 10 which has speech and instant message translation capabilities built in to converse across language barriers. Imagine how powerful that is for government leaders to speak directly to citizens who they cannot reach today because they speak a different language. It’s all about connecting people and turning a city into a community.

And we’ve all heard about big data, about how enlightening it can be, but how difficult to unlock. At Microsoft, we believe nobody should be locked out of data. City workers and citizens shouldn’t need special data analysis training to understand what’s happening across their communities. They need to see data in real time, to help take care of problems right away. That’s why the Microsoft Government Cloud platform uses Power BI Pro to deliver new, compliant capabilities and greater productivity for federal, state, and local government customers. With Power BI, cities can share data in easily consumable visual formats. Bismart, a big data company that’s a Microsoft CityNext partner, uses solutions like Azure Machine Learning and Power BI to help public and private organizations transform data into actionable insights to help improve decision making and program development. It created a Smart Social Aggregated Data solution that enables cities to do things like track the well-being of elderly citizens, who are particularly vulnerable and in need of assistance but often underserved by traditional programs. With Bismart’s solution, governments could foresee social needs and correctly allocate resources based on real data.

This era of digital transformation is helping governments of every size reach out to empower citizens. Microsoft is committed to helping digitally transform city governments to become more innovative and responsive to citizens’ needs and to give citizens an accessible platform for reaching out to local agencies to share information and solve community issues. I hope you’re able to join us at the Smart Cities NYC’17 event, but if you can’t, check out our event page for updates on all things SCNYC.