Technologies that benefit consumers and businesses are making their way into the halls of government.

Projects such as CityNext and Code for America are working with governments at multiple levels to help them use mobile and cloud technologies to better serve their constituencies.

Software solutions provider AvePoint has partnered with Microsoft on the CityNext project, which is bringing governments “the ability to publish information to a citizen community by leveraging cloud resources,” according to Chris Foreman, CEO of AvePoint Public Sector, a subsidiary of AvePoint.

Some examples of this are updates on public transportation and emergency situations, or viewing an outstanding parking ticket when applying for a license.

Cities already have a lot of mechanisms for delivering this information, but Foreman said that CityNext would modernize the process by tying all separate technologies together. This would be done by migrating the government’s role of citizen notification to the cloud.

Foreman said that hybrid clouds would be employed: a cloud for publication, and one for non-publication. “Departments could publish open government data to the general public, while critical information governments would be uncomfortable putting into a public cloud would be put into a cloud for nonproduction.” This can be replicated in multiple cities and government agencies using what he referred to as the “delete and repeat” model: City-specific information would be erased while keeping the general framework of the program the same so deployment could be repeated across departments or cities.

Success could be replicated to other areas quickly, and upgrades to the program could be done more easily. For the production cloud to be accessible by all citizens, the information would be extended to a mobile app. Foreman wants this app to contain analytics and a timeline, as well as interactions with citizens via forums accessible from the app, both in day-to-day and emergency situations. Again, the structure of the app would be transparent, customized to a specific city deployment. For emergency services, the idea is that “entities that need access to the same information can access a public cloud where users can share information,” he said.

The initiative, while spanning a great expanse of people, is doable because of the cloud, but the bigger problem CityNext faces is convincing cities to adopt the new program. But Foreman is not worried, due to the customizable options within the cloud. “Departments can use the same template but customize it to their wants or needs.” There is also the question of costs associated with implementing a citywide app, but Foreman assured that AvePoint already has resources around the world to produce it. It is also supposed to be inexpensive to deploy apps.
‘Peace Corps for geeks’
Beyond the obvious uses in emergency situations, the national not-for-profit organization Code for America wants to leverage technology to make everyday life in cities run more smoothly. Abhi Nemani, its co-executive director, described what he calls its “Peace Corps for geeks,” a way to “connect technologists and designers with their government to solve important problems and reimagine how government could work.”

The connection is made through a competitive open application process where volunteers are chosen for the fellowship. Some of the locations for the 2013 fellowship are Las Vegas; Louisville, Ky.; New York; Oakland, Calif.; and San Francisco. The volunteers are relocated to their designated city and given a stipend for living expenses for the duration of the fellowship, where they work with municipal leaders to alleviate problems associated with everyday issues for city staff and citizens, such as the online availability of forms for permits and licenses, or the posting of health department findings at restaurants. Nemani said the process is straightforward: “A problem in the city is identified, and using technologies from the Web to solve that problem, they build a solution.”

“Governments are encouraged to use technology in a way they haven’t before to connect with citizens,” said Nemani. On one end, fellows and workers create web apps to improve city services, and on the other, citizens utilize these apps to make their everyday life easier. He added that the cloud is such an ideal tool to use for this program because “Each city is its own silo. The cloud breaks down these silos.” Essentially, cities are organized separately but have common problems.

The lack of familiarity with the cloud in city governments, however, is an obstacle that must be overcome throughout the duration of the program. There are also the issues around sensitive and private data that need to be organized into a private cloud. Volunteers are instructed about these issues by their city’s staff. Therefore, not only are the fellows benefitting from the hands-on experience, but also according to Nemani, “city staff receive an opportunity to be trained directly how to use modern technology, and the government can connect with the local developer community.”

To make the fellowship possible, a local foundation in the participating city, as well as national philanthropists, partner to cover the costs of the program. Code for America also has national sponsors such as Bluehost, Esri, Google and the O’Reilly Foundation.

To convince cities and departments to participate in the fellowship program, Nemani stressed that it can “re-imagine the way cities work,” and that “change and reform are possible.” Previous fellowships are a leverage point for future partners, which may set a precedent to increase future recruitment.

“Cities have the talent but they don’t have the space or the freedom to experiment,” said Nemani. “The fellowship allows them to do that. Our strategy is to show it’s possible.”