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How Cloud Enables Better Government Services

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, “5 Cloud Trends to Watch in Government.” Download the full guide here.

Government agencies at all levels are finding new ways to serve constituents using cloud-based technologies. Whether it’s better approaches to sharing data, as NIH is doing; making people safer through social services; improving transportation; or protecting the environment, cloud is facilitating government services. These cloud-enabled services are often tied to emerging technologies that can automate previously manual tasks. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses AI for real-time tracking and reporting of poliovirus.

It’s important to note that citizens aren’t always the end user – sometimes employees are. After all, “hundreds of burdensome rules and requirements have built up over decades, forcing Federal agencies to devote valuable resources to compliance that is no longer meaningful. Time, energy, and dollars spent complying with outdated, redundant, and unnecessary requirements can be better spent on accomplishing mission outcomes,” according to the President’s Management Agenda.

See it in action at the federal level:

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has a computer-generated virtual assistant named Emma that can answer questions and direct people to information on USCIS’s website. Named after Emma Lazarus, who wrote the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, the tool answers questions in English and Spanish.

Emma is hosted in a secure cloud platform. The majority of Emma’s AI and machine learning reside in a conversation intelligence platform that acts as a data scientist and scales to analyze millions of unstructured data elements and conversations to identify trends, recognize and label new intents, enhance understanding and make recommendations for the USCIS employees who “train” her, wrote Marilu Cabrera, Public Affairs Officer at USCIS, in an email.

The tool also uses natural language understanding for comprehension and natural language generation to enable Emma to respond based on the context and what she understood.

“Immigration policy information can be complex. Emma helps USCIS applicants and stakeholders find the information they need quickly and easily,” Cabrera wrote. “Emma interacts with applicants and stakeholders in a similar way to how a human would — through conversation. Emma asks clarifying questions to help applicants and stakeholders drill down to the specific form or information they need.”

Launched at the end of 2015, Emma answers more than 450,000 questions a month.

See it in action at the state level:

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources teamed with the Arizona Division of Environmental Quality to create the Gateway for Community Assistance (GCA), a template of a scalable state agency portal that has shared web-based services and tools. Packaged as a one-stop shop for local communities on a state agency website, GCA addresses the states’ need to provide their communities with online access to tools and resources that address their environmental and infrastructure planning needs.

To use GCA, users create profiles tied to their interest areas, such as air quality or stormwater. Then, they can view relevant state, federal and nongovernmental environmental resources; see announcements about grant opportunities and upcoming events; and use the Assistance Wizard to get customized recommendations.

With the help of an Environmental Protection Agency Exchange Network E-Enterprise grant, the states built GCA using cloud.

“By using the cloud infrastructure, the team reduced computing cost by providing a single view of their Virtual Machines,” according to a document submitted to the National Association of State CIOs by Missouri CIO Richard Kliethermes. The Missouri Office of Administration’s Information Technology Services Division “created an application that can run reliably and one that can scale from 10 users to 10 million users, without any additional coding. This scalable infrastructure allows the application to use any number of processers.”

Through GCA, Missouri expects to save 100 to 350 hours per year of staff time that had been devoted to researching localities’ requests. That amounts to a savings of about $4,700 per year. Other states can access the GCA technology through EPA’s Information Exchange Network, a web-based system through which state, tribal and territorial partners can share environmental and health data

Next Steps:

  • Chances are you have the data already. Cloud and automation enable you to use it more wisely – and free up employees to put their time to more effective use.
  • Put together a business plan to illustrate return on investment, keeping in mind that ROI is not always about a dollar figure. Sometimes it’s about how much a service helps.
  • To determine the success of your service, establish metrics to analyze performance goals and channels for customer feedback. Ask “what metrics will best indicate how well the service is working for its users,” the Digital Services Playbook recommends.

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