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NZ Department of Conservation a government cloud leader

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation uses cloud computing to engage with remote staff, and to save scarce resources for its core mission.

Among a host of criticisms of the New Zealand Government's risk-averse approach to cloud computing, a Productivity Commission report last week made positive mention of two government cloud users.

The Ministry of Primary Industries, it said, was a strong user of hosted Infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), while the Department of Conservation (DoC) had "integrated cloud based services into its operations."

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Barry Polley, Business ICT strategist at New Zealand Department of Conservation

The overall aim of DoC's technology program is to enable more conservation work to get done. In that cause, the department developed what DoC business ICT strategist Barry Polley calls a "concept piece", a vision of how technology could be used to support rangers spread across the country.

That vision focuses on mobility, shared innovation, the linking of DoC communities inside and outside the department, and personalised access to corporate applications.

Polley said that while it does not mention the word "cloud", it's easy to see where cloud fits in.

With DoC's extremely mobile and widely dispersed workforce, public cloud is being used when it is appropriate to the type of data being accessed, Polley says. Rangers have to carry their kit in a bag and may be working in remote and inaccesible rural areas for days, so access has to be reliable and resilient.

DoC, however, may have one advantage over some other government departments in shifting to the cloud — much of its data is not personal or private.

"We're not dealing with data that would compromise national security or privacy, but we do have to go through due diligence when we are dealing with private information."

Polley, who initially cottoned on to the opportunities of cloud computing at Google Apps user New Zealand Post, said by the time he arrived at DoC in early 2012, the department had already commenced its own cloud journey.

Current guidance from the New Zealand Government CIO has promoted the potential use of cloud by outlining the types of questions departments need to ask of their potential cloud providers, he says.

"Most of the questions are not even cloud questions. They are good ICT management and procurement questions."

DoC is using Amazon Web Services (AWS) to deliver a range of very specific services. For instance, the department uses a lot of volunteers and one region developed a system to manage them. This is now running on AWS, and planning is underway to extend usage of the system to other regions.

Another system on AWS is shared information on seed counts. The New Zealand rat population explodes after high numbers of seeds are produced during good summer weather. Seed numbers, therefore, can be a guide for DoC in its battle to fight rodents and protect native birds.

Polley said the next development on this system will likely be a user-friendly web front-end to allow public access and to enable broader collaboration with interested people.

DoC also hosts a large number of sound files on AWS, effectively crowdsourcing the identification of bird songs. These files require significant storage but very little compute power, until DoC adds a machine learning layer on top.

That's the plan, and AWS will be able to deliver computing power for that project affordably for the very limited amount of time it may be needed, Polley says.

But services such as AWS are not suitable for every government workload, Polley says. DoC is also using cloud "common capabilities" developed by the government CIO for functions such as enterprise content management, and hosted by government cloud panel member Revera, now owned by Telecom New Zealand.

DoC has to share more and more of its data with the public, and also with other bodies such as regional councils. But building infrastructure to facilitate that would be wasteful.

“We don’t have the budget to do that [build in-house IT infrastructure] and even if we did it should be spent on things like habitat protection,” Polley says. “That’s what the agency is about, not building badass IT infrastructure.”

Polley says for government agencies there is a lot to consider, not just about ensuring the security of private information, but also compliance with legislation such as the Public Records Act which requires information to be handled through its lifecycle.

"Government departments can't be casual about it," he says. "We need to ensure we can get data out and transfer it to Archives New Zealand."

And cloud providers can deliver more sophisticated and resilient infrastructure than DoC could or should provide for itself, Polley says.

A lot of the government cloud guidance is about managing cloud risks.

"The risks are important, but you have to compare against the risks of the current state," he says.

At its back-end, DoC is an SAP user. The department recently added SAP's mobile asset management tool, Work Manager, to its stack, helping around 350 rangers and 25 inspectors to manage up to 100,000 works orders a year.

Work Manager is not a cloud application. It captures data whether wireless coverage is available or not and then transfers it to the back-end system.

The department plans to extend use of Work Manager but also says it will look at the potential benefits of SAP's cloud applications.