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AWS courts local councils across UK and Ireland with three-month free cloud services trial offer

Amazon Web Services is seeking expressions of interest from local authorities across the UK, Ireland and Spain to take part in a three-month cloud trial programme

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is seeking to accelerate the pace of cloud adoption by local authorities across the UK, Ireland and Spain by offering them a three-month free trial of its infrastructure and software services.

Participating councils will be offered access to a bundle of the cloud giant’s services, which will be delivered directly by the AWS Government Transformation Team in collaboration with the company’s partners.

“The AWS Government Transformation Team will offer advice to support a local council’s wider digital aspirations, while consulting partners run discovery and solution workshops in support of the council’s transformation goals,” said AWS in a statement.

“AWS and its partners will build and trial proofs of concept that demonstrate the benefits of digital transformation. These pilot projects aim to promote innovation without risk or additional expense and enable a streamlined delivery of community services.”

One such pilot has involved Swindon Borough Council, with AWS and its partners providing the local authority with a better and more efficient way for residents to report incidents of illegal fly-tipping, resulting in a reduction in average clean-up times from 10 days to four.

The council had a four-strong, in-house, DevOps-focused emerging technologies team that worked with AWS and two of its partners to revamp the online reporting procedures that residents previously had to follow to log reports of fly-tipped rubbish.

Previously, residents had to log in to the council website and fill in an unstructured form to provide details of the type of rubbish that had been dumped, and a description of where it had been dumped.

These reports were then printed out and handed to the council’s clean-up teams, which were responding to an average of about 300 incidents of this nature a month.

The revamped system did away with the requirement for residents to log in to the website, and now features a map-based reporting tool so that users can provide a more accurate description of where waste has been dumped.

They can also upload photos of the waste for analysis by artificial intelligence tools, which can use the images to allocate the right kind of collection vehicle to go and clear the rubbish, so the council can prioritise its resources.

The clean-up teams are also equipped with tablet PCs so they can report incidents of fly-tipping themselves while out on the road, and use the devices to plan their routes more efficiently, reducing their mileage and lowering the risk of overloading their vehicles.

Not only has this cut the amount of time it takes for the council to respond to fly-tipping reports, but the authority claims this setup is saving it £3,000 a year in fuel costs.

The system has been designed to be modular, so it can be modified easily and repurposed for other use cases, with the council already reportedly using it to roll out a system for citizens to report abandoned shopping trolleys.

Sarah Talbot, emerging technologies lead at Swindon Council, said the authority is not only committed to finding new use cases for this technology, but is also sharing details of what it is doing with other local government organisations, so they too can reap the benefits.

The council intends to do this by leaning into the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities-backed Local Digital Declaration programme, said Talbot. 

“All councils, regardless of whether they are in the UK or further afield, have the same issues – we all have to deal with graffiti, fly-tipping, potholes, and with decreasing budgets,” she added.

“Sharing work, particularly work that can be deployed quickly at low cost, means we can tangibly help each other. That is something my team and Swindon are passionate about. It’s powerful and it’s important.”

Speaking to Computer Weekly about the launch of the programme, Max Peterson, vice-president of AWS’s worldwide public sector unit, said the programme is geared towards “amplifying” the existing learning and technology resources the company has available to local authority IT buyers.

“The programme is really just another step down that path towards helping educate people on how to use modern IT cloud services to meet the everyday demands of citizens,” he said.

“We work backwards from the customer problem and start by developing a really deep understanding of the customer need and establish where the opportunity is to address a real business problem.

“It’s not an IT problem [AWS is trying to solve], but a real citizen need. And we’ve got a lot of experience doing this. We can bring a lot of examples of customers who have been able to achieve really dramatic results by focusing on citizen problems, and then by implementing rapid, cost-effective solutions.”

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In the same way that Swindon Council hopes to share what it has learned from its involvement in the programme with other local authorities, Peterson said the initiative’s contents and inner workings have been informed by its own past experience of working with local councils in the UK.

“We’ve taken the learnings from these various engagements in Hackney or engagements over in Belfast City Council, and we’ve tried to package it so it’s a prescribed approach that we can do at scale,” he said.

AWS will be seeking expressions of interest from councils looking to take part in the three-month programme, and there will be no contractual obligation on them to continue working with the firm once the trial period is over, said Peterson.

He pointed out that the Swindon Council fly-tipping project has saved the local authority more than £27,000 a year, but it costs them only just under £150 a month to run it on Amazon. It is savings like this that are likely to compel organisations to stick with AWS beyond the three-month trial period, he said.

“Classically, councils haven’t had the same IT resource or expertise that you get in larger government organisations and ministries, and a little bit of a problem [with cloud adoption at this level] is just where to start,” said Peterson.  

“The programme is aimed at lending a hand to councils on where to start with a really concrete and specific time-bound project that’s delivered at no cost. There isn’t an obligation to do anything beyond the proof of concept, but we believe that when customers see this, and experience it, they’re going to want to figure out how to leverage it.”

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Rob Stoneman, service director for UK public sector at IT market watcher GlobalData, said the offer AWS is bringing to local councils may go some way to accelerating the pick-up in adoption of its technology by local authorities.

To back up this point, he said his firm’s data shows that four years go, AWS had “very little direct spend” with councils, with the firm banking just £33,844 during the 2017-18 financial year, but that has since risen to £891,471 in 2020-21.

More than half of this spend has come from Peterborough and Bristol City Councils, as well as the West Midlands Combined Authority and the London Borough of Waltham Forest, said Stoneman.

Much of the spend on cloud at local government level has been prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic, he added, with Waltham Forest being an example of a council that has benefited from a similar offer that AWS is bringing to market now.

“Waltham Forest was able to spin up a contact centre solution in about a week using AWS’s Amazon Connect cloud call centre platform,” said Stoneman. “One of the things that helped was the flexibility on AWS’s end, for instance offering free credits for the first couple of months, so the council could get the service spun up as soon as possible.”

Offerings like the one AWS is rolling out are likely to appeal to “cash-strapped local authorities”, he said, but the firm’s biggest challenge will be overcoming the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude that pervades local government.

“To side-step this, anyone selling the benefits of greater public cloud adoption will need to also focus on how it ultimately improves services for citizens,” said Stoneman. “If it can do both, then even better.

“However, while public cloud acceptance is becoming more common, most councils are in reality exploring some form of hybrid cloud in the near to medium term. This is a practical answer to concerns over data sovereignty, lack of internal skills and the issue of lots of legacy applications across the various service lines.”

He added: “The benefit of this is that it enables councils to go at their own pace and focus on ‘low-hanging fruit’, something that builds confidence and can lead to greater cloud adoption down the line.”

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