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Cloud collaboration boosts Cumbria County Council's disaster response abilities

How Cumbria County Council tackled the unsanctioned use of cloud services within its organisation and improved the robustness of its disaster response in face of December 2015's Storm Desmond

The unsanctioned use of cloud services by employees is a common problem within many organisations, and one that Cumbria County Council found itself facing up to in early 2014.

The use of consumer-grade cloud file-sharing services was pervasive within the council at this time, as employees sought ways to side-step file size restrictions of their email accounts to pass on documents to colleagues and external stakeholders.

In light of the sensitive nature of some of the information being shared, the council knew it had to act, but issuing a blanket ban on using these services was out of the question. At least, says Kevin Maxwell, service support manager at Cumbria County Council, until a suitable and appropriate alternative could be procured.

“We were aware of the need to deprive people of being able to access certain cloud services using the internal network, but we knew if we just did that without offering an alternative it would have created resentment atmosphere and people would have found ways round it,” he says.

Give and take

After assessing a range of enterprise-ready products and services, the council’s ICT department opted for Objective Connect’s public sector-focused cloud-based collaboration system for regulatory compliance and ease of use reasons.

“We’re a UK-based public body, so we have to conform to PSN requirements and other governmental security legislation, and we were specifically looking for a solution that was hosted at least in the EU, if not in the UK itself,” he says.

“Some of the file-sharing solutions people were finding for themselves were hosted all over the world with no guarantee about the security measures in place to protect our data.”

Any file-sharing platform the council decided to use would need to let employees share documents with external third-parties without them requiring an account, he adds.

“Quite often there is only one contact with that external party, so you don’t want to go through the overhead of setting people up with accounts on the network for a one-time thing, and Objective Connect allowed us to do that,” Maxwell says.

For example, Maxwell cites the requests the council’s archiving department regularly receives from members of the public conducting genealogical research.

“That might require passing on large, scanned TIFF images and copies of birth certificates, for example, which do not always fit in the limits of a standard email system,” he says.

“Some of that service is paid for by the individual and, while the information being shared isn’t necessarily sensitive, we felt a duty of care in sending them information they have paid to receive in a safe and secure manner.”

The council’s legal department has also emerged as a keen user of Objective Connect, with the service allowing team members to share important documents, often at short notice, for use in court cases. 

“Our legal services team will often get requests at the 11th hour to share sensitive and important case material with a barrister who might be going to court that afternoon. So it is essential for them to set up access for external participants so material can be passed to them very quickly.”

Storm clouds gather

The importance of being able to share huge files containing critical information with external parties was reinforced in December 2015 when an extratropical cyclone, dubbed Storm Desmond, hit Cumbria, leaving a trail of destruction.

In 24 hours, 341.4mm of rain fell on Cumbria, flooding around 6,500 homes and leaving 45,000 without power. Key roads and bridges within the region were also severely damaged, prompting the local police to classify the freak weather event as a “major incident”.

The strength and security of around 600 roads, bridges and other pieces of key infrastructure within the area needed to be assessed afterwards to work out how best to repair and restore them.

David Sheard is programme manager for Cumbria County Council’s economy and highways team, responsible for overseeing this on-going process, which involves compiling huge reports to detail the damage inflicted.

“We were shipping reports on individual assets in bundles of a hundred at a time, and most of those files were 20MB to 30MB apiece, with photos in them as well. It quickly became a huge beast of data we were moving around,” says Sheard.

Once an assessment report for a specific asset was created, a “Solution Scope” would need to be prepared. This was to establish how best to repair the asset and the cost, requiring input from external contractors and civil engineers.

“What’s good about Objective Connect is we can see who has accessed what resources and when, because you get updates when the other party has looked at a file, so you could check in with its progress,” he adds.

“We’ve had the assessment of those assets done now, and we’re passing that information onto design so they can come up with solutions, and that requires Objective Connect too.”

Meanwhile, the list of assets his team needs to keep a watchful eye on continues to grow, as a result of subsequent weather events causing fresh damage.

“We’ve had to go back and re-survey some of the bridges because of high water levels and flow rates causing further problems,” he says.

“We’re also in the throes of planning 25 other critical projects, which involves around £5m to £6m of resurfacing work we need to get up and running on the higher-level roads before the temperature starts dropping as we move into autumn, because the work becomes more challenging then.”

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Assessing the options

Maxwell says setting up a Sharepoint site for Sheard and his team would have been problematic in this instance, because of the platform’s 50MB file sharing limits and the fact the council’s IT department was thrown in to chaos as a result of Storm Desmond too.

“David and his colleagues would have needed IT to set up a Sharepoint site for them, but the IT department had its own challenges to deal with,” says Maxwell.

“Some of our staff were personally affected by the storm, and were not able to work because their homes had been flooded.

“Equally, we were very widely stretched as we were supporting staff around the county who couldn’t access laptops that were in flooded buildings and we lost a lot of our communications links too,” he adds.

Onwards and upwards

While Objective Connect has proved a sound investment, Maxwell admits the council has taken a tentative approach to adopting cloud technologies, because of concerns about the maturity and reliability of off-premise technologies.

“Objective Connect is one of the first cloud services we have adopted and the direction of travel is that we will start to go to the cloud more and more as time goes on,” he says.

“It is early days because of the debt of investment we’ve had in on-premise solutions and we’ve held back as long as we’ve felt able to do and until we’ve felt the cloud market is mature enough.”

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