Cloud computing during a catastrophe

DisasterIt often amuses people when they learn I was once a Risk Manager at a County Council. I have no idea why.

One of my roles at the time was to look after business continuity arrangements – in other words, what the organisation did when something terrible happened.

I was well into internet stuff at the time, and I was amused today when I by chance came across a blog post I wrote (in August 2007!) on the Communities of Practice on how a cloud based system like Google Apps could be used in an emergency by a local authority when corporate systems were unavailable.

Obviously Google has fixed a few of the issues I mention – Sites provides wiki functionality and a better way of doing websites than the old web page creator. They still haven’t integrated Blogger yet, though. Also iGoogle seems to have been dropped from the Google Apps inventory.

With G-cloud being a little way off, does anyone have any examples of public sector organisation using the cloud as a contingency digital comms setup? Would be good to hear about it.

Here’s the post:

Google Apps for Your Domain (or Google Apps for short) is a set of Google services which can be set up at a web address of your own choosing. You get fully customisable versions of:

  • Gmail (a web based email system)
  • Calendar (a web based group calendaring system)
  • Docs & Spreadsheets (web based word processor and spreadsheet applications)
  • Talk – instant messaging and voice over IP
  • iGoogle – personalisable web portal
  • Web page creator – does what it says on the tin

It’s free for the first 200 accounts and effectively provides you with a cost free, enterprise level groupware solution.

There are countless situations where Google Apps could be used within the local government context. But one opportunity where it could make a real difference would be within business continuity arrangements. Here are some examples of how it could benefit an organisation undergoing a crisis:

Safe Web Pages

The Shire Hall is burning down, and the web server has melted. How to get the required message out to web visitors? Use the web domain you get with the Google Apps account as a backup webspace, a simple site with emergency details already up which can be activated when required. Because it’s held on Google’s servers, the information is safe from the disaster. You should be able to get your .gov.uk web address forwarding to this one in no time, so visitors wouldn’t be inconvenienced.

The system used to generate the web pages is overly simple and you can’t do too many exciting things with them. But for getting a message across in an emergency, they do the job.

Communications on the move

So, if the web server is dead, chances are the email server will be too. Communications in an emergency can be a very tricky business and having as many possible routes as possible for different groups to talk to each other is vital. Email without doubt has a role to play and some Councils already have web based accounts created, with services like Hotmail, in readiness for such a crisis. These accounts can be accessed from any computer with a web connection, which makes it much more viable as a communications medium.

However, Google Apps provides email addresses @yourdomain.com which has obvious benefits in terms of presentation – it looks a lot more professional if you are contacting external organisations. But the real advantages lie in the power of the Gmail interface that you get. For a start, there are 2 gigabytes of storage space for each account – meaning that no emails have to be deleted for space saving purposes. Secondly, the email can be accessed using any mobile device, whether by downloading the client from Google or just by accessing it through your phone or PDA’s web browser.

Key Documents Always Available

Google’s Docs and Spreadsheets service provides a simple word processor and spreadsheet which run within the web browser. You therefore don’t need any other software installed on your machine and as the documents are stored online, you know you are getting access to the latest versions. It also makes it a lot easier to collaborate on documents, for example a spreadsheet giving status updates.

Another use for this service would be to have copies of key documents saved online in this shared space. Such documents could include procedures for vital tasks to be completed in an emergency, staff lists, property plans, contact details, contract records etc.

Instant Status Updates

Google Talk, the instant messaging client, is built into the email interface and provides another method of communication which could well be useful in an emergency for those times when email just isn’t quick enough. Messages appear instantly on the recipients screen. Would be most beneficial as a way of providing status updates to a central coordinator, for example.

Organising Time

The Calendar is an extremely powerful one, again web based making it accessible to anyone with the required privileges. With this system, however, calendars can be shared, merged and certain appointments made publicly available to anyone, should you wish to. In the time following an emergency this could become especially powerful.

Bringing it All Together

iGoogle is the personalised portal, which allows you to display various types of information on one page. This includes summaries of your email, calendar, docs and spreadsheets and talk. You can also add ‘widgets’ which contain updates on RSS feeds and other tools like to do lists and sticky notes.

What’s Missing?

There are two glaring omissions from the Google Apps toolkit. Firstly, and most importantly, there is no wiki function available. The use that a wiki could be put to in an emergency situation is considerable. The collaborative word processing functionality of Docs could be used in this context, but it wouldn’t have the immediacy and ease of access of a wiki. This is hopefully going to be put right soon, as Google bought JotSpot, an enterprise level wiki solution, some time ago and this will hopefully make its way into Apps once it has been Googlified.

Secondly, there is no integrated blog. This would be a pretty easy one for Google to achieve, given that it already runs Blogger, probably the most popular blogging platform there is. I actually have quite a strong personal dislike of Blogger, finding it slow, lacking in features and somewhat unreliable. But at least it would provide a means of providing regular updates without having to edit web pages manually with Page Creator.

Conclusion

These downsides apart, Google Apps provides a pretty good coverage of the tools you might need to manage and communicate in a crisis. And given the miniscule costs – just the price of a domain per year – it might not be worth not doing.

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Dave Briggs

I'm an experienced senior manager in digital and ICT, looking for interim engagements to modernise technology teams to help organisations transform.

7 thoughts on “Cloud computing during a catastrophe”

  1. Dave
    we effectively provide a “Cloud” solution to local authorities, i.e. we provide our own software apps for Finance, Payroll, Housing Repairs and Mobile, along with leading 3rd party apps for Revs & Bens, Housing Management and CRM from a secure BT Data Centre and accessed securely over the Internet. These are obviously available 24/7*365. One of the customers using this once had their internal networks go down completely and were able to send key staff home to access the systems and work away as normal. It also facilitated another local authority customer to outsource Revs & Bens processing to a neighbouring authority – bottom up shared services.

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