How Orlando stopped worrying, learned to love the cloud and became a smart city

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles June 20, 2017
The City of Orlando, Fla.  was an early adopter of cloud-based government solutions. It’s still leading the way.

orlando - via city
City of Orlando

Orlando is one of the busiest cities in America. As the destination hub for Disney World, the city’s airport greeted 113 million visitors in 2016.  Perhaps, just as importantly, Orlando has become a high-tech business center and is an emerging smart city.

The life sciences industry alone employs nearly 100,000 people. Companies like Siemens and Oracle have major operations in the city and Deloitte has created a new, fast-growing software development operation.  In short, Orlando is a much bigger city than its 270,000 population figure might suggest.

Little surprise, then, that Orlando was one of the first cities to recognize that all roads would eventually lead to the cloud. In 2009, a time when most governments were just beginning to consider Software as a Service as a possibility, Orlando moved its email system to Google App, a transition that took two months and greatly improved security and built a strong foundation for future cloud transitions. CIO Rosa Akhtarkhavari says the smooth email migration generated immediate value and acceptance from the leadership and staff and smoothed the way for future implementations of advanced cloud-based solutions.

From the Google Cloud to the Microsoft Cloud

As the initial seven-year contract with Google for cloud-based email neared its end, Orlando issued another RFP and assembled a large and diverse committee made up of both technical and nontechnical personnel to select a vendor. Akhtarkhavari said the city wanted to include a large group of stakeholders to ensure that the needs of all 3,000 city employees--which include a significant contingent of public safety officials, including police officers and firefighters--were considered.

After a thorough review, the city decided to switch its e-mail and calendaring system from Google to Microsoft Live 365.   In an interview with Government Technology, Akhtarkhavari explained that the city was happy with Google but a few subtle factors tipped the scales to Microsoft.  These included:

  • Microsoft’s commitment to pursue FBI Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) compliance;
  • Office 365’s integrated security solution;
  • Improved integration with existing Microsoft products and staff capabilities;
  • Standardization around Microsoft’s .NET framework

Cloud first

Orlando’s commitment to cloud-based computing goes well beyond email. In 2012, the city adopted a “Cloud First when applicable” strategy and began planning its next major cloud transformation—a replacement ERP system for an outdated JD Edwards system implemented during the Y2K panic.  In 2013, the city government signed a fixed cost contract with Workday to move its Human Resources, Payroll, and full financial suite. Said Akhtarkhavari:

We reached the stage where some of our legacy systems were bound to fail, which would mean major costs to the city. In other cases, we simply weren’t able to keep the existing systems going.

In May 2014, the City’s 3,000 workers and 2,000 pensioners began using cloud-based Workday Financial Management and Human Capital Management for budget preparation, payroll, health benefits and other functions. Workday mobile allows the city’s managers to approve transactions and maintain accountability even when they are on the road and employees no longer have to visit the payroll office to complete forms for changes such as direct deposit or tax withholding

Akhtarkhavari has recently been overseeing the launch of a new joint police and fire computer aided dispatch (CAD) system in support of the Orlando Police Department's "intelligence led policing" initiative, which aims to use city-owned and other publicly available data from other places, including the Internet of Things, to build analytics and conduct predictive analysis to help the city prepare and serve the citizens more effectively.

The city is working with ALEN, a law enforcement service and software provider that is 100 percent cloud based, for a single solution to replace two old systems used by fire and police, enabling access to shared data.  Not surprisingly ALEN is a Microsoft Azure Government Managed Service Provider.  Akhtarkhavari said.

Having a single CAD system for both agencies will improve joint response logistics and enable dispatching across organizations. The main objective of the project is to optimize public safety response, but it also serves to assist with planning and prevention, as the city begins using CAD data in the realm of predictive crime fighting and fire safety analysis.   In addition, police and fire leaders will have real-time oversight and public safety operations monitoring capabilities

The “Intelligence Led Policing” initiative will equip city employees on the front lines--law enforcement officers and emergency responders--with body cameras backed up by video surveillance footage, all of which is connected to a central command station.

Thanks to edge analytics partnerships, including a robust communications infrastructure and engaged social media platforms, Akhtarkhavari noted, city responders will be able to receive immediate information to help them make decisions fast. Benefits will also apply to emergencies and disasters situations, in addition to more routine items like optimizing routing and making fire permitting and inspections appointments.

There is plenty more to come. Orlando is one of five U.S. cities that won 2017 Smart Cities Council Challenge Grants.  Its IT goals support the building of smart, connected infrastructure as a stepping stone to a more sustainable future.  In January,  Mayor Buddy Dyer outlined the following ambitious agenda:

We want to become the world's most intelligent, interconnected and efficient city. We want to become a showcase city for smart city technology.

 My take

Cities must constantly balance the responsibility of providing efficient services to residents in the present while planning for an unpredictable future. Orlando’s willingness to chart a new direction in 2009 means the city is well ahead of most cities in its IT transformation efforts.

So far, the city has replaced legacy applications with optimized solutions, invested in wireless infrastructure, re-engineered business processes and built relationships between departments to empower agile planning and data-informed responses.

With the growth of cloud computing; new developments in machine learning; the Internet of Things; and the widespread use of smartphone apps and mobile devices” on its radar, Orlando looked poised to lead the way into next generation applications that add value to the public services it delivers.

A grey colored placeholder image