New Zealand’s national census delivers valuable lessons about cloud services

Kevin Noonan, Research Director, Public Sector

Although there is general acceptance that cloud services are here to stay, a number of enterprises are still skeptical about whether cloud computing is really up to the job when it comes to delivering big and complicated government services. Against this backdrop, the New Zealand government’s successful national census provides valuable lessons about how to drive a large-scale cloud implementation, as we explain in our recent report Driving Government Innovation Through Cloud Services.

The national census has always been a big and complex undertaking

The national census is one of the oldest and most complicated peacetime activities that a country can undertake. The sheer logistics of the exercise has confounded many governments over the centuries, and even now it is just as complex. In many developed economies, the scope of each census has continued to expand as countries try to gain an even more accurate understanding of their populations. From an IT logistics perspective, it is a single shot that must work perfectly on the day. It takes years of careful and conservative planning to ensure nothing goes wrong.

In New Zealand in 2011, the unthinkable happened. A massive series of earthquakes destroyed much of the city of Christchurch while its census was already under way. However, the disaster opened up new opportunities. The cancellation and subsequent rescheduling of the 2011 Census gave Statistics New Zealand a valuable opportunity to rethink the process and be far more innovative in its approach. The result is not only an excellent example of recovery after disaster, but a story of productivity and innovation in a highly conservative sector of government.

Creating new opportunities after a national disaster

On February 22, 2011, a significant earthquake caused widespread damage in Christchurch, New Zealand, including to Statistics New Zealand’s Christchurch operations building. Without extensive and lengthy repairs it could no longer be occupied. After the earthquake, the New Zealand Government declared a national disaster, focusing its efforts on the preservation of life and property. Considering the scale of the disaster, there was little point in continuing with the census; any information would have been skewed by the massive dislocation of people impacted by the disaster, and by the assistance effort. The census was officially cancelled on February 25, 2011, at which point Statistics New Zealand set about closing most of its census-related contracts with suppliers.

In August 2011, the decision was made to rerun the census in March 2013. This enabled an orderly restart of the project and offered an opportunity to rethink some of the earlier planning assumptions. This included assessing the option to use a recently signed whole-of-government agreement for the provision of cloud-based IaaS.

The decision to go to an IaaS solution was not an easy one. Typically, the national census is a high-profile and conservative project based on years of planning. It was not until March 2012 that the decision was made to use IaaS, leaving only eight months of development time. A move to IaaS put Statistics New Zealand at the leading edge of government IT, but at this late stage it had only a short timeframe to implement its solution.

Cloud services deliver the goods

Statistics New Zealand was delighted with the outcome of the 2013 census, and lessons from this project are now being used to inform future IT projects. Using IaaS provided a much more robust solution, and Statistics New Zealand will look for further opportunities to increase its use.

IaaS offered significant advantages for the restarted project:

  • There was no need to purchase servers, network equipment, or other hardware, and there was no surplus hardware at the end of the project. Because whole-of-government pricing had already been negotiated, Statistics New Zealand was able to leverage better buying power.
  • Business continuity was included in the IaaS offering as a standard part of the deal. The cloud infrastructure also came as a standard, pretested configuration. The alternative would have required Statistics New Zealand to deal with the infrastructure risk in a time-constrained environment.
  • During the system testing phase, IaaS provided significant advantages by enabling quick acquisition of additional servers to handle anticipated load.

However, the initial move to IaaS required more management effort than was initially expected, particularly the task of documenting existing processes. The addition of an extra supplier created new governance and coordination issues. One of the existing suppliers, Datacom, stepped up as the system integrator for the new configuration. The importance of the integrator role had been initially underestimated; in future it will be given greater prominence.

With these lessons learned, IaaS will provide significant opportunities for Statistics New Zealand, but it cannot be the whole answer. An increased focus on business continuity will need to flow through the entire technology stack.

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