Three years ago David Roberts glimpsed the future of leaner, more efficient local government, and saw it in the clouds.
The Vancouver entrepreneur and financier saw an opportunity for the bread and butter of local governments - permits, planning, enforcement, inspections and licences and the chores of citizenry - to be automated with less hassle and cost on either side.
At the time, Mr. Roberts owned Municipal Software, a Victoria, B.C., company that sells IT services and software to municipal governments the traditional way - by issuing a licence, installing it and training people on-site.
But cloud computing had caught his imagination, and Mr. Roberts realized that this method of selling software was too expensive and cumbersome for many small towns and cities.
"We decided to sell off the old business to focus on a new way of doing things," said Mr. Roberts, president and CEO of the spinoff business, BasicGov Systems Inc. "It's made us a lot more efficient as a supplier, and has worked really well for the customer."
BasicGov sells software as a service (SaaS) and manages the business of running a community by writing software that resides on the Internet. Today 33 communities - 31 in the United States and two in Canada, Dryden, Ont., and Red Deer, Alta. - have signed on.
Governments lease access to the servers and software - up to five modules covering permits, planning, enforcement, inspections and licences, and a public portal. One user with one module pays $119 per month. Bulk pricing is available for larger clients.
Cloud computing is the future, and everyone from Apple to Google to Microsoft is betting that mainframe servers and physical software will eventually become a thing of the past.
The cloud is the Internet and users can access software that is stored on remote servers around the world on demand. Gmail is a common form of cloud computing.
As it requires no capital investment, setup or in-house expertise, it's a smart solution for companies looking to cut costs. BasicGov trains employees remotely and automatically pushes out updates.
"Software to run a city is not like you or I buying a copy of Microsoft Office," Mr. Roberts says. "The cost would typically be a half-million to a million dollars up front. It works okay if you're a fairly large city with a big population, a lot of expertise in-house and a significant budget. But we found a lot of smaller cities that couldn't afford that kind of payment up front."
To ensure a reliable platform, BasicGov partnered with Salesforce.com's cloud computing platform, Force.com, which is regarded as the SaaS industry standard in cloud customer-relationship management products supporting about 77,000 organizations. It also allows BasicGov to easily take on much larger clients. The partnership promises top-notch security.
"It comes up in almost every initial discussion," vice-president Michael Togyi says. "People are worried, but once we explain the technology that's in place, they realize it's often better than what they would have done themselves. We have armed guards, underground power supplies. Our data centres are more rock solid than some national security agencies in the U.S."
Mr. Roberts says: "If you're concerned about a hurricane, you don't have to worry about securing your data. What you need to run your city is in multiple copies in geographically isolated data centres throughout North America. Backup and security is handled better in the cloud.
"If your town hall ceased to exist, all you'd need to get up and running was a laptop and a cellphone connection."
Nate Greenberg, geographic information systems co-ordinator with Mono County and the Town of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., signed on in June, 2009, after making a half-million-dollar investment in traditional software that wasn't meeting their needs. Their 23-member team uses all the modules, including the citizen portal.
"[We]have long been supporters of technology as a means to improve our workflows and efficiency, all in the name of providing better customer service," Mr. Greenberg wrote in an e-mail. "The primary mission of the IT department is to research and define systems that facilitate other departments' jobs. … Prior to this system [and others]staff had to go to several different places or systems to find the information they needed to process a permit. Now that all this data is in one place … we allow citizens to get much closer to the way local government is meant to work - providing them with services and a much faster turnaround."
Cloud computing offers the benefit of giving BasicGov data from many places, something that will allow the company to eventually offer benchmarking services.
Funded by venture capital in Vancouver, Mr. Roberts expects to add more employees to the 10-person company this year.
Though it initially targeted smaller communities, larger cities are expressing interest.
Mr. Togyi says the company has benefited from the aggressive technology agenda of U.S. President Barack Obama, whose government is a strong supporter of cloud computing at the state level. But he says many of BasicGov's clients are in Republican jurisdictions where "they're keen on less government and more efficiency."
"There really seems to be bipartisan push on the cloud right now," Mr. Togyi says. "We're lucky we made the decision to do this three years ago. We feel like we're in the right place at the right time."
After sowing the business in patches of the United States - there's heavy use in Pennsylvania and California - Mr. Roberts plans to focus on Canada, capitalizing on a strong dollar and a market he sees warming to cloud computing.
As everyone looks for ways to cut costs and raise efficiency, and as cloud computing becomes more mainstream, BasicGov may be in the centre of a perfect storm cloud.
"In smaller cities, pressure eventually comes from citizens to do the right thing, and in larger cities it's almost a necessity to become very efficient," Mr. Roberts says. "The alternatives aren't that great. You'd be amazed how many places run on spreadsheets, or on paper. Or on some standalone software solutions that were written in the early 1990s. We see a lot of places that just can't keep up."