Budget woes force cities into the ‘cloud’

by Makoto Tai

Kyodo News

Growing numbers of local governments are turning to “cloud computing” to reduce administrative costs of such tasks as managing residential data, tax records and local finances.

Cloud computing, which involves mass-sharing of Internet-based software programs, is becoming attractive because it is much less expensive than perpetually buying and updating new computer systems with the latest software. Now a full-scale experiment is under way in local governments across the nation.

“As we have our regular duties during the day, the preparatory work has to be done at night,” said a 29-year-old property tax official from the Nobeoka Municipal Government in Miyazaki Prefecture.

His task is to see whether there are any problems associated with cloud computing in relation to managing tax data. With each municipality doing things a different way, careful consultations about the subtle differences in procedure are necessary.

Nobeoka is taking part in the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s local government cloud computing development and verification project, launched last year in Hokkaido, Kyoto, Tokushima, Saga, Oita and Miyazaki prefectures.

It is an attempt by 66 cities, towns and villages to share software provided by domestic vendors using a dedicated optical fiber cable network for local governments. Trial operations will start this autumn.

“By using cloud computing, information-processing costs can be reduced by 30 to 40 percent,” said Nobuhisa Nishigata, assistant section chief at the ministry’s Local Administration Bureau. “Small and medium-size local governments with limited budgets should introduce it.”

As the computerization of administrative affairs progresses, local governments have been purchasing expensive information processing systems. But using a system that is shared over the Internet provides a chance to lessen the financial burden.

The Kofu Municipal Government in Yamanashi Prefecture and the Urasoe Municipal Government in Okinawa have reduced costs by going into the cloud with help from the private sector.

The Nagasaki Prefectural Government started offering information processing services via the cloud to cities, towns and villages in December, and the Omura Municipal Government and the town of Shinkamigoto followed.

Yasuhiro Yamato, chief of the information policy section in the Oita Prefectural Government, which is participating in the internal affairs ministry experiment, said the shift to the cloud is inevitable.

“Small and medium-size cities, towns and villages will have no choice but to introduce the system due to the financial difficulties they face,” Yamato said.

But there are still some hurdles to overcome, including making sure residents’ personal data aren’t hacked, leaked or otherwise compromised and that the format the governments use to input the data is standardized.

Tatsumi Shimada, a professor emeritus at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Technology and an expert on the issue of computerizing administrative affairs, said: “We can expect energy savings and cost reductions from the system. Local governments should promote its use by taking into consideration its compatibility with their administrative affairs and the way private enterprises are dealing with the system.”