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Creating better societies

Amazon Web Services (AWS) Head of Public Sector for the Republic of Ireland, Mark Finlay, talks to eolas Magazine about the cloud computing provider’s socioeconomic impact in Ireland in the context of cloud adoption as a component of public service transformation.

Reflecting on the journey since his appointment as AWS’ Head of Public Sector in Ireland in 2020, Finlay recalls how the Covid experience – aside from the obvious disruption and personal impact for so many – proved useful for cultivating trust between the public sector and cloud service providers, as well as illuminating the value proposition of cloud computing.

Illustrating how government was able to leverage AWS cloud services during the pandemic, Finlay points to the Covid Tracker App, built by NearForm and hosted on AWS, as well as the collaboration between the Office of the Government CIO, An Garda Síochána, and the HSE.

“Delivering an application in a three-month period, and then scaling to 1.3 million users over a 36-hour timeframe, demonstrated to those organisations the agility and the scalability that AWS cloud services have to offer,” he says.

Strategic priorities

While AWS is a technology organisation, the Head of Public Sector explains that rather than merely fixating on cloud computing as a technology, its strategic priorities are closely allied to the delivery of better public services and the associated ambitions established by government.

“Within AWS, one of our key principles is working backwards from our customers’ ambitions. We consider government’s strategic priorities and work backwards from there. This ensures that AWS can effectively support government in implementing its strategies.”

In relation to cloud computing specifically, two government ministers have made significant statements in recent times, with Minister of State Ossian Smyth TD emphasising: “Cloud computing is cheaper. It is faster to deploy, and it is more scalable than running your own server room… cloud computing should be the default option for new ICT investment. Existing systems should be reviewed to see if they can also be moved to the cloud.”

Meanwhile, Minister for Finance Michael McGrath TD asserted: “Organisations should no longer decide whether to move to cloud for new or existing systems. The decision to make now is what, how, and when to move to cloud, which can offer a step change in carbon efficiency, security, and value for money.”

“Our vision is to build better societies.”
Mark Finlay, Head of Public Sector, Ireland, Amazon Web Services (AWS)

“In this context, our strategy very much revolves around supporting government to deliver on these observations,” Finlay says, adding: “This includes taking a cloud-oriented approach to the delivery of all services as per Harnessing Digital: The Digital Ireland Framework, as well as ensuring that 90 per cent of applicable services are consumed online by 2030 as per Connecting Government 2030: A Digital and ICT Strategy for Ireland’s Public Service.”

Economic impact

Locally, Investing. Growing. Partnering. AWS Impact in Ireland, an economic impact study produced by Indecon International Economic Consultants (Indecon), has helped demonstrate exactly how AWS generates economic and social advantages for Irish communities.

The report indicates that AWS has increased economic output in the State by more than €11.4 billion since 2012, creating around €2.4 billion in additional economic output in 2022 alone.

“Equipped with this report, we can now better articulate AWS’s impact in Ireland – openly and transparently – to government, and wider society,” the Head of Public Sector observes.

“From an employment perspective, for instance, AWS supports an annual average of over 10,000 jobs in local communities across the State. Further to this, AWS investment has enabled over 500 homegrown suppliers to develop their operations both at home and abroad.

“One great example is County Meath-based Hanley Energy. In 2009, it had three employees in Ireland, whereas today the business employs over 700 people in Ireland, North America, South Africa, and Australia. It is a fantastic story of significant growth in a relatively short time.

“Indeed, allied to AWS’ infrastructure presence here, these domestic suppliers and contractors have built their businesses while helping to develop Ireland’s cloud infrastructure ecosystem. Many of these companies have become world leaders and are now simultaneously capitalising on export opportunities in 28 countries around the globe.”

For AWS, the report is also useful in emphasising the employment opportunities unlocked by data centres, particularly during the construction phase. “During construction, around 2,250 people are employed, with a typical data centre campus supporting over 250 full-time jobs annually. This directly disproves the narrative that data centres do not create employment,” Finlay remarks.

“It is great for me, as an employee of AWS, to be able to communicate this message in commercial or policy settings, but also in more informal settings, for example, with family and friends, so that they can better understand the organisation that I am part of.”

Social impact

Simultaneously, AWS is cognisant of its obligation to have a positive impact on the local communities in which it operates. This includes working with local education institutions, and ensuring that courses are made available to local residents who want to upskill or reskill and move into careers relating to data centre infrastructure.

For example, for seven years, AWS has partnered with the Tallaght campus of Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin) on its data centre technician programme, while supporting the development of similar courses with TU Dublin’s Blanchardstown campus and the Drogheda Institute of Further Education. These programmes are designed to provide participants with opportunities to receive annual bursaries to upskill with the potential of a paid work placement with AWS.

“The rationale is to provide local communities with pathways to access jobs in data centres, ensuring that the infrastructure generates economic advantage for both the local and national economies. The data centre technician programmes are a great example of that,” Finlay remarks.

Public sector cloud adoption

As mentioned above, the Covid experience had a catalytic impact on overall public sector cloud adoption. Explaining this phenomenon, Finlay outlines: “While the basic value proposition of enhanced security and cost became better understood, AWS customers also observed the agility that cloud unlocks, as well as removing the undifferentiated, heavy lifting of data centre management and allowing them to focus on building applications.

“Allied to this, the pandemic experience offered customers some insight into the scale of innovation available via more than 200 AWS services. For instance, the Department of Health leveraged Amazon Connect – our cloud contact centre – and deployed it in an effective, secure, and scalable manner to meet the needs of the digital Covid-19 vaccination certificates programme.”

International comparison

In late 2022, Ibec published The sky is the limit: How cloud computing is the key to better public services in Ireland, a report which explores the barriers to cloud computing adoption in the public sector and seeks to assert how public sector adoption of cloud in Ireland compares with counterparts elsewhere.

While acknowledging several positive example of cloud adoption in the Irish public sector, the report determined that several countries, including Canada, Australia, Germany, the UK, Greece, and Poland, have more advanced approaches to public sector cloud adoption.

“One of the barriers inhibiting the public sector moving to the cloud, according to the report, is the prevalence of traditional procurement systems, more focused on physical hardware procurement, and the need for procurement reform,” Finlay explains.

“Procurement reform is one of the key operationalising tools to bring government policies to life and ensure that public sector bodies can deliver on the ambition of government.

“In early 2023, it was a positive development to see the Office of Government Procurement conduct a market consultation on a proposed Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) Services Contract. While it is unfortunate that that has not achieved a successful outcome, we do believe that there is a pathway towards getting a framework that works in a compliant manner for Irish public sector bodies. Continuing to engage with the Office of Government Procurement and the Irish Government in delivering that framework is an absolute priority for AWS, as well as working directly with public sector bodies to allow them deliver on their cloud transformation strategies.”

Skills capacity

Aside from procurement, public sector bodies face a cloud computing skills challenge. In seeking to leverage new technologies and services, Finlay contends, customers must ensure they have appropriate training in place.

Taking a long-term view on skills, AWS has put in place training and enablement programmes, alongside learning needs assessments to identify existing skills capacity and skill gaps.

“We also have education programmes in place, such as AWS re/Start, which is a free cohort-based workforce development training programme aimed at helping underrepresented and unemployed individuals to embark on a new career in cloud computing, at no cost to the learner.

“Through coursework and hands-on labs, using real world scenarios, learners can gain the technical skills they need for entry to mid-level cloud roles. AWS re/Start also provides learners with professional skills training like CV and interview coaching to prepare them for employer meetings and job interviews. The programme also connects learners with potential employers,” he outlines.

AWS also runs a fully funded education programme and competition called AWS GetIT, which is designed to inspire all 12- to 14-year-old students – particularly girls and other young people from underrepresented communities – to consider a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

In 2023, following the completion of the AWS GetIT programme curriculum, schools were invited to submit a student app concept to the state-wide AWS GetIT competition. A total of three Irish schools competed in the final held at AWS offices in Dublin.

Having presented their concepts to a panel of industry judges, the 2023 winner was Coláiste Abhainn Rí, Callan, County Kilkenny; and the two runners up were Bishopstown Community School, County Cork, and Our Lady’s School, Terenure, County Dublin.

Emerging trends

Asked about the emerging trends AWS is observing across the sphere of public service delivery, the Head of Public Sector identifies three.

The first relates to citizen engagement, which is a key enabler of government’s digital transformation strategy. “Beyond Ireland, there are some truly amazing case studies,” Finlay indicates, elaborating: “For example, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) – which supports 33 million licenced drivers – required a contact centre transformation which would allow the organisation to become a 24/7 service as opposed to nine-to-five.

“By leveraging Amazon Connect, the DMV can use live chat, social media, and other tools to engage with Californian residents, regardless of the time of day, simultaneously sieving out the more basic questions they get through the system, ensuring that employees are engaging in more meaningful conversations, and supporting residents more effectively. This has the effect of ensuring that DMV employees become more satisfied in their roles.”

Meanwhile, in Ireland the Irish Refugee Council has also used Amazon Connect to roll out a contact centre solution together with TTEC Digital.

“Organisations like TTEC Digital, which are a part of the AWS Partner Network, are absolutely critical; they help our customers to deliver services to citizens in areas where they may not have adequate skills capacity, including in the area of citizen engagement,” he adds.

The second trend AWS is observing relates to operational resilience. This ranges from backup and disaster recovery to full migrations of applications to AWS. Recently, the most extreme example materialised as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, whereby 15PB of data from critical databases were migrated to the AWS Cloud from 50 state bodies and 24 education institutions.

The third trend is generative AI, and AWS is focused on ensuring that it is available to organisations of all sizes. As such, AWS has a fully managed service offering called Amazon Bedrock which provides a choice of several foundation models (FMs) and large language models (LLMs) from leading AI companies including Stability AI, Anthropic, Meta, and Amazon Titan via a single application programming interface (API).

“We recognise that no single FM will address the needs of all customers, rather they will want different options. We also recognise that customers want to bring their own data into those models in a secure and cost-effective manner. As such, AWS offers its own custom silicon for training and inference of LLMs,” Finlay explains.

One real world example of this is Swindon Borough Council in the UK, which is using Amazon Bedrock to enhance the accessibility of important public information for people with learning disabilities.

“While public sector bodies are expected to provide easily accessible information for public consumption, it is necessary to also provide this information in easy read format. Making this conversion manually can cost an average of £120 (€140) for a single page with just five lines and five images, while a document comprising five pages would take two weeks and cost £500 (€585). In this case, Swindon Borough Council can now create an accessible multi-page document for £0.07 (€0.09) per page.

“This is a great example of a public service provider using AWS to make a positive difference. For us, it is vital that we engage with organisations in other jurisdictions and help them to share their knowledge with public sector bodies in Ireland. While the Ibec report illustrates that we are behind cloud adoption leaders, it means that we can learn from them, avoiding early adoption pitfalls.”


Reiterating AWS’s commitment to help transform the public sector by “facilitating people, partner organisations, and the best technology to create long-term socioeconomic value”, the Head of Public Sector concludes: “Our vision is to build better societies. Sure, we have the technology available for our customers, but our absolute vision is building better societies – which are healthier, happier, safer, and more successful – for all. To help achieve this, we are supporting public service delivery by facilitating digital transformation via cloud adoption.

“From my own perspective, I want to continue to help the public sector on that transformation journey. Ultimately, the Government has a target of 90 per cent of applicable public services being delivered online by 2030. That is an ambitious challenge, and my motivation is helping to achieve that.”

Profile: Mark Finlay

A native of Abbeyleix, County Laois, Mark Finlay now lives in Dublin. As a bicycle commuter, the 15-minute city urban planning concept – “building a Dublin that provides the infrastructure to access services in a 15-minute timeframe” – is close to his heart. In parallel to his role with AWS, Finlay also sits on the Data Governance Board as Ibec’s representative, and later in 2024, he is putting his name forward for election to the Council of Dublin Chamber. As a self-identifying gym junkie, sport and physical activity are important to him and he exercises on a daily basis “to keep the mind on the right path”.

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