Reinventing Data Management for Government Websites

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The Obama administration faces ongoing criticism for the problems with its HealthCare.gov website and registration system. Connectivity issues as well as a data center crash due to overwhelming site traffic frustrated millions of Americans who had expected a functional government service.

Learning From Experience

Mike Bracken, the first executive Director of Digital for the UK, reflected on the situation in a recent interview with NPR. According to Bracken, watching the United States’ government struggle was like “groundhog day". Spending "hundreds of millions of dollars" and adopting an approach with "large-scale IT enterprise technology, no real user testing, no real focus on end users, all done behind a black box, and not in an agile way but in a big waterfall way” reminded him of his difficulty working on a similar project.

Bracken knows what it’s like to overcome a citizen-facing government system that doesn’t work. He struggled to integrate different government agencies, each with its own website and systems, into a single entry point called GOV.UK. Much like HealthCare.gov, GOV.UK was built to make goverment processes easier for users. And like others before him, Bracken and team began by building everything using MySQL’s relational database technology, then changed to MongoDB early in the project.

Bracken says, “we started out building everything using MySQL but moved to MongoDB as we realised how much of our content fitted its document-centric approach,” (Digital Cabinet Office).

GOV.UK is an example of a new governement website model. It is open source, mobile-friendly, scalable, and hosted in the cloud. GOV.UK uses MongoDB to power its content API, providing data storage in the cloud. The project has used open source software from the start, and GOV.UK released a number of their tools and frameworks on GitHub. GOV.UK has been successful so far, and plans to continue using MongoDB. It has already saved British taxpayers “at least $20 million a year”.

Learning From GOV.UK

GOV.UK relies on MongoDB for critical parts of its data infrastructure. MongoDB has contributed to GOV.UK’s scaling and data processing abilities, resulting in a quality public service. By creating a digital heart for GOV.UK, Bracken and his team were able to provide UK citizens with a successful and highly functioning government service. As the world moves increasingly towards a more digital era, this effective model could be one to emulate in future projects.

MongoDB is often used to provide the data layer for mission critical applications at scale. Reliable, high-performance applications improve user experience for citizens using these government services.

HealthCare.gov faces challenges like aggregating volumes of data and building an efficient system to meet citizens’ needs. An agile database like MongoDB could have helped HealthCare.gov to scale, remove redundancy, and potentially reduce the cost (estimated to be at $292 million so far) of both creating the site and dealing with the fallout of its failure.

MongoDB works well alongside government services, since its document model supports and links many different data types, whether a photo, a PDF, or a document. For other companies like CERN and Carfax, MongoDB has served as a universal repository for data coming in from multiple sources and in varying formats. MongoDB’s flexible data model eliminates the need to establish a single schema for all data, allowing organizations to integrate different data sources quickly. New agencies and data sources can become part of the system without affecting existing processes. The MongoDB document model also supports iterative development, including continuous evaluation and testing, and could have helped to avoid the pitfalls of a waterfall model like the one used by HealthCare.gov. Recent work with Metlife, who launched their new product, the Wall, in less than three months makes the advantages of an iterative model clear.

MongoDB addresses a wide range of needs for modern application development. Using agile development can help customer-facing government agencies serve their constituents. With GOV.UK, MongoDB has proven itself to be a valuable tool for processing and aggregating large volumes of variable data while providing a seamless user experience for all parties involved.

For more information on getting started with MongoDB, visit our resources in our manual.

See how several healthcare companies and government systems are already using MongoDB.

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