Founded in 2006, FreedomSpeaks is one of the first political social networks in the United States. The organization advocates open communication and transparency between elected officials and their constituents, and uses technology to support this endeavor. In addition to its political activism website, the company acquired a mobile product called CitySourced that allows citizens to send comments and concerns directly to local governmental agencies via smartphone devices. To support this offering, FreedomSpeaks needed to migrate its existing infrastructure to an on-demand, internet-based—or cloud-computing—technology platform. After evaluating competing cloud-based offerings from Amazon and Rackspace, FreedomSpeaks selected the Windows Azure technology platform for its cost-effectiveness, easy integration with the company’s existing infrastructure, and scalability.
FreedomSpeaks is a political social network with a mission to facilitate governmental transparency and open communication between constituents and publicly elected officials. According to the organization’s mission statement: "Information has always been power, so we've decided to bring the power back to the people. We're hard at work digging up our officials' voting records, and we'd like to keep this data archived for all of you." To fulfill this pledge, FreedomSpeaks manages an intense data mining and translation operation, turning HTML data files into a collection of information that can be accessed and acted upon by engaged citizens. Since its inception in 2006, FreedomSpeaks has mined data from the United States Census, Senate, and Congressional records, plus hundreds of state and local government websites.
In 2009, FreedomSpeaks decided to expand its offerings to include a new mobile product, CitySourced. CitySourced provides a way for citizens to report issues in their city using their smartphones. Residents can take a picture of almost any city issue—such as potholes or graffiti—then select a category and submit that report directly to city hall. The application makes use of the smartphone’s internal global position system (GPS) capabilities and internal compass. FreedomSpeaks needed to migrate to a cloud-based technology platform to support this new product offering. Solution
Jason Kiesel, Founder and Chief Architect for FreedomSpeaks, designed and developed all of the initial functionality of FreedomSpeaks.com on the Microsoft .NET Framework using the Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 development system. In evaluating cloud-computing offerings, FreedomSpeaks needed a solution that integrated easily with its existing Microsoft-based infrastructure, was cost-effective, and supported the easy migration of the company’s existing codebase.
||Storage, scalability, uptime SLAs, and an easy way to migrate our existing codebase were all major factors in choosing the Windows Azure suite of cloud services.
Founder and Chief Architect, FreedomSpeaks
FreedomSpeaks evaluated Rackspace’s Cloud offering and Amazon’s EC2/S3/Cloudfront offering, but found that neither met the company’s requirements. “The competing cloud offerings were too expensive and did not provide the capabilities that FreedomSpeaks needed,” Kiesel explains. Rackspace did not offer Windows-based hosting, and migration to Rackspace would require the time-consuming task of refactoring of code. Amazon EC2 did offer Windows-based hosting, but the added costs proved to be prohibitive. The Windows Azure technology platform emerged as the winner based on its tight integration with the organization’s existing Microsoft-based infrastructure, including Visual Studio 2008 and Visual Studio 2010—the development environment of choice for FreedomSpeaks.
Because the FreedomSpeaks offering was .NET-based, Kiesel was able to migrate the company’s existing codebase to Windows Azure in less than one month. An additional four weeks was needed for quality assurance, to insure that all functionality migrated correctly. "We've always been huge fans of the .NET Framework and the Microsoft suite of developer tools, and the Windows Azure integration did not disappoint,” Kiesel says. “In fact, it has surpassed our expectations, both on an integration level with Visual Studio, and the overall experience."
The data from the CitySourced solution is queued up to FreedomSpeaks server computers, and later processed—all of which takes approximately 60 seconds. It also requires running millions of geo lookups against thousands of state and city agencies across the United States. Once processed, the information is directed to the appropriate governing body. When the governmental agency takes care of the issue, a notification is sent back to the citizens letting them know that the city has responded. This two-way communication makes people feel like they are an active part of their local government.
By using Windows Azure and Visual Studio, FreedomSpeaks quickly expanded CitySourced into an enterprise-level product. The company debuted the offering at TechCrunch50 2009 (where it was selected as a finalist), and was honored by OnDC Top 100 as one of the top 100 private companies contributing to the renewed and continued prosperity of the country.Benefits
By using Windows Azure, FreedomSpeaks has quickly and easily expanded its product offering—reaching into a new market, boosting innovation, and maximizing existing resources.
Increased Scalability and Affordability
Since 2006, FreedomSpeaks has added a plethora of data including legislative data, elected official data, and even geographic information systems data. This abundance of data was gathered by employing a network of spiders to create complex web crawls. “Without Windows Azure, the database team would have to assemble a massive cluster of computers to run the web crawls,” explains Kiesel. “It would be impossible for a small startup to get this kind of computing power and storage. Even with the resources to acquire the number of computers to run the crawls, they would find there would be large amounts of downtime as they ran queries and then waited to refine queries or for new tasks to queue up.”
||With Windows Azure, FreedomSpeaks had everything we needed right out of the box.
Founder and Chief Architect, FreedomSpeaks
Currently, database and web data extraction programmers can spend the day building tasks for the virtual machines without having to buy a single piece of hardware. Once they have a task built and tested, they can immediately spin it up across hundreds of virtual machines and have the processes completed almost instantly. “Without Windows Azure, this kind of intense web processing and data mining would not be possible,” Kiesel says. “We have thrown census data, geo-spatial data—everything—at the system and it always scales to our needs efficiently and only when we need it.”Boosted Innovation, Created New Markets
When FreedomSpeaks started as a consumer social network, there was not as much of an emphasis on providing service-level agreements (SLAs) and guaranteed uptime. While uptime and availability were, and continue to be, important, the service offering is free to consumers. A few minutes of sporadic downtime throughout the month did not translate into hard loss of revenue. The added costs to provide the additional reliability simply didn’t make sense economically. Meeting these SLAs would require buying additional hardware, installing the necessary software, and deploying those servers in the FreedomSpeaks data center. “These were hard costs that simply wouldn’t work for FreedomSpeaks,” Kiesel says. “And because our primary business model is the creation of innovative web and mobile software, these additional expenditures were outside the company’s core vision. With Windows Azure, we can spend valuable resources growing our business, building new products, adding new features, and creating new markets.”
The importance of availability and uptime changed, however, when FreedomSpeaks launched its new platform in September 2009 at the TechCrunch50 competition in San Francisco, California. The company’s latest product innovation, CitySourced, was now coupled to a highly demanding customer base—government agencies and municipalities. FreedomSpeaks needed to provide a solution that could guarantee availability and uptime for this set of new customers. “With Windows Azure, FreedomSpeaks had everything we needed right out of the box,” says Kiesel. “Storage, scalability, uptime SLAs, and an easy way to migrate our existing codebase were all major factors in choosing the Windows Azure suite of cloud services.”
Now that the migration has been completed, FreedomSpeaks can focus on what it does best—data aggregation, product innovation, and software development. FreedomSpeaks isn’t the only beneficiary of the Windows Azure migration—its customers can now depend on the reliability and scalability of the CitySourced platform. Maximized Existing Resources
By reducing the need to hire a dedicated IT team, FreedomSpeaks is free to focus its resources on hiring new talent to support the business ideas as opposed to worrying about the baseline technologies. The company has hired expert-level programmers and the best marketing and sales talent with the savings from the IT department. A motto around the office is, "Do what you do best and delegate the rest,” says Kiesel.
The company has focused its resources toward expanding marketing, business development, and database engineering resources. As FreedomSpeaks continues to grow, it will be able to add new features without fear of overloading the system. Furthermore, because the Windows Azure platform works so tightly with the .NET development environment, sourcing work is painless and straightforward. “Anyone with .NET experience can quickly get up and running on the Windows Azure platform,” says Kiesel. “So there is no lag between sourcing work to developers and getting those workers up and running with the cloud computing platform. This frees them up to take risks and launch new features as the opportunities arise rather than being concerned about their service level agreement or how many redundant servers they need.”
By using Windows Azure to tap the power of cloud computing, FreedomSpeaks is able to focus on doing what entrepreneurs and startups do best: innovate. “With lower overhead, we can be nimble and respond quickly to changes in strategy,” Kiesel concludes. “We have the ability to focus on our core business and delegate many of the administrative tasks associated with a traditional startup. This freed us up to launch CitySourced in four weeks, debut as a finalist at the TechCrunch50 conference, and offer new products and services to customers in just a few months.”
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