Innovation stories - AWS deepening roots in South Africa’s public sector

Learn how public sector customers in South Africa are using Amazon Web Services (AWS) to spearhead innovation, entrepreneurship, and digital transformation.

Tshwane University of Technology

Tshwane University of Technology (TUTEH) is in the Soshanguve township of Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa. Many students from lower income families rely on support from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), part of which goes towards student accommodation.

To ensure the funds from NSFAS—which amounted to R30 billion ($1.6 billion) in 2018—are well spent and the accommodation is safe for students, the university accredits all properties. But profiling the thousands of dwellings, maintaining records of compliant and non-compliant owners, and connecting landlords to students were time-intensive tasks. Data was dispersed, and it was hard for administrators to keep records up to date.

In 2019, TUTEH turned to AWS to build a cloud-based platform to make it simpler to manage properties. AWS Professional Services worked with the TUTEH IT team over a period of 20 days to deliver T-RES, a serverless cloud platform for property administration.

The platform uses AWS Lambda with Amazon API Gateway for computation logic and request routing, and Amazon DynamoDB and Amazon Simple Storage Service for hosting and storage. Notifications to students are delivered via Amazon Simple Email Service. Developers use AWS Control Tower to codify a multi-account strategy, with each TUTEH IT team member working in an individual developer sandbox. AWS Identity and Access Management, AWS CloudFormation, and AWS CodePipeline enable a cross-account continuous integration and deployment pipeline, distilling TUTEH’s software development lifecycle stages with an AWS CodeCommit source.

Building T-RES on the AWS Cloud, TUTEH is streamlining administration. It makes it easier for landlords to promote their properties, while giving students a platform through which they can raise concerns over accommodation. This, in turn, helps TUTEH identify low-quality dwellings and ensure NSFAS funds are better spent. The highly available T-RES platform is making the lives of the students easier because they no longer have to worry about accommodation and can stay focused on their studies.

Nicholas Motsatse, CEO of TUTEH, says: “This happened at the right time in our journey with AWS. Looking at the suite of services that AWS offers, I was comfortable about our choice of cloud provider.”

South Africa’s GovChat chatbot scales to process 100 million messages

GovChat became the official platform for citizen engagement with the South African government in 2018. To date, GovChat has let about 50 million South Africans communicate with the government via mobile handsets across platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp.

In response to COVID-19 in South Africa, the government appointed GovChat to help coordinate its response. GovChat provided several departments with a channel to share information on services, like water and electricity, and gain feedback from citizens during the country’s lockdown. GovChat helped the South African Social Security Agency manage digital applications for a temporary social relief grant. The COVID-19 Social Relief Distress grant aims to help citizens during the pandemic by addressing families’ most basic needs with a food parcel, voucher, or cash.

The plan was to create a chatbot that could help citizens make and track their grant applications. GovChat needed to act quickly and provide an infrastructure that could rapidly scale as more people responded to the offer of government support. To provide speed of delivery and scalability while keeping costs down, GovChat turned to AWS. GovChat built the chatbot using AWS Lambda, a serverless compute service and Amazon Lex for voice and text conversational interfaces. To make sure sensitive data stayed inside the country, GovChat used the AWS Africa (Cape Town) Region.

Within days, the chatbot was handling up to 14.2 million messages a day across social media platforms regarding the social relief grant. By May 2020, it had processed in excess of 100 million messages. In addition, citizens were also using the GovChat platform to help them contact local authorities, find the nearest COVID-19 testing station, and access COVID-19 test results.

GovChat continues to work with government to drive innovations. Working with the Department of Social Development and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, they launched a programme called Vangasali (meaning no one left behind in Xitsonga). Vangasali has a mission to verify and register early childhood development (ECD) facilities in South Africa are properly supported by the government—especially during the national lockdown. Through Govchat, ECD facilities can be recorded and mapped, which will assist in determining the coverage of ECD services, particularly in poor and vulnerable communities.

In July 2020, GovChat and the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) launched a school-readiness polling feature for parents, pupils, and teachers as South African schools start opening up for contact learning. “Data-driven decision making is what will help. At GovChat, we are trying to do our part,” said Eldrid Jordaan, chief executive officer, GovChat.

“GovChat would like to highlight the AWS commitment to startup technology platforms in South Africa. AWS greatly assisted in underpinning this success story,” according to Eldrid Jordaan.

Health data, scalable throughout Africa

eHealth Africa offers software to help organizations manage the health data of their employees. eHealth Africa handles thousands of records every year for businesses across Africa, so employees, employers, and healthcare professionals have access to health data when and where they need it.

eHealth Africa delivers its software as a service, and, until recently, hosted its software using local infrastructure providers. In May 2020, eHealth Africa migrated to AWS to better meet customers’ needs for high availability, data protection, and security.

Simplicity of management was a key factor in the decision to migrate. eHealth Africa wanted to focus on its mission and services rather than the underlying infrastructure.

Today, eHealth Africa uses Amazon Elastic Container Service (Amazon ECS) and AWS Fargate to run containers without having to administer servers or clusters of Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances. These containers work with AWS Lambda functions accessed via Amazon API Gateway. Elastic Load Balancing and AWS Auto Scaling groups handle traffic to the API, and all data is stored in a PostgreSQL-compatible edition of Amazon Aurora.

The new AWS Africa (Cape Town) Region will help eHealth Africa further improve its service levels and reduce latency for users. Being able to deploy locally will address the organization’s data-protection requirements.

With eHealth Africa, patients precisely define ownership and access permissions. To manage access to private data, the company uses Amazon Cognito, which handles user authentication. Now, record owners have greater control over their medical data, with doctors, patients, parents, caretakers, and healthcare providers all having access only when the patient allows.

“Using AWS instead of building out our own infrastructure lets us focus on bringing our healthcare solution to underserved communities. AWS remains our one-stop platform for all the hosted services we need.”
– Kobus Smit, CEO and Founder, eHealth Africa

The University of the Witwatersrand provides reliable, accessible remote learning options

The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) is a multi-campus public research university situated in the northern areas of central Johannesburg, South Africa. It accommodates approximately 38,000 students per year. Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, Wits delivered the majority of their classes on campus in a classroom. The lockdown consequently resulted in drastically increased website traffic from both faculty and students, sometimes exceeding 15,000 simultaneous sessions at peak times.

Wits experienced an outage on their on-premises Sakai learning management system (LMS) environment at peak demand of 15,000 simultaneous active sessions. Afterward, Wits urgently needed to explore solutions to provide students and faculty with reliable access to the LMS to facilitate uninterrupted learning.

“AWS came at the right time for Wits University in that a perennial problem of the learning management system going down during critical times became a thing of the past. Other than just scaling issues, the negative experience on Sakai was caused by electricity outages that left the university vulnerable to the provision of service to the students and lecturers when hosting the LMS in the data centre,” said Dr. Stanley Mpofu, chief information officer, Wits.

Remote learning options consequentially resulted in increased—and sometimes unaffordable—data usage costs for students. Wits, in collaboration with local mobile operators, sought to address affordability by waiving the cost of data to access the site, also known as zero-rate.

After exploring cloud options, Wits migrated their Sakai LMS from on-premises servers to the AWS Cloud to meet their availability, security, and compliance needs.

AWS partner Silicon Overdrive worked closely with Wits and AWS public sector teams to architect and implement a secure, fault-tolerant, and highly available solution. Sakai LMS uses Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS), and Amazon Elastic File System (Amazon EFS) across multiple Availability Zones. Amazon CloudFront caches the Sakai LMS content to South African edge locations for fast delivery of content to students.

Turnaround time for this project was of paramount importance. The teams were able to launch the new environment and migrate from the on-premises environment to AWS in just over a month. Since the new environment went live, Wits has had 100 percent uptime. The students now have an unparalleled user experience due to fast and locally cached content, and zero-rated data charges.

“Working with AWS to achieve our availability, security, and scaling goals was a no-brainer—24x7 access from anywhere gives Wits the edge against its competitors. The architecture design was top standard leading to the mobile operators agreeing to zero-rate it after conducting extensive tests to see the design mitigates any issues that Mobile Network Operators previously had regarding cloud hosted solutions,” said Dr. Mpofu.

AWS in South Africa's Public Sector

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