AWS Partner Andes and the Iceland Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs Connect Citizens and Government on AWS
Digital Iceland, a project management office run by the Iceland Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, worked alongside AWS Partner Andes and a coalition of development teams to create a centralized gateway through which Icelanders could connect with government services. Looking to upgrade its existing gateway, Digital Iceland recruited Andes, Iceland’s first AWS Public Sector Partner, to lead a team that would create a DevOps environment using Amazon EKS and AWS Control Tower. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the team pivoted quickly and developed a domestic travel subsidy service within 6 weeks. Now Digital Iceland is poised to add new features to its gateway faster than ever before.
The Iceland Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs wants to use technology to improve the lives of Iceland’s 360,000 citizens. In 2019, Digital Iceland, a project management office run by the ministry, set out to build a new central portal available to all the citizens of Iceland. The idea was to make it simpler for Icelanders to securely access information, forms, and self-service tools important for conducting government-related affairs.
To build this solution quickly, Digital Iceland turned to Amazon Web Services (AWS), AWS Partner Andes (Iceland’s first AWS Public Sector Partner), and a coalition of development teams across multiple vendors. When the COVID-19 pandemic added a sense of urgency, the team built the new solution on AWS in a matter of weeks—offering citizens a centralized, intuitive portal through which they could receive stimulus payments. A number of AWS services are key to the solution’s development and security, including Amazon Elastic Kubernetes Service (Amazon EKS), which offers the flexibility to start, run, and scale Kubernetes applications on AWS or on premises; and AWS Control Tower, which provides a simple way to set up and govern a secure, multiaccount AWS environment.
Having built a secure, scalable solution using these and other AWS services, Digital Iceland is poised to efficiently expand its offerings and connect Icelanders with the government information they need to improve their lives and livelihoods.
Building a Fast and Secure Development Environment
The Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs works to maintain stability and growth in Iceland, which is the fastest-growing Nordic country. In addition to formulating policy and preparing budgets, the ministry works on various projects aimed at improving government operations. One such project is Ísland.is—the centralized portal for Icelanders to securely access information and interact with different areas of the government through self-service tools.
In 2019, Digital Iceland already had a web gateway for Icelandic citizens. However, the gateway had been built up from a code base more than 10 years prior; Digital Iceland was looking to improve the existing gateway and accelerate time to market for new features by adopting a secure new cloud environment. “We knew we had to use state-of-the-art technologies to get new services up and running as soon as possible,” says Vigfús Gíslason, project manager at Digital Iceland. “We didn’t have much time to focus on infrastructure: any changes we wanted to make would have been much slower in the old environment.”
Digital Iceland selected AWS over other cloud providers because of services like Amazon EKS and AWS Control Tower. “AWS Control Tower was a big plus because it was built using security best practices, and it was a big help in getting secure features up and running very quickly,” says Gíslason. “And because the standard services from AWS are based in principle on open-source software, we could get an overview of what the infrastructure would look like and where concerns might be.”
In late 2019, Digital Iceland assembled a coalition of 18 product teams from across 11 vendors to handle various pieces of development. AWS Public Sector Partner Andes, which was founded in 2019, took a lead role in the project. “Our role was to serve all these teams,” says Ari Jóhannesson, founder and CEO of Andes. “We worked to enable fast development, DevOps deployments, and security of infrastructure.”
Developing Urgent Services in a Time of Uncertainty
Digital Iceland drew from the information technology philosophies of Nordic and Baltic states—Estonia and Finland particularly—so each government institution retains control and ownership over its own data. The idea was for Digital Iceland to collect data from government entities using GraphQL, an open-source data query and manipulation language, and publish the necessary data to the portal without shifting potentially sensitive data to a separate environment, thus keeping a single source of truth. Digital Iceland emphasized security, opting for an X-Road secure data layer. A suite of AWS services aided with security as well, including AWS Control Tower and AWS Shield, a managed distributed denial-of-service protection service that safeguards applications running on AWS.
Because Iceland is an island nation, Digital Iceland also had to protect against the possibility of severed oceanic fiber connections cutting the country off from the rest of the world. It was therefore important to keep at least some of the operations running locally within Iceland. “We chose Kubernetes because you can run it locally,” says Jóhannesson. “That’s an important part of disaster recovery.” Kubernetes and Amazon EKS were also ideal for the fast-moving, cost-effective DevOps environment that Digital Iceland and Andes envisioned.
“The infrastructure that we built on Amazon EKS created a secure way for developers to set up the testing, staging, and production environments in separate clusters for a long list of projects,” continues Jóhannesson.
Digital Iceland initially had a particular vision of how the project would proceed, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic changed the timeline, forcing the team to first focus on stimulus-related projects, including domestic travel subsidizations to help keep the critically important Iceland tourism industry functioning without foreign travelers. Fortunately, the team was prepared. “A month after starting, we had set up a complete cloud environment that the finance ministry could use to implement this long-term project, starting with those first urgent projects,” says Jóhannesson. Working in this AWS environment, the team got the domestic travel subsidy service up and running within 6 weeks.
“AWS is a well-oiled machine. The tools and offerings were spot on—they were very usable and relatively simple to put together into a working environment.”
- Vigfús Gíslason, project manager, Digital Iceland
Connecting Icelandic Citizens with Their Government
After its initial success creating services related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Digital Iceland and Andes continued developing and releasing new digital features to help citizens obtain driver’s licenses, business loans, funding for children’s sports, and much more. And the team isn’t slowing down: among its planned initiatives is a new service that would reduce paperwork for and streamline aspects of Iceland’s judicial system, yielding significant cost savings. Broadly speaking, the project has shown the Icelandic government what is possible in the cloud and on AWS. “AWS is a well-oiled machine,” says Gíslason. “The tools and offerings were spot on—they were very usable and relatively simple to put together into a working environment.”
This entire project has been a mutually beneficial collaboration between the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs and private interests—a collaboration that will yield many more benefits as it creates more points of contact between the government and citizens. “It’s like the Icelandic football league,” says Andri Kristinsson, CEO of Digital Iceland. “All these teams are used to competing against each other in the league, but Digital Iceland is like the national football team, where all the teams work together to compete for Iceland.”
About the Customer
Focusing on maintaining stability and growth in Iceland, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs formulates policy and prepares plans and budgets for the state’s financial and economic affairs.
About the Partner
Founded in 2019, AWS Partner Andes is the first AWS Public Sector Partner based in Iceland. It helps startups and enterprises migrate their information technology infrastructures to AWS and enhance their existing AWS infrastructures.
Published July 2021