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Sat 21 Jun 2014 10:39 AM

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The politics of big data

The UAE may be one of the fastest adopters of e-government initiatives, but research carried out by the World Economic Forum suggests that there is still much work to be done

The politics of big data

Four more years. Three words, posted to Twitter next to a photo of a newly re-elected Barack Obama on 7 November 2012, would come to be the most retweeted message in history with more than a million users sharing his victory message.

With the click of a button, it had shattered the existing record held by pop star Justin Bieber and remained in place until comedian Ellen DeGeneres tweeted a star-filled Oscars’ selfie the following year.

It was, for many observers, the embodiment of a US president who had just won two elections largely on the back of sophisticated data analytics and the social media. Tapping into the so-called Facebook generation in 2008 with more than 5 million supporters garnered using the platform, in 2012 his technology-driven re-election tactics earned him the moniker by The Washington Post of the “Big Data President”. He had not only plugged into a new generation of votes, but established a support base to continually engage using the same new technologies.

Outlined as a key case study in the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council’s latest report, The Future of Government Smart Toolbox, Obama’s rise to power in the digital age is in many ways symbolic of the nexus of government and Information and Communications Technology (ICT).

Then there is the UAE. When the Gulf nation launched the e-Government initiative in 1998, establishing Dubai Internet City the following year, it was in the early days of the world wide web and long before many nations, bigger economically and politically, had even given thought to using information technology in such a way.

Fast forward to 2014 and Dubai’s foreign trade in IT hardware and software now accounts for 18 percent of total trade volume, growing by 35 percent to AED237bn ($64.5bn) in the past year alone, while technology is increasingly becoming a “fundamental aspect of life” in Dubai on the back of ruler HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s smart city plan in which 1,000 government services will go “smart” in the next three years.

The UAE now ranks second in the world and first in the Middle East and Africa for government usage of information and communications technology (ICT), in the World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report 2014 such is its reputation for incorporating advanced technology within government service delivery.

WEF managing director Espen Barth Eide says governments need to understand the changing relationship with their citizens, who are more informed and globally connected than ever before and as a result expect better and faster responses from their governments.

“People are getting new expectations, people are learning from other services, for instance their banking information, that it is possible to be connected to a service 24 hours, that you can get a speedy response to your requirements, that you can act as mobile, global  citizens,” he says. “I strongly believe that if governments are not able to innovate in the same way and reform their traditional tasks as well as new tasks in a new way governments will be left behind.”

Launching the report in Dubai last month as part of an ongoing partnership between the global think tank and UAE’s annual Government Summit, the WEF’s landmark document looks at many of the concepts first flagged by the UAE back in 1998 and which Obama and myriad global leaders embrace today — using technology to deliver leadership, more efficient public services, security and innovation. That is, “good government” in the information era.

But, critically, it is taking the message to the next level — how technology can build better trust between governments and their citizens as well as improve government performance in areas such as anti-corruption, political representation and bureaucracy.

“It’s important for the world and as I may say as a former [Norwegian] foreign minister it’s maybe nowhere so important than in this region, because we’ve seen so many failed projects elsewhere in this region,” Eide says.

The report says that on the trust level, e-government facilitated by high-speed internet, open data and social media are critical to building relationships with a nation’s citizens, with the latter particularly important in the Middle East where the Arab Spring uprisings were seen as led by a youth social media-based rebellion. Twitter and Facebook were widely seen as helping activists organise protests.

However, the issue is also a contentious one. In Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s most populous state, despite 51 percent of internet users being active on the micro-blogging website, according to a global study carried out by GlobalWebIndex, the government is still regularly jailing people for speaking out against authorities and even flagged last year an end to anonymity for Twitter users in the country by limiting access to the site to people who register their identification documents.

“Trust, as we know, is something that is built over time, but can break down very easily,” Eide says. “To build trust, but also to maintain trust, over time as circumstances change is a major challenge, I think, for modern governments. Those who are governed need to interact in a way where we basically are aware that we share the same type of information. The government needs to point out ‘this is how I use my information, this is how I make my priorities, this is my vision, this is my direction’.”

But, according to the report, ICT can also tackle corruption through opening up information and decision-making. Overall, it has two primary influences: it enables greater political representation and it allows stronger government oversight through surveillance, filtering and control. “Getting this balance right is a key challenge,” the report says.

Eide says while the report does not set out potential economic gains by employing the Smart Toolbox guidelines, he argues that it is inherent that in any move to smarter technology there are efficiencies. The report, however, notes that the mass adoption of digital technology provided a $193bn boost to the world economic outlook and created 6 million jobs globally. The annual GDP growth from this sector of 3 percent will outpace industrial revolutions, it says.

However, it also requires investment in e-interaction with the public, which not all governments want to commit to.

Diana Farrell, director at McKinsey & Company and global head of McKinsey Centre for Government, which produced the report with 20 global experts, says while trust and leadership are the report’s two key themes, the Smart Toolbox examines the role of technology in six other areas, which she describes as the “sexagon” of anti-corruption, political representation, service delivery, bureaucracy, innovation and management of conflict.

She says for service delivery there is a need to align on an overall digital strategy, fast-track the adoption of new modes of service delivery, invest in people, not just technology ad collaborate. Referring to an examples often seen in the UAE and other parts of the Gulf such as Qatar with official state Twitter handles, she says the use of technology can result in citizens pointing out inefficiencies or faults that need to be rectified.

However, she also concedes that in automising services inevitably comes the need for fewer staff. In a region where youth unemployment in particular is a major issue, with one in every four young Arabs unemployed and the lost job opportunities costing the Arab world up to $50bn annually, according to a survey last year by the Arab Thought Foundation and PwC, it has even more relevance.

“It’s fair say that the short-term result of some of these efforts for lean operations… is to automate things and as a result of those jobs are lost,” she concedes. “But the bigger picture is to redeploy these resources in an economy that is doing value-added activities.”

She says for too long educators, youth and employers have lived in “parallel universes”. She argues that ICT is a means for ensuring people are better trained and educated for on-the-job requirements.

Eide agrees youth unemployment is a major challenge for the region, but believes ICT can lead to more competitive, effective and modern governments that can often facilitate more effective businesses, which create jobs. It’s not a panacea, he says, but a start.

Beyond the shorter-term IT solutions, the report features three forward-looking scenarios to examine how the world of governance could evolve by 2050, examining a City State where authority is decentralised, e1984 where the promise of Big Data is realised and Gated Community, where political power would rest with individuals and the private sector.

Looking at the first scenario, the WEF report questions the consequences of a state in which government is decentralised in favour of a growing number of bigger cities ruled by mayors, who have “political star power”, and which are centres of innovation able to rapidly respond to change. The second scenario, e1984, suggests “economic, geopolitical and cyber threats are omnipresent”, along with an upsurge in nationalism, fatigue around politics and a willingness to trade privacy for security. In the third scenario, Big Government is “broke”, having been overtaken by the private sector, leading to high levels of social inequality and high involvement by individuals in policy making as technology offers a means to real-time policy evaluation.

Eide says in the preface to the report that while none of these scenarios is likely to come to pass in full or isolation, each is an extrapolation of a current trend. In creating them, the council wants to make the toolbox as robust as possible, while facilitating relevant debate.

“It’s very important that the examples of the UAE are included and conveyed to other countries in this region,” he says. “All countries on the planet can learn from the UAE, as well as from other modern states, but I think it’s particularly important here and it’s quite urgent here, because there have been old projects that have failed, there have been new alternatives that have been tried and also failed over the last years and it’s really a moment now to show that there are examples of good governance and modern governance in the Arab world.”

However, the report says the most effective initiatives were those that come from partnerships between government and the private sector.

Eide says there is no reason why governments should be less innovative than the private sector, while Farrell points out that governments often have “treasure troves of data that when made available can enable others to tap into that to develop business models”.

UAE Minister of Cabinet Affairs Mohammed Abdullah Al Gergawi says information technology and sciences will play an increasingly important role in how governments operate.

Dubai’s smart city strategy features six key pillars and 100 initiatives covering transport, communications, infrastructure, electricity, economic services and urban planning.

 “We are witnessing a lot of change factors around the world today and this is why governments need to review their plan and strategies and to upgrade their expectations,” he says. “We are still learning and we will always be learning and the UAE will always welcome and… adopt any new knowledge and technology.”

Eide says he hopes the initiatives being rolled out in the UAE are taken up by neighbouring Middle Eastern countries, noting that one of the goals of the Government Summit is to make it a platform to exchange ideas.

However, Farrell says there is no specific timeframe when the initiatives should be taken up by governments. In providing examples from across the world, however, it enables robust dialogue and conversation, she says.

“It’s very important for modern, forward-looking governments to learn from each other, to understand how one example from one country can be transferred to another country,” Eide says.

“Technology is here to stay, new technology will happen, technological innovation will happen in the world, so there’s not really a choice of not embracing it, the only thing you can do is embrace it in an effective way.”

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