Educating the masses

Wael Amin, president of Egyptian integrator ITWorx, discusses the challenges of working with regional governments and why online Arabic content is still tough to find in the region.

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Educating the masses AMIN: Government entities are very big and the level of performance between one government organisation and the other, even within the same country, varies a great deal. (ITP Images)
By  Imthishan Giado Published  January 17, 2010 Arabian Computer News Logo

What strategic initiatives are on your agenda this year?

We’re launching four new products this year – two of them are targeted at the government and two at the education sector. For the government, we’re very excited to be launching the performance management platform.

This is a platform that allows government institutions to define their strategies, the implementation plans, the initiatives, the actions and then identify the key performance indicators they would like to achieve and track them. For example, a municipality will use this platform to say, we want citizens to be able to issue a building permit in 14 days. Then, they can track the actual performance and if they find that it is 18 days, then they can drill down and ask if this is a problem that is common across the entire municipality or localised to a specific zone. Is it caused by a specific workflow step or is it a generalised problem? Is it to a specific group of employees or is it just an organisation capability?

We have deployed this in the Abu Dhabi judiciary department and they have been using it to continuously up the ante in terms of performance.

Has the push towards increased automation in governments only started this year, or is it something that has been on the regional radar for a while?

I think it has been an ongoing process. This year we’re seeing the shift from portal technology that encourages transparency, engagement and participation into these types of internal automation and performance management initiatives. It’s consistent with the drive to do more with less budget and employees.

What are the common problems you face working with internal users to build these streamlined processes and services?

One of the issues with any interaction with the government is that it typically spans multiple departments and organisations.

We’re doing a lot of work with the Ministry of Labour in Saudi, but you find that to issue a work permit, you need information from the Ministry of Interior, you need information from the Ministry of Commerce. There is a lot of effort that is going on in terms of developing integration projects or service buses.

How much of this work is your responsibility as a partner?

The way these projects are tendered, you’re typically limited to working inside a specific Ministry or a department. [When you to have go outside of that] it becomes a challenge. Sometimes you leverage the relationships between ministers to try to get things done. Typically we talk to the CIO and the CIO will try to take it further.

This can stretch project timelines easily by 50%. We have found our customers to be very understanding when this type of delay happens. They are familiar with the challenges of integrating multiple government departments together.

How do you assist with moving users to new systems such as portals – and how do you then measure the success of such an implementation?

It’s important that you provide real value to the users so that they embrace it. For example, in the Saudi Ministry of Labour when we launched an employment portal where nationals could go upload their CVs and seek job opportunities, hundreds of thousands of citizens made use of it.

It goes back to performance management. Each government department and organisation will define success metrics and compare and benchmark themselves to the best from around the world. You could look at the Ministry of Labour and the number of days it takes to issue a work permit. If the golden standard is that it takes five days in the most efficient of governments and it takes eight days in your country, then there is this three-day gap to work on.

Which regional government do you believe is the current IT leader?

Governments are very big entities and the level of performance between one government organisation and the other, even within the same country, varies a great deal. GCC countries at large have done a very good job with e-government and moving forward with their initiatives.

The speed and effectiveness at which they have done that can be compared with the best examples in the world like Singapore which is often cited.

The higher education sector has seen significant investment over the past 12 months – why do you think this is the case?

I think it’s a little bit more than the last 12 months. It’s a common realisation by regional governments that investment in education is really key to keeping the economy moving. You are creating leaders and whether you’re educating your own nationals or educating expat students, it’s the key to keeping the economy chugging along.

Do the demands of the education private sector differ from the public sector?

The demands are different because when you’re working with the public sector, typically the scale is much larger. You have to worry about provisioning these services for tens of thousands of students and teachers. There is a big variance in the capability and e-maturity of teachers when you’re working with the public sector.

A fleet of public sector schools can span schools where teachers are very fluent with IT to ones where schools are using these technologies for the first time. This variability in the level of readiness and the scale makes the public sector engagements so much more challenging.

In the private sector, there’s typically a little bit more homogeneity. The challenges in the private sector are typically budget-based. There’s also an interest in a lot of in-classroom type technologies that is easy for teachers to use. Am I able to leverage available technologies such as Microsoft Virtual Earth or Telescope or what have you inside the classroom for the benefit of my students?

Not every school has that kind of equipment on hand to teach the students. There is also a lot of interest in Arabic content because there is so little of it out there to start with. There’s a lot of interest with the creation and customisation of content.

Why is there still perceived to be a lack of a range of Arabic content available online?

Part of it is due to the content providers. It’s interesting in this region because there is to begin with a lot of content available in Arabic, it’s just that not a lot of it is making it into the digital ecosystem. I still think that publishers worry about intellectual property rights, about ways which they can monetise this digital content, about ways they can catalogue it and present it to potential customers. There is still work to be done in terms of the ecosystem to incentivise content owners to take it online.

One thing we’re doing is launching our content authoring tool called Author Expert. This is targeted at teachers – it helps them take content that they already own and create electronic content that they can use in schools using Author Expert. We’re hoping to doing some of our own little part to help make this happen. But it is a continuous process and there is still a mountain of content available in Arabic only in print form.

What is being done to protect this digital content from loss?

This is a risk. A lot of the Middle Eastern countries have become very serious in the past 20 years about cultural conservation and making sure they take good care of these books. It’s one thing to archive copies of digital content in a museum and a totally different thing to make it available inside a classroom or to a consumer on the web. This is the transition that needs to happen.

 Is there any effort by regional governments to expedite this process – and are they collaborating with each other in an effective manner?

We’re seen that the government of Egypt have for example, launched an Arabic book portal. The Mohammad Bin Rashid Foundation has launched an electronic books gateway called the Arab Library. There are initiatives and governments are taking a step to make sure that they properly embrace this ideal.

A lot of it today is disconnected so there isn’t a regional initiative to protect e-content. But I think it’s a good start and over time, we can expect to see these different initiatives meet up and merge and produce something big.

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