Can the Dubai government go paperless?

 

With Dubai long known as a centre for commerce, finance and entrepreneurial can-do, it is not surprising that the emirate is also now working to make itself one of the world’s leading Smart Cities. Indeed, testing new technologies and putting new concepts into practice are very much part of Dubai’s DNA. For some time, the emirate has been moving towards creating an integrated, high-tech infrastructure for daily life, and much has already been achieved in this regard.

At the same time, the guiding philosophy behind this – as with much of Dubai’s overall development strategy – is not smartness for its own sake, but the way in which technology can help achieve another, more far-reaching goal. The ambitious objective for Smart Dubai is, in part, to become one of the smartest cities in the world. With this aspiration in mind, technology is being deployed to increase the quality of life of the emirate’s 3.19m residents.

Long-term Goals

The smart city concept has a relatively long pedigree in Dubai. In 2000 the emirate’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, first launched the Dubai e-Government initiative, which aimed to transfer 70% of all government service interfaces online by 2005. An executive committee was established to deliver the initiative, with experts and specialists appointed to leverage the existing ICT infrastructure in making the project happen. Best practices in other countries, such as the UK, US, Malaysia and Singapore were also studied.

The initiative was a marked success. By the target date, some 30 departments and agencies were sharing a newly established Government Information Network, with the 70% target exceeded and an 81% e-enablement ratio reached. The initiative also hit on the formula of centralising all the common services while decentralising the core services of each department. This gave the latter autonomy and boosted creativity, while centralising common functions enabled synergies and reduced costs. Indeed, studies undertaken by Smart Dubai have since also revealed that between 2003 and 2015, the initiative saved $5.60 for every $1 spent on it. This initiative was, however, intra-governmental, with the next step to take this out to the wider public. In 2013 the Smart Dubai Government Establishment was launched. This also brought in international experts and specialists and sought knowledge of best practices elsewhere.

At its launch, Sheikh Mohammed also introduced the idea that the primary aim was to ensure the happiness of all UAE citizens. Smart Dubai Government, he told local media, was one that worked 24/7, was as welcoming as a hotel, provided fast delivery and robust procedures, was innovative and adaptive, served citizens in and outside the country and improved lives, responding to citizens’ expectations. The initiative required all government departments to put their services online and make them available through smart platforms by the end of May 2015.

Getting Smarter

Smart Dubai is now being built on the foundations of these initiatives. Born in 2014, it has since expanded into a separate office, outside its government home, and seeks to integrate the governmental side that has so far been the focus with a wide range of other services, both public and private.

The initiative has a blueprint, which sets out four basic pillars for its achievement: that it be efficient – optimising resources; seamless – that all of its daily services work together; safe – that people and information are protected; and personalised – that it may enrich the experiences of Emiratis.

To achieve these goals, the experience of the e-government and Smart Dubai Government initiatives has been vital. First of all, bringing in all stakeholders is seen as key. All government entities have so far been brought on-board, with over 60 government entities, 129 initiatives and 1137 services encompassed by August 2018, according to Smart Dubai. Another government initiative is Dubai Now, which combines over 62 governmental and non-governmental services from 28 public and private entities. With this app, smartphone users can pay everything from a telecoms bill to a traffic fine, check prayer times and school hours, all in one place.

A novel feature of Dubai Now too is that after every transaction on the app, you are also able to input your level of “happiness”. This is a use of the “happy meter”, which Smart Dubai has also promoted to many businesses as well as services. Using a simple scale, this data is then collected and analysed in real time, providing the first, live read-out on the level of the emirate’s contentment, a read-out which is relayed straight to Sheikh Mohammed himself.

Other initiatives include Government Resource Planning (GRP) – a shared services facility for all government entities. Part of this is Smart-Employee, an app that allows public sector employees to request leave, file expenses, apply for other postings, find and contact colleagues, and generally manage their work life. Dubai Careers is another app, with this providing an online one-stop-shop for job applications across a wide spectrum of governmental and non-governmental entities. Smart Dubai is currently working on a range of other facilities, involving everything from blockchain to artificial intelligence (AI).

A real estate app that uses blockchain technology is in development that will bring together rental and sales listings from across the emirate and enable users to buy or rent property, arrange viewings and contact landlords. The process for entering schools, managing the life cycle of a vehicle, and licensing procedures are also likely to see one-stop shop apps in the second half of 2018 and the first half of 2019.

Another facility is UAE PASS, which uses smartphone-based technology and links Dubai to e-government services in other emirates, with a single username and ID for all citizens, residents and visitors. UAE Pass will also allow users and entities to digitally sign documents and contracts.

When it comes to AI, Smart Dubai is taking advantage of the significant profile that it has already been given by both the Dubai government and federal authorities. Indeed, the UAE is one of the only countries in the world with a minister of state for AI, currently Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, who has been in the posting since October 2017. A roadmap for AI development and integration across the emirates is also being rolled out. One example of AI that is already in practice is Smart Dubai’s Rashid, an AI smart city advisor available on the DubaiNow app. Rashid understands both English and Arabic and will respond to typed and spoken questions and commands.

The government of Dubai is also aiming to go completely paperless by December 2021, with the UAE PASS and AI services mentioned above part of this drive, along with blockchain technology. In September 2018 Smart Dubai launched the Dubai Pay Blockchain Settlement and Reconciliation System, which enables payments to be made and reconciled via blockchain in real time and in a paperless fashion. This is set to be migrated onto the Dubai Blockchain Platform – launched in October 2018 – which will also act as a testing ground for the introduction of blockchain in a range of other services areas across the country.

Conducting Data Analysis

One of the key challenges in producing these one-stop-shop apps has been creating an efficient and workable system of data orchestration. For this, Dubai Data was created, with over 350 data experts from the public and private sectors brought in to create it.

The mass of data collected has been analysed and often repurposed – for example, data from the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority showing where accounts were closed and new ones were opened was used to show which districts of the city were becoming more popular, and which were less so. This has a multitude of other uses, from managing traffic flow to school allocation. Smart Dubai estimates that the utilisation of all of this data will add some $2.8bn to the emirate’s GDP every year from 2021.

START-UPS: Smart Dubai is also about supporting start-ups. Dubai Future Foundation is a key part of this, with its Dubai Future Accelerators programme examining where IT solutions might make a difference, then putting out to tender projects that address those areas. In May 2018 Smart Dubai Global Network was launched, with the aim to connect Smart Dubai to similar initiatives around the world.

So far, the initiative locally has been well received. Step by step, Smart Dubai is integrating every aspect of a person’s daily journey into a single online space. The next step will have to involve private sector entities much more closely, however, with businesses having to be convinced of the benefits for their bottom lines – and being prepared for a greater degree of transparency and data sharing than they might be used to. In any event, Dubai is moving rapidly forward with this project – with the smart future vision very much a fundamental part of the emirate’s strategic planning.

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The Report: Dubai 2019

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