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The digital road to development – Cybernetica brings data exchange to Benin

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Estonia. However, our path encompasses a clear vision for the present and the future. It is a declaration of commitment towards what makes countries progress – development in all its digital and societal facets.

The story of Estonia and the country it has become now is rooted in history: with zero legacies – legal, IT systems or others – there was lot of work to do. The process that led us to be one of the most advanced digital societies in the world was built layer by layer, with the crucial help of those companies that could capitalize on their skills and knowledge to contribute to the making of yesterday’s goals and today’s achievements.

If the main character of this story is the role of public-private partnerships, then the parents of our digital society are two elements that, as highlighted by the World Bank, make the foundations of our e-government ecosystem: digital identity and interoperability. Saying that “they worked well” in Estonia would be an understatement, so why not use them, following these steps, to foster the development process of other countries as well?

From Estonia to international interoperability

Cybernetica has been working across four continents to advocate the importance of having information systems communicating efficiently and securely. Their Unified eXchange Platform (UXP) is what sustains the renowned Estonian solution, enabling interoperability and secure data exchange, now also updated with monitoring and security components, and a portal to quickly deliver services. After implementing the platform in Ukraine, Greenland, Haiti, and Namibia, the company is taking it to full-scale deployment also in Benin, together with e-Governance Academy.

Now, here is a perfect example of how collaborations start: state visits, talks, the involvement of partners, counselling, training, piloting. Yes, we know, easier said than done if we put it this way, but in the end, it actually boils down to a linear series of steps – when everything goes well. And that’s exactly what Riho Kurg, Head of Data Exchange Technologies at Cybernetica, had the chance to see in Benin:

“African countries have demonstrated that they have potential, and leaders are trying to make a change and have an impact. They see that the government should be available for citizens 24/7, and that the benefits involve both sides of the table.”

When change does not represent a mere wish, but a concrete will to move forward, it’s also much easier to make the transformation happen. “I’m happy to admit” –  Kurg continues – “that we were positively surprised by the amount of technical expertise that the people involved in the training have in Benin, they kept our technical staff really on their toes with all their questions.” Two years have passed since the beginning of this cooperation, and Cybernetica, e-Governance Academy and the Government of Benin are now getting down to the pilot phase of the project when key elements of the platform are put into place, tested, and studied by government experts. Subsequently, the phase of full implementation will take place, including the setting up of the services and interfaces that citizens and organizations will use.

Once reached the implementation stage, the creation of an ecosystem of support and consultancy to government leaders and officials plays an important role. Within the realm of this project, the task of e-Governance Academy is to support the Government of Benin in developing the national e-government framework enhancing interoperability, focusing on the organisational setup and regulatory aspects. Moreover, e-Governance Academy will organise training sessions for the officials and IT specialists of Benin, to provide the necessary knowledge on interoperable solutions, guidelines, procedures and key standards.

However, one aspect that we could never overlook is the cultural change that technology can bring to the way of thinking and doing things. We may be talking about UXP, but what Cybernetica is addressing is the need for a new kind of governance, in Europe as much as in Africa. Having users and service providers interact in a digital environment for information exchange is not something that happens overnight, and that’s why governments should get on board on this journey as soon as possible. “The technological challenges are a different matter, but the main point is about not missing chances for making investments which will take several years to become visible, but that will show significant results. It’s a question of people’s mindset: if there is political will, any challenge can be overcome,” Kurg states.

Where to next?

From the cold temperatures of Greenland to the equator and beyond, countries are embarking on the journey of digital transformation to change governments and society. Benin and Namibia have already started, but will other places in Africa follow the same path? “We see that there’s huge potential for creating digital impact in the continent, but in order to achieve that, the foundations of a digital society need to be there: digital infrastructures, skills and human resources, internet and telecommunications, digitized databases – these are the foundational elements of a digital society, and interoperability is certainly among those,” Kurg explains.

Saving time, saving money, providing better services, cutting on eventual cases of corruption. Taken together, it sounds like the recipe for a public sector utopia, but Africa is one of the places where countries are already showing how there’s room on Earth for a setting like that. Cybernetica, also in cooperation with e-Governance Academy, the Estonian ITL, and several other partners, is willing to be part of this process. The purpose is to provide the needed expertise that already contributed to the making of our digital nation. The Transform Africa Summit, coming up in May 2019 in Rwanda, shows that a SMART Africa aims to achieve bold goals and milestones in digital development. Now more than ever we know that setting an example is important, but learning and cooperating towards a common target is what can truly make the difference.

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