Over the past two decades, Nortal has been the driving force behind 100+ digital transformation projects for governments, healthcare institutions, and leading global enterprises. The company employs more than 1700 people in its offices in Europe, the Middle East, and North America. In 2020, when the world shut down, Nortal conducted the first-ever e-Census in the Sultanate of Oman. With 95% data quality.
Taavi Einaste, Nortal CEO of the Middle East and Africa, and Tomy Bosco, Partner and Business Area Director for Oman at Nortal, shone a light on the intense project and the work that Nortal has been doing in the Middle East.
More than 4.5 M people were counted, and over 100 M records were processed, with a data quality of 95%. With these impressive numbers, Oman achieved its first-ever e-Census in 2020. As a result, the Arab nation joined a list of a handful of countries worldwide to have ever successfully conducted a fully register-based census.
Despite the pandemic, Nortal, in collaboration with the National Centre of Statistical Information (NCSI), delivered the data-heavy project on schedule on the 12th of December 2020.
Compared to the 6,000+ staff who had carried out the last traditional Omani census in 2010, the e-Census was conducted by 74 people, including the 16-member expert team from Nortal.
How was the register-based census conducted?
Tomy Bosco: What should first be noted is that we worked with three main registers, which, in my view, are the lifeline of a country – the Population Register, the Establishment Register, and the Housing Register.
Census is one of the most important surveys states conduct. At the same time, it might easily be one of the most expensive. Automation helps reduce the cost drastically and validate the data on the countries base on their most eminent decisions.
The future of the census is a real-time registry-based census where the pulse of the population can be measured at any given moment from local and national registers.
Nortal and NCSI mapped the primary data sources (administrative registers), identifying the data fields needed for conducting the census and the secondary data sources for cross-validation. After data source identification, we established a standardised data exchange mechanism so that all the participating government agencies could transmit data in a predetermined format. One of the challenges was coding and classifying the data, so we had to implement a state-of-the-art metadata management component.
Data privacy of the citizens and residents was the top priority; we had stringent rules for the people and the technology solution processing the data. All the data used in the census was masked and anonymised to protect privacy.
Sultan of Oman, His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tariq signing the results of the e-Census
Is this project methodology transferable?
Taavi Einaste: No, because every country functions differently. For Oman’s e-Census project, the government wanted to “take the nation’s pulse” by counting the people and their characteristics. Therefore, the data sources are different in every country. In addition, Oman’s administrative registers were very mature, so conducting a 100% register-based census was easier. This is not always the case with other countries.
How reliable is this e-Census?
Tomy: Oman had very clear goals and mature and high-quality data. Any person entering Oman is instantly registered in the system. The same applies to babies born in the country. According to the United Nations’ recommendation, a person must have lived in a country for at least six months to be enumerated in the census. So, we applied specific statistical methodologies to filter out everyone who did not qualify. For example, we combined domestic and incoming data from foreign workers and applied the elimination methodology of fewer than six months of residence. We also cross-validated the data with multiple administrative registers to ensure we had multiple levels of validation in place.
Were the people questioned at all?
Taavi: No, we did not conduct any interviews. All the information came from the registers, the single source of truth. We had a mandate from the current Sultan of Oman, His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, the Chairman of the Technical Census Committee at the time of the census. His mandate allowed the project to access all the necessary data from the administrative registers without any issues or delays.
In the case of Estonia or Saudi Arabia, a hybrid approach is used. Firstly, information is collected through a survey to reduce the data gap, and then there is additional legwork for counting the people who still need to opt for self-enumeration.
Does Nortal have competitors in this area?
Taavi: We are a solo player in the market, especially regarding statistics and the e-census. Although people might think it’s solely a data processing project, that’s not the case. Censuses are very specific and very niche. They have a lot of complexity.
What is the sales cycle for a project like this?
Tomy: The sales cycle is usually about a year, from the initial approach and meetings with the customer to shaping the concept and setting our fees, putting together a proposal, getting it clarified and approved, and then deploying teams on the ground.
Of course, there is no traditional sales approach. In Oman’s case, we responded to a public tender. As experts on this topic, we were invited to share our experience and build our case. Word spreads, and when people ask who was behind this solution, Nortal comes up.
How did the project go?
Taavi: Well, every project has its challenges. We also witnessed several risks, starting with the unavailability of data during the initial phase, as administrative registers were hesitant initially. However, the good thing is that we are agile and can accommodate changes.
Tomy: We were not using traditional waterfall project management. Instead, we were flexible and could change, tune, adapt, and be more “elastic” to the project demands. The changes in scope resulted in a lot of… very emotional moments for our leaders and colleagues, but the good news is we pulled it off. 12th of December was set in stone as the launch date; it could not be moved. And we did it.
Taavi: This is another reason why Nortal is slightly different from the competition. We deliver no matter what. To put the customer first that’s the approach our Group CEO has taught us. We try to understand the pain and do our best to meet deadlines. It worked in Oman’s case, and we are doing the same for Saudi Arabia.
Besides Saudi Arabia, do you already have other census projects lined up?
Taavi: We have yet to make multiple bookings because our core team is mostly engaged elsewhere. Census is not a traditional software project. It’s very specific, very niche. And since we have already developed the team in this service area, they have all the necessary skills and experience.
We don’t know what is next, but we are talking with a few other countries and making plans for this year and next.