Op-ed: Moving towards digital government



Author: Sutapa Amornvivat, Ph.D.
Published in Bangkok Post newspaper/ In Ponderland column 20 September 2018

I recently joined a panel discussion at the Ministry of Commerce's forum on technology development and connectivity in the CLMVT (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand) region. Talking about this topic often brings us to physical connectivity like road and rail; while we overlook another important aspect of connectivity especially in this era — the flow of information or data across countries. This type of connectivity forms a crucial part in supporting sustainable development and shared prosperity.

The key enabler for such connectivity requires government investment in its own digital infrastructure that will provide a strong foundation for people and business to build upon.

One particular area I want to discuss is digital infrastructure for data sharing. Given the massive amount of data at hand, governments can provide a strong catalyst to advancement in technology like AI and big data by taking on a role of data aggregator and a platform that gives data back to the rightful owners, its citizens.

A leading international example is the case of Estonia, a small country in Europe that used to be a part of the dissolved Soviet Union. The country has transformed itself into a world leader in digital government, especially for its data infrastructure.

The Estonian government has invested in a secured data exchange platform called "X-Road" that allows residents, public institutions and private companies to share information. Participants will gain access to e-ID, a system that verifies digital identity. In essence, this is a public data sharing project that connects civilians to the government database containing secured digital IDs. It allows Estonians to access digital services securely, ranging from tax filing and reviewing medical records to selling cars. This paperless model is estimated to save 2% of Estonia's GDP each year, which amounts to US$500 million.

Other countries have followed this model. In early 2016, Japan launched a digital identification programme called "MyNumber", which helps residents access and manage a range of government services online such as social security and income taxes. Finland, Oman, Azerbaijan and Palestine have already adopted a similar system. Others have shown interest with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel visiting Estonia's "e-government showroom" in 2016.

In building such a system, data privacy is at the heart of this matter. Proper data governance must be put in place to ensure transparency. By logging into Estonia's State Portal, residents can check who holds their information, who can access it and who has accessed it. A separate entity, the Data Protection Inspectorate, takes the role of regulation enforcer. The system is designed to allow consumers to have firm control over their own data.

In Thailand, progress in terms of government digital infrastructure is under way. At least, by October this year, all government agencies will no longer ask for a hard copy of a national ID card. A copy has long been required to do any official business, from getting a driver's licence to registering a company. This is a great step in the right direction.

As a part of the national strategy, the prime minister has announced a national agenda, the Digital Government Development Plan, to be spearheaded by the Digital Government Agency (DGA, previously Electronic Government Agency).

One of its earlier initiatives is to build the Government Cloud (G-Cloud) that will provide cloud computing and storage services for government agencies. Several offices such as the Electronic Transactions Development Agency and the Ministry of Public Health, have already started using its services. This could be a foundation for a backbone data exchange system for Thailand, like X-Road in Estonia.

For the next step, the government should open up its cloud system to non-government parties. Open APIs would allow any developer to connect to the platform and access data (with the consent of users) so that they can build innovative services for the public. Imagine a "ThaiGov for Developers", similar to those offered by Facebook and Google. An open system would encourage the participation of creators and foster a collaborative culture.

With such a data exchange centre, we will be giving back the right to control personal data to the people. A greater sense of ownership should lead to more vigilance over their data, regardless of whether it is collected by the government or private parties.

Undergoing a digital transformation is not easy. I have witnessed first-hand the banking industry's continuing struggle through this process. The strategy is more than just a matter of technology. It is also about culture and ways of work.

Open data by the government and a public platform that gives data back to the people will be a step towards creating a ripple effect in terms of data culture. It could also be a big leap forward in educating the public about data privacy.

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