Egypt Pulse

Egypt upping high-tech game to smarten cities, services

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Article Summary
The Egyptian government is launching itself into the world of technology by digitizing an array of services.

Egypt is rolling out seven online government platforms to automate various state services and digitally transform the country. The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology announced the plan May 26 and said the services will be available by June 30.

The platforms include ones for data, automated services, payments, strategic management (part of the "new Cairo" administrative capital project), geographic data, state property management and content.

The automated services platform will cover health insurance, taxes, social housing, special needs, commercial registration, real estate registration, education, subsidies, customs, traffic, marriage and divorce documents, and electricity and gas. The payments platform will aim to provide a smart card for each citizen to use for all relevant government services.

The services will be implemented first in Port Said at the northern end of the Suez Canal, making it Egypt's first "smart city." Major developmental projects are underway and will require high-tech capabilities.

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The platforms' launch comes as the government is intensifying its efforts — in cooperation with all state agencies and institutions — to achieve digital transformation, create an "e-government" and enhance access to financial services for businesses and individuals (financial inclusivity) through a host of information technology and communications projects.

Economists praised the plan, saying it will not only streamline procedures for ordinary citizens but also boost the national economy, cut corruption and reduce costs.

“Using technology to facilitate state services will have very positive repercussions on the government’s development plan,” Hassan el-Hayawan, an economics professor at Ain Shams University, told Al-Monitor.

Hayawan said this approach will facilitate exchanges, whether they are for commodities or money. The economist cited the example of Indonesia's rice ATMs, where people with ration cards can actually receive their monthly share of the grain.

“The use of technology will also put an end to corruption, including, first and foremost, taking bribes. It will reduce direct interaction with the public, which will mainly deal with machines, dramatically reducing corruption rates,” he added.

Corruption has been high, but the government has been taking measures recently to reduce the problem, such as launching a committee to monitor violations at state institutions. A report by Transparency International showed that Egypt's ranking in the Corruption Perceptions Index for 2018 improved from No. 117 in 2017 to No. 105 in 2018, among 180 countries. By comparison, Denmark was No. 1, the United States was No. 22, and Somalia ranked last.

Hayawan said that one of the most important challenges the government's digital transformation will face is infrastructure and slow internet service.

“Egypt is not equipped enough in terms of infrastructure to turn it into a digital society. A lot of public and private investments should be pumped into the information and communications technology infrastructure to ensure the [plan's] success," he noted.

The country's internet connections are good in some areas and very bad in others. “That's why the government has to rely mainly on fiber optic cables for telecommunication" to provide higher bandwidth and greater speed, he said.

The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology is preparing a national strategy regarding artificial intelligence (AI) in cooperation with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. The plan is to be implemented over three to five years. The strategy focuses on education and training to meet the need for trained workers in AI. The government will work with startups to launch AI projects, hold workshops and design curricula.

Ahmed el-Shami, an economist and feasibility studies professor at Ain Shams University, said changing people’s culture should be a major part of the digital transformation plan.

"Many Egyptians are still not comfortable with the idea of dealing with machines and technology instead of other people,” he told Al-Monitor. Shami said the media will need to have a large role in changing this culture.

He mentioned an advertisement for the National Bank of Egypt that ran during the holy month of Ramadan that just ended. In the ad, two robbers break into a bank only to discover that there are no employees and everything is digital. All transactions, including customer service, are being conducted electronically.

“These kinds of ads raise digital awareness among ordinary citizens and convey to them the idea of digital services in a simplified way. We should have more of these ads,” Shami said.

Only about 10% of Egyptians have bank accounts, according to a statement by Commercial International Bank CEO Hisham Ezz el-Arab. Shami noted, “This number is very small and it will take a lot of work to reach the other 90%."

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Found in: Technology

Menna A. Farouk, a journalist and an editor at The Egyptian Gazette, writes about social, political and cultural issues, including press freedom, immigration and religious reforms among other topics. On Twitter: @MennaFarouk91

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