Big Data in the GCC
ME PoV Summer 2019 issue
From strategy to global leadership
Big Data has become a hot topic in the last decade with many countries looking to acquire a competitive edge in this new industry. This disruptive technology offers numerous opportunities for governments across the world: it can help enhance decision-making, improve service delivery and also support the growth of a multi-billion dollar industry. A MarketsandMarkets study predicts that the market will be worth US$67 billion by 2021, growing at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.45 percent.1 Countries such as the UK, the United States and Australia have already displayed tangible progress in the implementation of their own Big Data initiatives, allowing them to achieve concrete benefits.
From a regional standpoint, GCC governments have set ambitious plans to position themselves at the forefront of this digital revolution. Most GCC countries have recognized the importance of this disrupting technology and have designed forward-looking strategies (e.g., UAE Smart Data Strategy, Tasmu Qatar, KSA Strategy, Smart Dubai) to unlock the possibilities offered by Big Data. To date, some of these countries remain in the strategizing phase and are working on developing concrete applications.
Gulf countries benefit from unique strengths to be able to unlock opportunities offered by Big Data such as the availability of an efficient legislative system, strong leadership commitment, and a state-of-the-art technology and infrastructure foundation. Therefore, it is critical for GCC countries to quickly progress from the planning phase in order to start implementing the key foundations required to enable Big Data applications at a government level.
Where does the GCC stand?
GCC governments have recognized the power of Big Data to drive economic growth, enhance decision-making and create competitive advantages in both, the public and private sectors. They have defined detailed plans to launch their Big Data transformation journeys. As such, GCC countries have reached different stages in their roadmap and have further milestones to reach when compared to global standards.
An investigation of the current state of GCC governments’ efforts towards unlocking the potential of Big Data unveils four areas of progress across the region:
Substantial efforts have been undertaken to define tactical directions and build comprehensive Big Data strategies and programs. Each of these countries approached it differently: Dubai’s Smart City Strategy, Qatar Smart Program (TASMU), Bahrain Open Data and KSA Open and Big Data strategies, are some examples. The anticipation of Big Data becoming a powerful lever in achieving national visions has driven the GCC countries to place it as a priority on their agendas.
In order to derive insights from Big Data, the necessary technology architecture and analytic capabilities are being implemented to facilitate usage. However, across the region, few governments have launched programs to develop data registries, standards and classifications to enhance data availability and quality. A large portion of the region's data quality has inconsistencies and limited metadata and even remains in a non-digital format, hindering the ability to extract valuable insights.
GCC governments have identified the need to prepare the current and future generation to handle Big Data by building data specialist capabilities, training government employees and revising existing educational curricula. In the government sector, one of these initiatives resulted in equipping civil servants with the ability to use data to provide better quality and more efficient services. For example, Smart Dubai has recently partnered with the private sector to build Data Lab to push data science skills in Dubai, improve collaboration within the data science community and uncover opportunities to boost the data ecosystem. However, a limited pool of data science talent in the region is making government transformation challenging.
Leveraging Big Data when providing individual services creates a balancing act between data collection versus utilization and data privacy versus security. Cyber security has rapidly become a priority for GCC nations in the light of recent cyber-attacks faced by governments in the world. GCC governments are investing heavily in safeguarding national security and educating the broader population on the importance of cyber-security. Governments across the GCC are working on new regulations to protect, not only the personal citizens’ interest, but also the overall robustness and security of the system. An example of these data protection laws is the Qatari law N13 of 2016. The law aims at protecting consumers in an increasingly threatening online environment and ensure that they have confidence in their personal data protection. Similar efforts are also seen in the UAE with the Dubai Open Data Law, and in Saudi Arabia where new data protection laws are expected to be implemented in the near future.
Big Data initiatives in GCC countries
The GCC governments have embarked on their Big Data journeys with an important understanding: Big Data is not only about technology, but a strategic key feature of the future. However, five critical challenges remain before the benefits of Big Data can be reaped for the GCC countries:
- Limited partnership with industry/entrepreneurs to capitalize on data;
- Cloud is not in play due to data residency issues, making Big Data more expensive than it should be;
- Investment remains focused on technology rather than on use cases;
- Costly human capital due to scarcity of regional talent (and somewhat global) and long lead times to build local capabilities;
- Data remains fragmented; limited cross-government utilization of data.
These implications end up preventing stakeholders from unlocking the full potential of such an investment and in other instances prevents others from venturing into this project.
Big Data challenges faced by GCC countries
Big Data journey framework
How can GCC countries leapfrog into the future?
To accelerate the progress of their Big Data programs, GCC countries need to quickly start building the necessary foundations to ensure that government entities have the ability to store, share and analyze large amounts of data from both, a technology and capability standpoint.
Forming the right governance is the most critical yet overlooked step. Governments need to first establish a governance body empowered to implement initiatives across the different entities, measure progress and provide subject matter expertise when required.
In addition to controlling and preventing misuse, governance should be activated with the target of fostering additional and improved use of data.
An operational layer composed of Data Champions from selected entities reporting directly to this body should be implemented. These champions act as change agents across their organizations and are responsible for project implementation.
Furthermore, establishing Big Data functions as a cross-governmental program proved to be a key success factor for implementation and alignment. As an example, the United Kingdom created the Data Advisory Board in 2017, which has the responsibility to drive better use of data across government and enable cross-government collaboration. The Board is also empowered to resolve any issues faced in achieving these objectives.2
Equip your organization with the right skillsets
“Data scientists are the new unicorns.” This expression is no longer a novelty and has become increasingly relevant due to the sheer competition to attract these talents. The good news is that the “Data science PhDs” are not mandatory as a first step to equip your team with the necessary skillsets; as an example, Australia has developed a holistic framework to improve overall data skills of Australian Public Service (APS) employees.3 The program is composed of in-house trainings, partnership with local universities to train civil servants in specialized data analytics, as well as placement programs with Data61, the government’s data innovation arm. It is also critical that these talents are able to operate without having to encounter the usual bureaucratic practices that often prevail in the public sector, and that can impact their creativity. Also, entities should nurture a culture of collaboration with external stakeholders (i.e. private sector, academia and other governmental entities) as it allows these organizations to have access to external capabilities and infrastructure not always available internally. A sample of such practices is: the Big Data Hubs created across the United States operating in collaboration with the private and academia sectors, with each hub focusing on different themes (e.g. mobility, environment and healthcare) depending on the regional needs and areas of interest.4
Better data quality for enhanced results
Improving the quality of the data is fundamental to maximize potential outcomes. Large amounts of datasets in the GCC remain non-digitized with various level of quality, which has a negative impact on usability. As a first step, it is fundamental that corporate or government entities create data registries to understand what is available. As this exercise of reconciliation is undertaken, datasets need to be cleansed in accordance to national-level standards. Defining data standards in a collaborative way is paramount for ensuring adoption across all organizations. All datasets should adhere to national standards and comply with confidentiality and legal requirements regardless of volume and complexity. This exercise can be daunting given the amount of datasets available within a government body. To simplify this process, entities should prioritize which datasets to cleanse based on use cases that they want to implement. A good example is the work undertaken by the Australian Government, which established a framework to identify datasets whose availability and use will generate significant community-wide benefits.5
Scalability and security as key guiding principles
Operating in a Big Data environment requires organizations to rethink some aspects of their IT infrastructure. Technology architecture is usually built upon legacy systems based on the prevalence of centralized infrastructures. Entities need to rewire their architecture and favor scalability to cope with large amounts of datasets with the ability to transform and load data in real-time if needed. In these new decentralized environments, security becomes even more important. The ability to provide anomaly/threat detection, immunization, and attack mitigation capabilities is the new norm. Keeping these key principles in mind will lower implementation risks and improve the ability to process large datasets.
Implementation of use cases to showcase benefits
As a first step, entities should consider using datasets already available internally to start showcasing tangible benefits. In order to do so, they should focus on prioritizing ‘low-hanging fruits’ before jumping into overly complex use cases requiring datasets that might not be directly available. A prioritization exercise can help in this selection process through defining which use cases can help to tackle key challenges while achieving tangible benefits. Below are some criteria that could help governments facilitate their selection process:
- To what extent could the selected use case be considered as a pragmatic solution to one of the country’s challenges?
- Are the required datasets for this use case already available within the organization?
- Impactful datasets might be residing with the private sector. Explore possibility of leveraging existing partnership.
This selection process is crucial, as implementing these practical cases will be seen as a proof of value, increasing the public interest and enhancing stakeholders’ involvement.
GCC countries have recognized the opportunities offered by Big Data and their potential impact on citizens and businesses. As such, they have set aspirational goals, strategies and roadmaps. While some governments have already started implementation, others are in the planning phase and have yet to convert their plans into concrete actions. An iterative execution approach to transform use cases into reality is key to becoming data innovators.
Many of the macro challenges faced by the GCC region have been tackled in other countries with proven Big Data use cases. These use cases were implemented in different sectors such as education, healthcare, transportation. In light of this, Gulf countries should focus on these sectors as a start, build expertise and achieve tangible results. To speed up the transformation, governments should collaborate with research centers to fuel innovation and unlock potential values of data.
As a result of these efforts and provided the key foundations required are put in place, GCC countries have the opportunity to transform their economies and play a leading role in the Big Data global race.
by Bhavesh Morar, Partner, Consulting, Maher Kilani, Senior Manager, Consulting, Jean Louis Prevost, Manager, Monitor Deloitte and Kristian Meyer, Consultant, Deloitte Middle East
- “MarketsandMarkets Big Data Study”, MarketsandMarkets, Big Data Market by Component (Software and Services), Type (Structured, Semi-Structured and Unstructured), Deployment Model, Vertical, and Region (North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific, Latin America & Middle East and Africa) — Global Forecast to 2021
- “The Government Digital Service (GDS) Advisory Board”, Government Digital Service, Cabinet Office, United Kingdom, www.gov.uk/government/groups/gds-advisory-board 2019
- “Australian Public Service Better Practice Guide to Big Data”, Commonwealth of Australia, 2014
- “Big Data Regional Innovation Hubs(BD Hubs) Accelerating the Big Data Innovation Ecosystem”, National Science Foundation, 2018
- “Data Skills and Capability in the Australian Public Service, Commonwealth of Australia, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2016