How GITEX set the agenda for the UAE’s dig­i­tal ad­vances

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As usual, this year’s GITEX Tech­nol­ogy Week in Dubai was a show­case of the lat­est and great­est in­no­va­tions from the world over.

Dubai Po­lice drew in­ter­na­tional head­lines with a hover-bike pro­duced in part­ner­ship with Rus­sian drone man­u­fac­turer Hover­surf that could help of­fi­cers reach emer­gen­cies faster by 2020.

There was also much at­ten­tion on the drone taxi ser­vice the emi­rate’s Roads and Trans­port Au­thor­ity (RTA) is test­ing with man­u­fac­turer Volo­copter, and new smart tun­nels ex­pected to re­duce wait times for pass­port con­trol pro­ce­dures at Dubai’s air­ports to just 15 sec­onds. Not to men­tion Hong Kong-based TCL Com­mu­ni­ca­tion’s de­ci­sion to un­veil its lat­est Black­berry smart­phone, the Black­berry Mo­tion, to the world at GITEX this year fol­low­ing big in­ter­est in its pre­vi­ous KeyOne de­vice.

How­ever, it was per­haps the less ex­trav­a­gant an­nounce­ments re­lated to smart and dig­i­tal ser­vices that served as a true in­di­ca­tion of the emi­rate’s progress to­wards be­com­ing a tech­nol­ogy hub.

Among the key show­cases in this area was a smart-de­ci­sion-mak­ing plat­form un­veiled by Smart Dubai. The new plat­form re­lies on a data ag­gre­ga­tor that forms the plat­form for Dubai's tran­si­tion into a smart city and was used to of­fer a glimpse of the fu­ture.

“The beauty of this room is not only the tech­nol­ogy per say, it's the uni­fi­ca­tion of all the city data that will al­low any de­ci­sion maker – whether it be a city plan­ner or en­tre­pre­neur or home seeker in the city – to make a mind­ful de­ci­sion,” says Dr Aisha Bin Bishr, direc­tor general of the Smart Dubai Of­fice.

The plat­form forms part of wider ap­proach by the city to dig­i­talise key ser­vices and even the iden­tity and doc­u­men­ta­tion of ci­ti­zens and res­i­dents, and there was progress on dis­play in sev­eral ar­eas.

Among the most im­me­di­ate to make an im­pact will be a new mo­bil­ity app from the RTA dubbed S’hai that will al­low cus­tomers to book and pay for all of Dubai’s trans­port op­tions through a sin­gle plat­form in­clud­ing metro, tram, bus, wa­ter­bus, taxi, e-Hail, Uber and Ca­reem se­vices. Other pro­jects from the au­thor­ity like a smart cross­ing sys­tem to al­low pedes­tri­ans time to cross the road and an up­dated drivers and ve­hi­cles app in­te­grated with the Sa­lik road toll sys­tem are also set to im­prove the lives of res­i­dents in the com­ing months.

Else­where, a blockchain data­base sys­tem launched by Dubai Land Depart­ment will record all real es­tate contracts, in­clud­ing lease reg­is­tra­tions,

and link them with Dubai Elec­tric­ity and Wa­ter Au­thor­ity (DEWA), the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem and var­i­ous prop­erty re­lated billing sys­tems to sim­plify the process of rent­ing in the emi­rate. The first phase will see the build­ing of a per­sonal ten­ant data­base us­ing Emi­rates ID cards and res­i­dency visas to al­low renters to make pay­ments elec­tron­i­cally with­out the need to write cheques, print pa­pers or visit a govern­ment en­tity.

Bishr says the even­tual goal is for any trans­ac­tion or process in­volv­ing a govern­ment depart­ment in the UAE to be dig­i­tal, but one key hur­dle that still needs to be ad­dressed is buy-in from the courts and le­gal recog­ni­tion of dig­i­tally sign­ing a con­tract or in­voice.

“We’re bring­ing many dif­fer­ent de­part­ments with us, whether it be the court, fi­nan­cial in­sti­tutes, de­vel­op­ers and na­tional in­sti­tutes also – not only lo­cal govern­ment – so we can com­bine them all in one holis­tic plat­form so that to­mor­row even dig­i­tal sig­na­tory is ap­proved by this,” she says.

Dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion

Be­yond the lofty goals of the govern­ment in Dubai, the pri­vate sec­tor in the Gulf is em­brac­ing tech­nol­ogy for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, with a key em­pha­sis on cost sav­ings and ef­fi­ciency.

“The ex­pec­ta­tion is we need to cut the spend. That’s the ex­pec­ta­tion of any strate­gic ini­tia­tive of any or­gan­i­sa­tion, small or medium or even a large en­ter­prise. But at the same time growth is a crit­i­cal el­e­ment,” says Xerox UAE mar­ket­ing man­ager Pankaj Kalra.

In­deed, a brief look through the nu­mer­ous sur­veys and re­ports re­leased around GITEX showed some of the im­pacts of a dip in eco­nomic sen­ti­ment in re­cent years re­lated to the low oil price and other re­gional is­sues.

Tech­nol­ogy re­search and con­sult­ing firm IDC said in its first half re­port cov­er­ing the Mid­dle East and Africa en­ter­prise in­fra­struc­ture hard­ware mar­ket, in­clud­ing servers and ex­ter­nal stor­age, that spend­ing was down 8 per cent year-on-year in the first half of 2017 to $1.1bn.

“I would say with all due re­spect to IDC that spend­ing is be­ing di­rected into new tech­nolo­gies which still in my opin­ion is IT,” says Dell Tech­nolo­gies in­fra­struc­ture so­lu­tions manger for Mid­dle East, Turkey, and Africa, Shams Hasan

“It is very im­por­tant to un­der­stand that tra­di­tional IT spend­ing is de­creas­ing but we as an or­gan­i­sa­tion see that cus­tomers are spend­ing even more in the to­tal­i­tar­ian uni­verse of tech­nol­ogy.”

He sug­gests pres­sure to em­brace dig­i­tal and trans­form their busi­ness is lead­ing re­gional firms to look at what tech­nol­ogy needs to be re­tired or moved to emerg­ing plat­forms, while de­mand for tech­nol­ogy con­sult­ing is in­creas­ing as com­pa­nies look to take their next step.

This in turn is trans­lat­ing into de­mand in ar­eas deemed the com­po­nents of dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion – namely cloud com­put­ing, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, the in­ter­net of things, big data an­a­lyt­ics and ro­botic au­to­ma­tion.

Kh­waja Saifuddin, se­nior sales direc­tor for India, Mid­dle East and Africa at US data stor­age com­pany Western Dig­i­tal says de­mand is ex­ceed­ing sup­ply in the Gulf re­gion.

“Busi­nesses in the gulf are de­ploy­ing new stor­age in­fra­struc­ture to fur­ther de­velop their data han­dling com­pe­tences,


and over­all data man­age­ment of in­ter­nal busi­ness in­for­ma­tion,” he says.

“Ad­di­tion­ally, they re­quire vig­or­ous back-up and re­cov­ery pro­ce­dures, and sys­tems that would ben­e­fit them to of­fer and de­liver top-notch prod­ucts and ser­vices to con­sumers.”

Su­nil Paul, co-founder and COO of sys­tems in­te­gra­tor Fi­nesse, says pri­or­i­ties vary for com­pa­nies in dif­fer­ent sec­tors from blockchain and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence chat­bots for banks to au­to­mated cus­tomer re­la­tion­ship man­age­ment and loy­alty pro­grammes for other en­ter­prises.

“Dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion is not a so­lu­tion or prod­uct it’s not some­thing you can achieve by a pro­gramme so it is a jour­ney. In this jour­ney you will find there are var­i­ous mile­stones, so this has to be con­tin­u­ous,” he ex­plains.

“If you look at fi­nan­cial ser­vices they are pos­si­bly slightly ahead. The govern­ment, I can see from [Dubai ruler] Sheikh Mo­hammed’s ini­tia­tives that they are far ahead, but other in­dus­tries are yet to catch up.”

He ex­pects many re­gional firms that have not al­ready started to, to em­bark on the first phase of dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion – cloud com­put­ing – in the next six to 18 months. Wide­spread adop­tion of other tech­nolo­gies like AI chat bots and dig­i­tal-based re­sponse sys­tems will likely take longer though, he sug­gests, and it could be five years be­fore bit­coin data­base tech­nol­ogy blockchain is widely used by com­pa­nies in the re­gion.

In con­trast, other ar­eas like cy­ber se­cu­rity are deemed a more press­ing con­cern for re­gional firms.

A study re­leased by Rus­sia’s Kasper­sky Lab re­vealed the costs in­volved with se­cu­rity breaches in the Mid­dle East, South Africa and Turkey, with en­ter­prises pay­ing an av­er­age of $591,000 per in­ci­dent and smaller com­pa­nies $88,000.

Another sur­vey of Mid­dle Eastern firms with 250 or more em­ploy­ees by US com­pany Fortinet showed 89 per cent had ex­pe­ri­enced a se­cu­rity breach and 69 per cent had in­creased their IT se­cu­rity bud­get from the pre­vi­ous year.

“There is a very real con­cern today tech­nol­ogy-wise and a big em­pha­sis [on se­cu­rity]. It’s the ‘on topic’ with gov­ern­ments and oth­ers,” says Alain Penel, re­gional vice president for the Mid­dle East at Fortinet.

He sug­gests this con­cern has meant

the sec­tor has not been hit by spend­ing cuts like other ar­eas, with the com­pany see­ing “double-digit” sales growth. And fur­ther busi­ness is ex­pected given the sur­vey’s find­ings that 75 per cent of IT de­ci­sion mak­ers be­lieve cloud adop­tion – and the se­cu­rity to sup­port it is a grow­ing pri­or­ity for their boards.

“In today’s dig­i­tal econ­omy, I ex­pect the trend we’ve seen at the board level to ac­cel­er­ate with se­cu­rity be­ing treated as a top pri­or­ity within an or­gan­i­sa­tions’ broader risk man­age­ment strat­egy,” he adds.

Ad­dress­ing fu­ture chal­lenges

In other ar­eas too, com­pa­nies are pre­sent­ing so­lu­tions in re­ac­tion to govern­ment reg­u­la­tion and ini­tia­tives.

In­dian en­ter­prise re­source plan­ning soft­ware com­pany Tally So­lu­tions sees par­tic­u­lar po­ten­tial in the up­com­ing im­ple­men­ta­tion of a 5 per cent value added tax rate across the GCC.

Se­nior man­ager for busi­ness devel­op­ment Gu­ru­ra­jan K ex­pects de­mand for ac­count­ing soft­ware in par­tic­u­lar to pickup as VAT forces small and medium en­ter­prises to main­tain their books to be com­pli­ant with the law, which comes into ef­fect in the UAE on Jan­uary 1.

“What hap­pens is tra­di­tion­ally some of the busi­nesses, es­pe­cially for the small sec­tor, they have not been main­tain­ing their books or ac­counts in a proper man­ner,” he says.

“VAT is an en­abler so that they are able to stream­line their busi­nesses and pro­cesses so they can have much bet­ter con­trol of their whole op­er­a­tion.”

Else­where, Ja­pan’s Smartmed­i­cal Corp sees po­ten­tial in the use of its ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence emo­tion de­tec­tor Em­path as part of UAE Vice President, Prime Min­is­ter and Ruler of Dubai His High­ness Sheikh Mo­hammed bin Rashid Al Mak­toum’s ini­tia­tive to make the UAE one of the hap­pi­est coun­try’s in the world.

The com­pany is col­lab­o­rat­ing with the Min­istry of In­te­rior and Smart Dubai to see how the tech­nol­ogy can be used to mea­sure the hap­pi­ness of UAE ci­ti­zens and res­i­dents in key ar­eas.

“Smart Dubai of­fice has al­ready im­ple­mented their hap­pi­ness me­tre along the metro sta­tions, as you know. We think it's a good so­lu­tion to check hap­pi­ness; how­ever, it is not ob­jec­tive. It is a more sub­jec­tive tech­nol­ogy,” says project man­ager Hazumu Ya­mazaki.

The Smartmed­i­cal sys­tem is able to as­cer­tain a per­son’s mood, re­gard­less of the lan­guage, by the tone of their voice. This is then shown on a ‘ barom­e­ter of joy’.

“We are also hav­ing dis­cus­sions with Dubai Elec­tric­ity and Wa­ter Au­thor­ity and they are try­ing to im­ple­ment the tech­nol­ogy, which can iden­tify emo­tion, at pub­lic cen­tres,” he re­veals.

Per­haps one of the most am­bi­tious pro­jects un­veiled at GITEX though came from an or­gan­i­sa­tion from the UAE it­self, with the un­veil­ing of the Klip ap­pli­ca­tion by Emi­rates Dig­i­tal Wal­let.

The dig­i­tal pay­ment app, backed by 16 UAE banks, is aim­ing to make all trans­ac­tions in the coun­try cash­less, from an es­ti­mated 75 per cent of the econ­omy that is cash-based today, ac­cord­ing to UAE Cen­tral Bank fig­ures.

“We be­lieve strongly it will take time to get out of the men­tal­ity of cash,” says Emi­rates Dig­i­tal Wal­let general man­ager Maki Veki­nis.

“We’re not go­ing to push, what we’re go­ing to do is use case pi­lots in a small geog­ra­phy.”

Th­ese pi­lot pro­jects are ex­pected to be­gin in the open­ing months of next year and will grad­u­ally be ex­panded, as use cases are ad­dressed, un­til the app is ready for a na­tion-wide roll­out among shops and con­sumers.

“Cash is cash,” says Veki­nis. “For us we will be very suc­cess­ful if we have 50 per cent con­ver­sion in five years.”

As th­ese and other pro­jects con­tinue apace the mes­sage from Smart Dubai’s Bishr to the pri­vate sec­tor is clear.

“We are open­ing Dubai as a plat­form to at­tract all de­vel­op­ments and en­trepreneurs who have ideas and tech­nolo­gies to bring it here,” she says.

Clearly there will be many more in­no­va­tions to come as Dubai con­tin­ues on its jour­ney to be­come the re­gion’s tech­nol­ogy hub.

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