My interview with Minister Hassel Bacchus

Thanks for the opportunity to share with you and your audience more on Digital Transformation (DX) of Trinidad and Tobago.

I would like to stress that this is a journey and while we have a destination in mind – of digital technology being part of the fabric of society and in our daily lives and contributing to a more inclusive and productive country, and a more transparent and accountable government – the journey will reveal many different layers that lead to that destination, those layers involving:

firstly people – our population, leaders, tech community; and an overall change of mindsets and behaviours – a culture for using technology, of innovation, and responsible use;

secondly infrastructure, of course – affordable, accessible and robust and secure telecommunications and devices; as well as hardware and software powered by the ICT sector;

thirdly – enabling legislation and regulations;

fourthly – actual eServices – whether it is government or business including entrepreneurs providing convenient, easy to use, reliable, secure services based on processes that are client centric.

What do we need to do for Trinidad and Tobago to be the ICT hub of the Caribbean?

We are one of the two Caribbean countries with a National ICT Plan. To become the ICT hub, the strategy firstly requires transformational leadership and political commitment. We have seen this already in place – the Prime Minister has articulated certain digital imperatives and has renamed the Ministry and assigned me in addition to Minister West to lead the charge.

We are building teams of leaders and we are doing so with business, within government and within society.

The next critical component is Skills – we have to acquire not just technology skills, but change management skills, innovator skillsets, persons who can envision the future-proof solutions, build it and those who can very importantly, transform minds and behaviours so that there is uptake, buy-in, involvement in the new digital way of service delivery. The tech hub must have a critical mass of talent, I cannot stress this enough. And if we were to consider not just becoming the tech hub, but sustaining it, we have to churn out a certain volume of talent and convert existing persons as well, and retain them, to have the necessary capacity that is needed. And where we simply do not have it, we have to acquire the talent/skills.

The third component is the output of the leadership and skills – the actual solutions. We need to have the data centers, the networks, the interoperability and the applications that work and are trusted. We have to build with the region in mind. And so when we develop a solution, it has to be able to be used in the wider Caribbean.

Give 5 concrete examples of how Big Data can be used locally?

1.       It is already being used by telecommunications providers to inform product/service offerings. And we know that telecommunications companies are not just telecom, they are entertainment and security providers as well. These companies employ data scientists. This can certainly continue.

2.       It is already being used by banks and other financial institutions again to inform service offerings. As you know, quite a few of the banks have insurance companies as part of their holding companies. They have financial profiles on their customers.

3.       The opportunity for Big Data from social media is what we are not exploiting because the social media companies are not domiciled here nor do local companies have agreements. The Cambridge Analytica case does show the potential of using big data to influence markets. This is untapped opportunity for T&T for marketing and for the private sector.

4.       What I really want to see Big Data used for is improved public management/service delivery whether traffic management, flooding or, disaster management rather, policing, infrastructure maintenance – simply having more sensors, cameras etc and using the data for predictive analysis to inform actions of the population or the authorities.

5.       Of course, given that we must leverage our comparative advantage, it would be remiss of me, not to mention using Big Data for indigenous culture and resources. Where are our carnival and other cultural events, foods, sites/attractions databases? There is tremendous opportunity to deepen and widen participation/markets etc

What are some upcoming digital tranformation projects for us?

Let me first talk about national projects and then government projects…

1.      Digital Skills for Society – this is all about increasing our capacity; we have signed an agreement with Microsoft Philanthropies Group and will commence training at the community level for digital skills, foundational skills, role-based skills and technical skills.

2.      TT WiFi, ICT Access Centres – all about increasing access and making access more affordable; in the case of TTWiFI providing free broadband in public hubs, and in the case of the access centres, providing ICTs in underserved communities.

3.      I must mention legislation – the government is revising the Electronic Transactions Act, the Data Protection Act, there are amendments pending for the Telecommunciations Act, and of course, the Cybersecurity Bill is being reworked at the JSC. The population must get involved and understand as these legislation affects rights, privacy, security – they affect people.

4.      In respect of government, our flagship project is the development and implementation of a National e-Identity by 2022, which is intrinsically linked to an Interoperability project but is all about providing the population with a single sign on to access government services in the first instance and to not have to provide certain bio data over and over again;

5.      Linked to this is the upgrade of our portal that will provide a single point to transact with government.

There are several more, but these are from the MPADT. All Ministries, Departments and Agencies have DX projects.

Thoughts on free and open source software (FOSS)?

Absolutely for it.  It is cheaper than buying proprietary software. We just have to ensure that we have the talent to develop and maintain it. So, from a policy perspective, I support open source and we are seeking to adopt as much as is possible in the DX. We actually have made use of OpenMaint in MPADT to develop an inventory solution and the Property Management Information System.

What do we need to do to make full use of the Tamana Intech Park?

Not just the Tamana Intech Park but tech centres if we are to be the tech hub in the Caribbean. We need to revisit the governance and align to our Development Strategy, attract the investment with some incentives. I will commit to working towards realising productive use before 2025.

How can we make use of digital currency in Trinidad and Tobago?

We are already making use of digital currency with every swipe of a debit card or every payment online. The banks have done and are doing a great job of keeping pace with the technology by providing chip cards and online/mobile banking. We need to make more use, we have to address the unbanked and perhaps learn and adopt from Africa in doing so. Trust and change management are the key elements; we have to change the mindsets of those segments of the population who need to see and feel cash, and for those who are not comfortable with the banks, with the Order for E-Money recently passed, other organisations can offer services. A big hurdle is regarding money laundering – with digital payments every transaction is traceable. So with strengthening the governance and institutions involved, we can become more ‘cashless’ and improve our transparency and corruption scores and ranks.

What things can we copy from Estonia?

Leadership and determination. 

We need to stick to the DX Agenda; we need to find a way for bi-partisan commitment.

Are we going to take action to rejoin the Open Government Partnership?

When we took the decision not to continue to pay membership it was with the knowledge that we can still practice Open Government. The Ministry has to put in place capacity to properly manage Open Government. Aside from a Secretariat, we need a member of Civil Society to lead the programme. We are working on policies at the moment and soon will undertake the necessary engagement to ensure we have the required representation to fulfil the OG criteria, then develop the action plan and implement. As a subset of OG we have Open Data – data.gov.tt – and work is being done to increase GoRTT datasets. Of course, with more capacity on board, this is to be expanded to national datasets.

What advice would you give to tech startups?

Value. Focus on products/services that offer value, that solve problems.

And provide these products/services at a high quality. You are competing globally.

When are we going to see the teleworking policy that is part of the National ICT plan?

The Industrial Relations Advisory Committee out of the Ministry of Labour has proposed Policy Guidelines on Remote Working that seek to ensure business continuity, the work-life balance of workers, and the sustained profitability of businesses. From the MPADT perspective we support this by establishing technological standards for an enabling environment. This would include minimum specifications for equipment, applications and connectivity, mobile device management and considerations for information and data security as part of a flexible and proactive approach to remote working within government. These standards will be available for roll-out within the coming month.

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