NIC Entrepreneur in Conversation: A Session with Shabahat Ali Shah on Enhancing Service Delivery Through Technology
Following through with its aim to connect the community with distinguished professionals, the fifth session of NIC’s Entrepreneur in Conversation Series, Digitizing Governance: Enhancing Service Delivery through Technology, held on January 4, 2021, featured an eminent name in the realm of technology. Shabahat Ali Shah, CEO National Information Technology Board (NITB), Government of Pakistan, and Chairman of the Board of Ignite, National Technology Fund for Entrepreneurship, shared valuable insights regarding the impact of e-governance on policymaking, strategy and service delivery.
Reflecting upon his entrepreneurial experience as the founder of three technology ventures, Mr. Shah also discussed the steps taken by the Government to promote entrepreneurship. “In the last 20 years, I have learnt how disruptive technologies can alter the lives of people, and how you can utilise them for the betterment of the coming generations,” he said. Having worked as a corporate executive, as a public servant of Pakistan, and as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, Mr. Shah’s experience is multifaceted.
The session was led by Saleem Ahmad, Chairman NIC, who initiated the conversation by asking Mr. Shah to elaborate on how the Government leveraged technology to help Pakistan during the influx of Covid-19. Mr. Shah believes that Pakistan had been lucky in the regard that the pandemic infilterated the country a little later than it did in the West, which gave the Government some time to prepare. Collaborating with the health ministry, the interior ministry, and the technology ministry, they built a central repository that utilised data from 5000 hospitals all over Pakistan to create analytic dashboards. This allowed them to produce apps and platforms for the general public, that would take the location of the users and inform them as soon as a bed or vent became available nearby.
Furthermore, they worked with the private sector to create an effective smart lockdown system at the Government level, which enabled them to lockdown streets, colonies and highways. Mr. Shah is proud of the data-based solutions that they built, and stated, “I believe that our people have done really good work using technology and using data-based decision making to get down to this particular level where we have been controlling the pandemic in better ways than many of the developed countries in the world.”
Mr. Shah also talked about the Ehsaas emergency cash programme that is operating at the poverty alleviation division and aims to dovetail the data with national ID cards, and other specified attributes, to seek out people in need and distribute funds to them. Efficient technology is used for the accurate disbursement of funds while keeping operational costs at a minimum. The Government has also taken steps to create an international payment gateway for Pakistan that would allow exporters or project owners to export their goods to anywhere in the world and receive their payments directly and safely. Mr. Shah believes that “If an international payment gateway is deployed and is merged with the e-commerce group of Pakistan, triggered with the best logistics and the best delivery system then Pakistan's e-commerce at large can grow multifold in a very short period of time.”
He also talked about his efforts to build human capital alongside physical infrastructure. Pakistan produces over 25 to 35 tech graduates every year, and while they are all talented, less than 10% of them have the skills to survive in the competitive market. He discussed his work on creating a framework for a software technology park where the younger generation could enhance their skillset to a level that would equip them with a competitive edge in the market.
Mr. Shah then moved on to highlight a programme that the Government is currently working on, in which foreign trainers will come and coach trainers at Pakistani universities in different segments of Artificial Intelligence, and get them to a level where they can further train people, create different kind of projects within the nation and market them outside the county as well. Furthermore, it will liaison with commercial counsellors in different consulates across the world to market Pakistani products and projects. “These are a couple of things which we need to take on war footing to build an ecosystem where we will be exporting lots of Pakistani products outside and give confidence to foreign investors and buyers to make transactions in our country,” he shared.
He also talked about the ways the government is incentivising small start-ups and informed the audience that he has in fact been working with a few start-ups that did not have any brand or references but do have exuberant use in the areas that the government requires. For such start-ups, the government has crafted a business model that enables them to deploy their solutions across segments with their own brand and logo, backed by the government. This allows them to gain momentum and brand visibility. “You may not have the reference, but you have the technology. We will, therefore, vouch for you and provide you with the space to gain instant credibility and reliability.” However, as part of the government, it is necessary to abide by the policies, which is why Mr. Shah advises the smaller start-ups to dovetail onto bigger companies. He stated that to encourage this practice, the government also incentivises the big brands to help start-ups provide their solutions to them.
After the enlightening discussion, the floor was opened to questions from the attendees. Amber, co-founder of a digital learning platform called Study Assist, expressed her interest in one of Mr. Shah’s Edtech projects, E-taleem, and asked him how he ensures that learning effectiveness is being measured and improved from a practical point of view.
Mr. Shah shared the challenges faced with E-taleem being the first initiative of its kind at the Government level. He stated that the curriculum and the performance measurement for each class has been devised after rigorous consultation with the public as well as the private sector so that it is effective for students from all kinds of backgrounds. In the near future, students will be asked to go through a standard examination which will help gauge the effectiveness of the curriculum, and will uncover the kinds of changes that need to be implemented.
A question that occupies a big chunk of the minds of Pakistanis was put forth by Daniyal Mubashar from Soch, who asked what the NITB is doing to help the masses get Internet.
Mr. Shah responded to the question with hope and conviction. As a member of the board of Universal Service Fund (USF), he emphasised the work done by USF to provide data to underserved and unserved areas of Pakistan. The USF has strengthened its strategy and is going to great lengths, from Gilgit Baltistan to Karachi, to plant towers and enhance the Broadband and Wireless connectivity of Pakistan. A year ago, there were only four big projects of fibre connectivity, while this year alone they have over 18 projects that are working to roll out fibre in the most distinct, rural areas of Balochistan, interior Sindh, and even the Southern areas of Punjab. “I think you will see a major difference in the next 12 months in terms of connectivity,” said Mr. Shah
Attendees were encouraged to submit their proposals to NIC Ignite; a technology-agnostic platform that takes budding entrepreneurs from ideation to the final stages of their businesses. Mr. Shah informed that the proposals can be unsolicited, and will be evaluated based on a framework devised by the government. If the idea seems promising and is deemed to have great impact if materialised, it will then be funded and placed in one of the NICs to develop your brand. “Ignite will give you a fair chance of evaluation and an opportunity to become a game-changer in any segment,” assured Mr. Shah.
To watch the informative session, visit the NIC Facebook page.