Aurora Magazine

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Taking on Digital Pakistan

Published in Nov-Dec 2020

Implementing the vision behind Digital Pakistan is essential to national progress, but it requires the will to make it happen.

Digital Pakistan began as an ambitious project to bring technology to the average citizen. The Prime Minister’s vision for a digital Pakistan sees equal opportunities for people from all walks of life.

The Network Readiness Index (NRI) 2020 by the Portulans Institute ranks Pakistan at the 111th position out of 134 (ranked at 104 in 2019). The Index ranks economies across 60 variables and explains how ICT impacts the competitiveness and well-being of nations. The four fundamental dimensions are: Technology, People, Governance and Impact. This means that the NRI covers issues ranging from AI and the IoT to the role of the digital economy in reaching the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SGD). Analysing the breakdown of the four dimensions, we can see that our global ranking for access, inclusion, SDG contribution and other factors is extremely low. This shows the real advance of Pakistan’s national transformation.

The project was led by Tania Aidrus, a former Google executive, whose exposure and experience qualified her for the Digital Pakistan vision. The initiative was officially launched on December 5, 2019. Aidrus brought with her the knowledge, best practices and support for the global movement. The five core pillars around which she and her team formed the vision were access and connectivity, digital infrastructure, e-government, digital skills and training and innovation and entrepreneurship.

According to the vision document: “As a mission-driven initiative, Digital Pakistan’s focus is primarily on ensuring that desirable outcomes are achieved. Specifically, this means that Digital Pakistan’s success should primarily be measured on whether such outcomes are actually achieved.” This implies that the vision is tangible and has quantifiable objectives. The team has been advocating the need for these pillars to improve tax collection, ease of doing business, reduce fraudulent activities, increase work effectiveness and more.

The movement made in this direction, albeit small, has sparked debates of bringing in the technological shift. The onset of Covid-19 accelerated the importance of these pillars, but the question remains – are we willing to budge?

Digital Pakistan from the onset had two main challenges to overcome. The first was creating mass awareness and the second was reducing apprehension within the system. The team spent a considerable amount of time meeting with internal stakeholders and understanding the lags of the system, but before that could be put into motion, one can argue that Covid-19 altered the course for everyone involved.

Digital Pakistan’s response during the pandemic played a critical role in regulating the situation on ground. Their work in collaboration with the Ministry of National Health Services helped gain a better understanding of the way the virus was spreading. This was a multi-stakeholder initiative, as data from the hospitals and laboratories were imperative in analysing trends. During this time, they launched the government tele-health platform, collaborated with AI companies for data-driven analysis, sent SMS alerts to people who were in proximity to patients and invited more technological solutions for awareness and monitoring.

Code for Pakistan helped set up a national dashboard to monitor active cases around the country in record time. A chatbot was initiated in Urdu and English to address common concerns and even find a lab near you to get tested. It proved to be an effective way to access information because the bot kept learning. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, Aidrus,

Dr Zafar Mirza and their teams broke out from the control room to strategise. All the above mentioned innovations played a role in shaping data that eventually helped the National Command Operation Centre to plan at a national level. These ideas highlighted the intentions Digital Pakistan had for the future of Pakistan and how they planned on using a collaborative approach to address the common problems in the country.

This being said, it is important to reiterate the fact that the five pillars need to be understood within the context of each other. For the average citizen to benefit from the digitisation plan there needs to be a plan for a solid digital infrastructure, access to services across Pakistan and the awareness to use it. Currently the SME sector contributes 40% to Pakistan’s GDP compared to a global average of 55%. To meet global standards and move beyond them, the five pillars need to be strengthened. The core challenges identified on a larger level are limited financing channels, restricted technological adoption and economic competitiveness.

Digital Pakistan was initiated by the Federal Government with the support of the Prime Minister’s Office and therefore its smooth execution required strong inter-provincial coordination and the willingness to make it work. With the departure of Aidrus, we are back to the question with which we started: what will it take for people to view Digital Pakistan as an opportunity? What will it take for government departments and the civil service to view it as an opportunity?

South Korea is seen as a model of good governance backed by ICT and digitisation. This transition started in the late sixties when computers were used for statistical purposes in public offices. From there to leading the world (with Australia and Denmark) in providing government services and information through the internet (e-Government Development Index 2018), the journey spanned decades.

For tech-driven initiatives to prosper in Pakistan, one needs more than the desire to work and the intention to change. These initiatives push for improvement, and challenge the status quo. Over time, there will be progress in different verticals to get the vision accepted. Aidrus and her team were a group of people that chose to come back to Pakistan at a big opportunity cost. This alone speaks volumes of the futuristic approach they carried. Yet, understanding the internal system was the biggest factor that had to be conquered before everything else.

Digital Pakistan is a vision that will have multiple owners in the years to come. With the increasing number of mobile and internet users (cellular subscribers stand at 163 million, with a corresponding rise in the number of 3G/4G users to 73 million and a 34.72% penetration rate, while broadband subscribers have increased to 75 million with a penetration rate of 35.69%), the entrepreneurs, business community, tech community and the government will have to see eye to eye in order to come up with sustainable solutions.

It is no hidden secret that the digitisation of health, education, law and order, transport, governance and more is the only way to build a future that is connected and progressing. The young are the future of Pakistan and they need to be given an infrastructure that accelerates their growth rather than hinder it. The vision of Digital Pakistan is essential to provide skills to solve problems that exist as well as those that are yet to surface. This vision is imperative in order to create a level playfield for people who want to increase their quality of life. Patience lies at the core of such movements to prosper – it will not happen overnight and it will not happen without the balance of ego, esteem, empathy and execution.

Nabeel Qadeer is CEO, InfinIT Global Labs, Co-Founder, Innovation District 92 and host/content producer of Idea Croron Ka.