What drove the founding of SDAIA, and what makes the authority's structure and governance unique?
The National Information Center (NIC) was the basis of this authority, and it was once housed in the Ministry of Interior. His Royal Highness wanted to evolve NIC into a national data bank that could provide insights to decision-makers. In May 2018, we started working to develop this national data bank concept; however, there is no use in having a national data bank without the ability to unlock the value of data. This capability was based on AI and data science. We also wanted to have a government cloud (G-Cloud). There are three layers: the government cloud provides the foundational infrastructure to host all the government data; on top of that we have the national data bank which is the structured data lake connected all relevant datasets from all government entities; and then finally, we have the insights and intelligence layer, or what we call Estishraf platform, which brings the power of advanced analytics and AI to extract deep insights. We also needed to regulate the data, enable the ministries and the governmental entities to start sharing open data and keep it safe. Thus, we established the National Data Management Office (NDMO), as the regulator. Then, we needed an innovative arm in order to come up with new AI-based solutions and innovations; therefore we established the National Center for Artificial Intelligence (NCAI). That means SDAIA is composed of three main components: the legislative arm NDMO; the operational arm NIC; and the innovative arm NCAI. NCAI also has another function, which is building human capital and upskilling fresh graduates in the area of AI. This is a significant challenge because AI is almost based on human capital. When we looked at benchmarking worldwide, we found ourselves almost unique in establishing one entity that can accommodate data and AI with both a legislative account and innovation.
How did the pandemic change the position of SDAIA, and how did you participate in the coronavirus response?
When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, we had just been established, and we were asked to do many things and to do them urgently. We had to turn the Global AI Summit to be fully online and begin work immediately. We were tasked with three main things, the first of which was to help decision-makers. The Ministry of Health needed more data about people, what countries they came from, the percentage of people that got infected in these countries, where they worked, and so on. We had all this data since 2018, and it was much easier for us to provide these entities with this information than it would have been in the past. The second thing was to contain the pandemic. So, we developed a tool to help manage the curfew and allow people to gain permission to go out to do their necessary tasks under certain rules and regulations. This was also the case for government and private-sector employees who have to go to work. We developed a mobile app called Tawakkalna (In God we trust), and it was a six-month project that we had to do in 10 days. When we developed the application, we trained more than 50,000 governmental and private-sector employees to use it. This enabled all Saudi citizens and residents to use this mobile app to issue e-permits that could be shown to security officers on the streets. At the same time, we developed another application called Tabaud for exposure notifications using a framework from Google and Apple. This solution is based on Bluetooth; when people are infected, they can notify others automatically. We also had to work in parallel with another dedicated team to develop a secure video conferencing system (Boroog) for the government, the Council of Ministers, and the G20 Summit to hold its first virtual meeting in April. The pandemic gave us an extremely rapid start as an authority, and we did an incredible amount of work in a short time.
How does your mandate help different government entities and ministries to cooperate?
The G-Cloud does not only accommodate data but also allows coordination between different sectors. When the Ministry of Finance wants to see data from the Ministry of Education, we facilitate that. We decided as a principle that data should be saved in a single source. Educational data should be saved by the Ministry of Education, and any other ministries requiring this information can easily find it. The same applies to the Ministry of Labor regarding employees' information, the Ministry of Health regarding health records, and so on. The benefits of being integrated through a national data bank have already been realized within the government, and it will lead to more important advancements. In the coming months, we will host and utilize increasing amounts of data from various parts of the government . We have already accomplished a great deal but have much more to do in the coming years.