May. 20, 2021


Esam Abdullah Khalaf Alwagait

Saudi Arabia

Esam Abdullah Khalaf Alwagait

Director, National Information Center (NIC)

“Estishraf has contributed to empowering the economy of the Kingdom through multiple approaches.”

BIO

His Excellency, Dr. Esam Alwagait is the Director of National Information Centre in Saudi Arabia. He has a collective experience of around 20 years in IT. Before joining NIC, Dr. Alwagait was the CEO of National Digital Transformation Unit in Saudi Arabia. He also worked as the Deputy Minister for Technical Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He worked in the Ministry of Education as the general supervisor for information technology, and was also Dean of E-Transactions and Communications and Dean of E-Learning and the Distance Education Deanship at KSU. Alongside those positions, Dr. Alwagait was chairman of the Saudi Computer Society for the period of 2015-2019. He was an associate professor at the College of Computer and Information Sciences (CCIS) at King Saud University (KSU) with research interests focused on Social Media and data mining. He has several publications about Twitter-related issues in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia.


Could you summarize the key responsibilities of NIC and the reasons behind its creation?

The National Information Center was established in 1979, with the task of implementing an information system project for the Ministry of Interior. The Center provided IT solutions and services to the Ministry sectors and other government agencies, making it one of the largest IT centers in the Middle East. With the establishment of the vision 2030, a need to join the technology race emerged, the strategy by which NIC operates was updated, and in 2019 a royal decree was issued to create the Saudi Data and AI Authority, which the Center is now part of. The authority has three arms; a regulatory arm (the National Data Management Office), an innovation and R&D arm (the National Center for AI), and an operational arm, which is the NIC. As per the new strategy, NIC operates in four pillars; first pillar is the centralization of all government data through The National Data Bank, this strategic direction will increase cost and effort efficiency, and empower intra-government supervision and collaboration. Another byproduct of The Data Bank is the ability to use data and AI in decision support through the second pillar “Estishraf” (Arabic for foresight). Through Estishraf we have served over 20 government entities through economic and strategic decision support that has resulted in over 40 billion SAR of potential government savings. The third pillar is the centralization of government technology infrastructure through the Government Cloud (G Cloud), whose goal is to allow government entities to shift their focus towards providing their core services without the overhead of building and maintaining technology infrastructure. The fourth pillar serves the need of developing high-quality national platforms. NIC developed and currently operates multiple renowned national platforms such as Absher, Tawakkalna, and Burooq, the video conferencing service used during the Covid-19 crisis. We are currently developing new platforms that will further progress the Kingdom in its quest to digitization.

How does your mandate align with the ecosystem of regulators within the Kingdom, and how do you coordinate?

NIC is an operational entity, our main goal is to host data and services, in collaboration with the different regulators in the sector. We are working closely with Yesser in matters of standardization and enabling services between government entity, and with SDAIA's National Data Management Office in matters of data standardization and usage policies. So we are always ensuring the highest level of harmony with other entities and compliance to regulation. However, it is worth mentioning the government is moving towards splitting the responsibilities between the regulator and the implementer, for example the Government Secure Network used to be operated by Yesser, but it has moved to NIC to honor this separation of concerns.

How have you used machine learning to sift through government data?

Estishraf Program is the analytical arm to NIC, it leverages the cross-sectoral data in the Data Bank to create a 360 view on different topics in order to support government officials in making informed decisions, measure performance, improve efficiency, and understand socioeconomic impact of changes and policy reform. The program employs cutting edge machine learning technology in creating predictive models that answer to the need of the decision maker. In the span of two years, Estishraf has successfully helped multiple government entities coin their business questions and find solutions using data relevant to their respective domains. The cases presented stem from diverse domains such as education, population dynamics, and labor market, as well as complex problems in non-oil revenue generation, spending efficiency optimization, balance of payments evaluation, simulating socioeconomic impact of policy reform, and the performance of certain sectors like tourism. One example is a case of measuring the spending efficiency in higher education by evaluating the outputs of different degree programs and their conformity with the need of the labor market. The scenario also offers a simulation exercise to showcase recommendations to reduce unemployment by tweaking the educational system to better fit the needs of the labor market. Estishraf has contributed to empowering the economy of the Kingdom through multiple approaches. One approach is predicting export opportunities of local content and respective strategic partners using artificial intelligence with numerous inputs such as the Kingdom's competitive advantage and predicted demand. Other approaches include diversifying import countries to reduce singular dependencies especially in products of national security levels of importance, and identifying potential tourism opportunities to further strengthen the Kingdom's religious and economic stance. We are also currently developing the new national Commercial Anti-Concealment Indicator that aims to size the problem of commercial concealment and identify the levers that could be used to reduce it.

How does the pandemic change your position within Saudi drive to digitalize the government?

I look at the pandemic as a test of the extent and quality of digitization in our Kingdom. The pandemic has put the entire world on lockdown, hindering economies and raising serious concerns in critical sectors such as health, education, and trade. The government needed to react quickly to different issues. In healthcare, predictive analytics were necessary to estimate the extent of the pandemic and the necessary infrastructure needed to contain it. In trade and food security, accurate consumption data was necessary to study inventory levels and install necessary contingency plans. The government also needed to plan for the safe return of its thousands of citizens abroad after the borders shut down. These critical cases required vast and accurate data and advanced analytical abilities to produce actionable insights. Furthermore, technical issues of large scale emerged, the Ministry of Interior needed to manage curfew for 30 million individuals and the Ministry of Education had to find other means of delivering classes to 5 million students, such problems may seem trivial but arise to tens of technical issues that require reliable infrastructure, trustable data, and capable talent to develop. Building Tawakkalna, the curfew management app, required cross-system data fusions to validate and integrate medical permits, work permits, and other types of permits. The exercise shed the light on critical digital issues across government systems; lack of standardization of data, legacy systems co-existing with newer versions, and the need of digitization of many paper-based transactions. Under the pandemic, strict social distancing measures were put in place, and virtual solutions had to be sought. In NIC we developed Burooq the video-conferencing service at a critical level of security and reliability that fit its purpose and users, shedding the light on yet another important pillar of digitization touched by the pandemic, and paving the way to a fully functional virtual government.

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