Digital Malta - old wine in new bottles?

A new digital identity will seek to maximise the benefits and opportunities deriving from legislation adopted within the EU

Two years ago Austin Gatt, the ex-minister responsible for IT in the previous government, had unveiled a sweeping strategy to partner with Microsoft to launch an innovation centre, with one of its main objectives to create its own internal "cloud computing" system – as that used by advanced EU countries.

He was reported as saying that "the goal of the innovation centre is to stimulate a strong ICT skills base in Cloud Computing and the development of Cloud Computing Solutions and Services that can be marketed locally and beyond our shores."

By setting a number of business analytic tools, this will encourage Public officials to analyse government data, which consequently will also support decision-making and help identify gaps and opportunities, but skeptics lamented that it sounded a bit Utopian.

At that time, the race for supremacy in the digital world became more of a challenge with the arrival of ‘cheaper’ skilled competitors, particularly from the Baltic region, Eastern Europe and Asia as these posed a real threat offering low cost solutions.

Gatt reminded the party faithful that Malta is a merited choice for such an investment, having ranked first in EU eGovernment Benchmarking in 2010, fifth in the percentage of employees with ICT skills in Europe and fourth among European countries in terms of eSkills activities by the government.

The key part of the new strategy outlined by the government would be a five-year, €26.8 million strategic partnership agreement with Microsoft Corporation, which includes lower enterprise licenses, educational initiatives and the setting up of a Microsoft Innovation Centre that will be a pioneer to focus on Cloud Computing.

Press releases stated that the target date of completion was 2012 and as a bonus, the Enterprise Agreement was sealed with a promise by Microsoft to reduce annual licensing fees by 12%. This means the island will be using the latest version of Windows and, when fully functional, the civil service is expected to boost its productivity and continues to render an improved service to taxpayers.

The novel idea to partner with Microsoft brings in added benefits such as free use of office software benefiting 28,000 users in state primary and secondary schools - free for students, teachers and administration.

It is a pity that due to a digital divide existing in certain echelons of the government administration, this may retard the gain of enhanced mobility and improved communication. Gatt had hoped that by late 2012 the proverbial ICT harvest would be rich and abundant, despite the lack of field workers to reap it.

Imagine, if you can, if in 2012 the island managed to take a giant leap in digital excellence, availing itself of the latest technology and improving its access time when retrieving and processing data. The government can also push for "open source" software to be used more widely among thousands of central and local government's desktop computers.

By early 2013, the PN strategy team suggested the bulk of central government desktops could be supplied through a "shared utility service" – essentially a cloud service that lets users create documents online for free. Simply put, the move to a "government cloud" mirrors the system used by Google and other large companies, which involves powerful "server" computers in huge data centres to provide computing power on demand, delivered where it is needed via the internet.

Naturally all this would be provided to government departments and local councils, replacing the ageing traditional systems used in two data centres that are frequently overloaded at peak demand from Inland Revenue or Treasury.

Moving to a cloud-based infrastructure could cut costs of government computing significantly and in an age when we are pressed by the Commission to cut on emissions (going "green"), this innovative digital service is expected to cut on power usage as well. One of the biggest issues that trouble cloud computing is data ownership - this can be a major obstacle, especially if you have a lot of data to deal with.

As yet, there is no straightforward answer to a basic question such as who owns the data maintained by a cloud storage service, whether it is the uploader or the storage provider. Consequently cloud providers create their own terms and conditions, which at times may seem arbitrary.

Following the 2014 budget announced by the PL government, we have been regaled with another digital reform centered on the expanded use of cloud computing. This time the strategy was on a much grander scale and encompassed all aspects of the government administration. It sounded as if cloud computing was rediscovered and the sun rose for the first time on the islands with the dawn of a new digital roadmap.

The vision is ambitious and portrays a six-pillar model, with a three-dimensional perspective, carried through to sectors such as health, education, transport, justice, welfare and taxation, and themed areas of specialisation identified in the ‘National Research and Innovation Strategy 2020’.

This document is the result of an extensive consultative process that supersedes any studies that attracted the 2012 innovation centre mentioned earlier. An impressive 64-page full colour document explains how the first phase covered a series of consultation workshops with ICT stakeholders from the public and private sectors, associations and other interest groups from civil society, as well as the public at large.

The second phase included more focused discussions with stakeholders involved in the eventual execution of these initiatives. The diversity of each area and sector is impressive and the minister for IT will be take into account a number of initiatives such as for example a Digital Games strategy in an attempt to strengthen what Malta can offer to operators in the sector, including improving the specialist skills base.

A new digital identity will seek to maximise the benefits and opportunities deriving from legislation adopted within the EU. These include three pillars such as the Data Protection Framework, Electronic Identification and Trust Services regulation and finally the Information Society Directive. One may ask if the initiatives taken under the PN administration, so close before 2013 elections, have taken root. 

One can safely say that improvements were registered such that the World Economic Forum in 2013 ranked Malta in 28th place (out of 138 countries) in its Networked Readiness Index, which measures the preparedness of an economy to use ICT to boost competitiveness and well being.

Thanks to previous reforms, we also featured in fourth place for the importance of ICT to the government vision and in fifth place for successfully promoting the use of ICT within the country. So what is new about "The Digital Malta Strategy"? Is it new wine in old bottles or is it a paradigm shift expected to reach new heights? For the cynical, the answer may be a negative one, reminding us of an attempt in 2007 to attract foreign investors to build a Smart City in Ricasoli, which so far failed to open the floodgates for thousands of ICT.

Cloud computing is not without its Achilles’ heel. The sudden release of so much data into the cloud brings with it challenges of security and compatibility. Experts recommend that to work with minimum disruption, there should be a number of built-in safety factors. These include transparency, incident notifications, data restitution, control and certification, governing laws and strict enforceability. With so much at stake in a cloud-based system, it is imperative that there is a transparent set of standard indicators to give good service backed by robust backup facilities.

The cloud operator should have the obligation to report in greater detail all reported mishaps as well as the steps taken to contain damage/leakages. This would preempt the government or local councils having to take all legal precautions required to safeguard their operations.

Naturally to ensure continuation, any government should have the absolute guarantee that, at any moment of its choosing, it gets data restitution via a latest backed-up version of data, presented in a standard format. Moving on the notion of control and certification means a cloud provider should be certified by specialised agencies, a paramount consideration given the vague geography of cloud computing.

In this respect, the European Union is well armed to monitor such constraints, as it already does this on personal data protection. As always, nothing comes with benefits and without attendant risks.

Cloud computing is no panacea - it is a new concept and if properly used, its operation will evolve and flourish over the years, giving superior performance among users. Still, there are pitfalls and things can go wrong and users face the risk of having an interruption in service, causing data to be lost or corrupted although measures can be taken by prudent government agencies to keep secure copies in alternative sites.

If hackers get access to cloud storage, then the government (and local councils) could witness a catastrophe, as the massive concentration of data is an irresistible invitation to criminals. Confidential and sensitive data could, in the hands of an unknown group, be a recipe for disaster. On a positive note such concentration of data can result in economies of scale, which in turn justify extra expenditure to invest on more robust security. It is obvious that the risk increases, as cloud operators might be tempted to deploy data centres in less stable but cheaper countries with looser contractual protections.

To conclude, the latest digital Malta directive may sound like déjà vu to some commentators but one hopes that this time around, political leaders are careful not to promise heaven on earth on the contrary they can prudently usher in a young generation nurturing the sweet nectar of Cloud technology.