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HomeFeatured NewsInterview: ICT's minister outlines his plans...and associated pitfalls

Interview: ICT’s minister outlines his plans…and associated pitfalls

Digital technology and ICTs have gained a very important place in the life of the Tunisian and have become an indispensable component in the professional world or in our everyday life.

We must not, above all, deny that digitalization has changed the ways of working, communicating and living in general, especially with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, hence the need to develop a national strategy to keep pace with the world.

These points and many other themes were discussed in an interview with Minister of Communication Technologies, Nizar Ben Neji.

Interview:

– What are the obstacles that hinder the implementation of the digitalization strategy in Tunisia and what are your plans to remedy them?

We started within the ministry by setting up and updating the national digital strategy.

We began by defining the axes, branching them out and adding other axes to complete it.

The first axis that we considered essential to develop was the legal framework, which represents a major obstacle if we do not manage to update it.

Indeed, we cannot develop the technology or the digital sector with obsolete, missing texts or with texts that are scattered and are neither homogeneous nor coherent.

For this purpose, we began by revising the telecommunications code to regulate the telecom activity. In a second step, it was decided to draft a digital code, whose purpose is to bring together the texts that are scattered in a single digital code in order to properly regulate the digital sector and the activity related to IT.

Unfortunately, in Tunisia, there are many cybercrimes that are not sanctioned by the regulations in force, and we discovered that there are essential texts that are missing, like the legal framework of cybercrime.

Therefore, it was necessary to put in place a legal framework for cybercrime to complete the pile of texts and to criminalize cybercrimes, but also to frame the legal digital investigation. It should be noted that another text concerning the classification of data between secret and top secret is already in progress.

– You mentioned the legal framework, is it sufficient on its own?

Precisely, for the application of the texts, a complete and coherent institutional framework is needed.

So it is also important to have a data-driven government.

It is true that we have agencies and entities that are under the supervision of the Ministry of Communication Technologies but we have detected that there is an important entity missing which is the digital observatory, OTN (Observatoire tunisien du numérique). That’s why we started to prepare the creation of this observatory whose process is currently underway.

The role of this observatory is to collect data that concern our sector, not only telecom data, but everything that concerns the IT sector. Thus, we will have a dashboard that will help decision makers to have a clearer vision of the sector, in relation to the evolution of the sector, its problems and to be able to plan for the future. These dashboards will help decision makers to decide at the right time, based on scientific data and concrete figures.

It should be noted that only 14 ministries in Tunisia have an observatory, the rest do not, including ours.

The project to establish the Tunisian Digital Observatory (OTN) will be presented at the next ministerial meeting for approval.

In addition, we worked on the development of the national strategy of artificial intelligence with a specialized firm called TFS. That project lasted 6 months during which meetings were conducted with all stakeholders (sectoral observatories, startups, companies, ministries and the national center of informatics) to finally achieve a national strategy document of artificial intelligence. This document is currently being revised to produce a final publishable version with an action plan containing a set of actions that will be implemented in the next period.

The goal is to have a data-driven government.

– What is the role of the Ministry in accelerating the digital transition and what measures have been taken to help citizens adapt to this transition?

The role of the Ministry is, obviously, fundamental in this sense.

In fact, among the most important axes in our strategy, we find digital and financial inclusion where we target citizens directly.

With regard to digital inclusion, there are two very important points: firstly, to provide the end users with the equipment that will allow them to connect to the network, and secondly, to provide an Internet connection at a reasonable cost.

As far as financial inclusion is concerned, it is necessary to provide citizens with the required means of electronic payments.

The example of the Tunisian Post Office, which is developing payment solutions such as the D17 application, should be mentioned. These payment solutions will allow the citizen to pay electronically for services that are online or even normal services (you can pay with D17 even at the store).

In addition, the banks, in collaboration with the Central Bank, have developed payment institutions to diversify the entities that offer electronic payment solutions.

It is a matter of encouraging the central bank to quickly give authorization to operators to develop mobile payment.

Knowing that only 30% of the population is banked, this solution is very important in the sense that it allows any person to pay online even if they do not have a bank account, simply by using their electronic wallet.

We have already received authorization from the Central Bank, and this solution is being developed by the 3 telephone operators. It will be operational by 2023.

-The Tunisian citizen often complains about the complexity and slowness of administrative procedures, have you thought of finding solutions in this sense?

This question prompts us to talk about the projects of digital transformation of the administration.

Indeed, there are three types of services:

– G to G service (Government to Government); which allows connecting and circulating data between administrative services.

In this sense, we must mention two important things, the first we have never talked about, is the national network inter administration RNIA, which is being expanded to reach all ministries and all administrations. Today, we are integrating the Ministry of Justice into this network and each time we add and connect others, which is very important because the information will no longer circulate on the Internet, but through a private network.

The second is interoperability, thanks to which information can easily circulate between administrations and the citizen no longer needs to bring back each time papers from one administration to another (for example birth certificates).

We are also working on the expansion of this service where each time we add a document.

– G to B service (Government to Business), as it is the example of the Tuneps application which is considered as the most developed e-GOV application in this G to B category.

Thanks to this system, tenders are made through a platform where companies can propose their tenders signed in an electronic way.

– G to C Service (Government to Client); unfortunately, the services offered by the State in this category are informational until now, and are not transactional, that is to say that there is no interaction with citizens, such as the appointment of the technical visit, or appointment of EVAX.

Recently, we have started to develop these services a little with the EVAX system, where we have been able to grant, for the first time, an online administrative document recognized by law with a visual electronic stamp CEV for millions of citizens.

It should be noted that Tunisian diplomas are now provided with a visual electronic stamp (all as the health pass and birth certificates) to limit the falsification of diplomas and banish copies true to the original.

-On August 3, you announced the launch of a new project called mobile ID; can you explain more about its usefulness?

Thanks to this new Mobile ID project, we can develop G to C (Government to Client) services.

Indeed, the mobile ID which represents the first digital identity in Tunisia is an application that allows a simplified and secure access to the citizen space where you can find administrative documents and where you can perform online procedures through the portal.

We have just started little by little with the birth certificate and we are working with the Tunisian Agency of Land Transport to add everything that concerns the registration card and driver’s license.

There is another step that was underway and which consists in the creation of an email box for each citizen like other countries in the world, such as Estonia for example [Editor’s note: This is done, the service was launched this Friday, October 21].  It is a two-way communication channel between the citizen and the administration, because until today, we were limited to SMS that inform, just, the citizen and that are in one direction.

Any transition needs a good preparation in terms of infrastructure, so what are the advances in this direction and especially about the expansion of the scope of fiber optics in Tunisia?

Regarding the infrastructure, it includes 3 important axes:

– The coverage of white areas.

– The expansion of the coverage of the fiber optic network.

– The improvement of the hosting capacity.

In fact, apart from the RNIA project, there is the project of the coverage of white areas. In this context, we have just completed a project with the “Tunisie Telecom” group where we could cover 164 schools spread over 94 delegations and 15 governorates and 59 health centers with a target population of 180 thousand citizens.

We have already made 2 visits for 2 schools that were recently covered, one in Ouedhref in the governorate of Gabes and the other in Ain al Naga in Kalâat Senane in the governorate of Kef.

Regarding the expansion of the fiber optic network, we have a major project entitled “EDUNET”, which tends to connect 3307 schools with fiber optics, over 4 years.

This project EDUNET comes within the framework of the project “GOV TECH” funded by the World Bank.

In terms of improving hosting capacity, we have targeted sectoral IT centers such as the CNTE (Centre National des Technologies en Education), CIMS (Health Ministry’s IT centre) and the IT department of the Ministry of the Interior. This is very important in the sense that the improvement of a sector goes directly through the improvement of its hosting capacity to be able to host applications that can be used nationwide; such is the case of the CNI (National Center for Informatics) and with the same hosting capacity with a remote backup center where all data can be switched in case of problem, which guarantees the security of information.

– What about information security and knowing that you are an expert in computer security or cybersecurity, what have you planned for this aspect with the importance that the Internet has taken in personal and professional life?

Computer security or cybersecurity involves several points, first of all the legal text. Having a legal framework that incriminates cyber attacks and cyber crimes is important, not only for security but also to attract foreign investors in the IT field. When the investor finds a legal framework that protects him elsewhere and does not find it in Tunisia, he will not choose Tunisia.

Currently, we are revising (advanced stage) the legal framework of cybersecurity that will update the tasks of the National Agency for Computer Security.

Secondly, we aimed to develop the role of ANSI, through:

The labeling of hosting companies and Cloud service providers under 2 Labels according to the nature of the data and the criticality of the service: a G-Cloud Label (Government-Cloud, for government applications) and an N-Cloud Label (National-Cloud, for normal sites).

This labeling is very important in the sense that it allows to keep applications and data on the Tunisian territory.

Thirdly, we will help Tunisian companies to be audited, which is a fairly expensive procedure (based on the program of the Ministry of Energy).

Regarding projects related to data security, we cite the E-Iblegh project, which is a platform launched in May 2021 allowing the citizen to report any problem encountered on the cyber space.

This site automatically redirects the requests to the companies concerned to remedy the detected flaw.

There is also another ANSI project underway, which is called Bug-Bounty, which is a project inspired by Facebook allowing hackers on the Internet to be rewarded when reporting a detected flaw instead of using it for hacking.

– How can you position your ministry in the acceleration of the digital transition especially in terms of coordination with other ministries?

The ministry works in a cross way with other ministries such as the Ministry of Employment with which we have carried out the SKILL’Up project allowing retraining towards digital jobs.

The training courses are conducted by our ministry within the STT (Smart Tunisian Technoparks) which provides the logistics.

The financing part is provided by the Ministry of Economy and Planning.

The identification of beneficiaries is done through the Ministry of Employment.

We also have another project which concerns the development of a repository for the digital professions specialized in cybersecurity (auditors, security administrators, information systems security managers). It will be published in a month. This repository allows harmonizing and synchronizing the training of universities with the existing job offers on the market.

In addition, we are working with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research to create masters co-constructed in faculties that are under joint supervision with our ministry, such as ISET’com and SUP com. The program of these masters is defined both by the faculty and the company with the participation of experts in the training to adapt to the job market.

With the Ministry of Education, we also have a new project to define the digital skills to be taught in primary and secondary schools.

We also offer training for civil servants to strengthen their capacities and skills.

As for the digital culture, our ministry is in the process of disseminating it through usage in parallel with the projects we are currently implementing. Indeed, we have between 6 and 7 million digital illiterates in Tunisia. This figure rises to 16 million in France, despite being a developed country.

In relation to the dissemination of digital culture, we have the program “Ichmilni” of Tunisia Telecom which allows to disseminate digital culture in the areas served and which are recently covered by the telecommunications network.

-The culture of entrepreneurship and especially digital entrepreneurship in Tunisia is growing from one year to another; can you explain the role of the Ministry in this sense, especially in supporting startups?

To encourage and accompany startups, the Ministry has launched, since 2019, the program Startp’Act.

Indeed, this program has allowed 773 startups to be labeled with 19 Labels have been granted in this current month of October.

This program allows startups to benefit from certain advantages such as tax exemption, to ensure the success of startups and minimize the risk of failure during the first years.

We also unveil an idea for a project called Startup’Act 2.0, for the retention of startups where we will remedy the shortcomings of the first program. This new version will be improved with many more advantages to retain startups that tend to migrate to other countries after a few years since they will no longer benefit from the advantages granted after 8 years.

Regarding the environment of digital entrepreneurship, there is a project to redevelop techno-parks and cyber-parks that are spread throughout Tunisia. In this project, we aim to increase their accommodation capacity and diversify the services and benefits offered to entrepreneurs. This project will be carried out in coordination with the GIZ and will be launched in Monastir.

The ministry always works in a transversal way in collaboration with all the ministries and is involved in all the projects that have a digital aspect.

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