March, 11, 2019
Sri Lanka’s Minister of Digital infrastructure and Information Technology – Ajith P. Perera in a recent interview said that government has ambitious plans to bring the entire government under one umbrella on the e-government front, first step towards that will be done by creating Sri Lanka’s “Population Registry” - which may be called the “Mother of all Databases” according to him. The said database will have information of entire population at databases centrally built and administered for all government ministries and departments to share data. Following are the excerpts from the interview.
Q : You have been recently appointed as the Minister of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology. How do you feel?
A : I feel excited. That is no small challenge at a time like this. Information and Communication Technology is in the heart of almost all activities we do today. If one looks at key business trends in 2019 one will be certainly astonished by the role ICT plays in each. There will be a new phase in Trade - we call it Trade 2.0. It is in the heart of it. Personalisation of services - you cannot do that without ICT. Renting instead of earning - again ICT has a key role. Even cutting costs and localization due to instability in global economy. Even that requires ICT. You cannot even breathe without Information and Communication Technology, so to say. It is a massive challenge managing all that. I like challenges. I enjoy them.
Q : So what will be your role in meeting that challenge?
A : I have the advantage of being neither a scientist nor a technologist now, despite the fact that Chemistry was my favorite subject during the science degree undergraduate days at Sri Jayawardenapura University! My background is different. So I am an outsider. I am determined to use that advantage to attempt no scientist nor technologist ever would. The limits of possible, said Arthur C. Clarke once, can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible. This is exactly what I plan to do. Limits are for scientists and technologists, not for me.
The technology developments happened and will happen without any government intervention. My focus is to experiment and bring the benefits of these to all – whether they are rich or poor, live in cities, suburbs or villages, educated or not and even physically challenged or not. My ministry will research, support and finally implement the right framework to achieve that.
Q : You should have many plans in your head for the digital future of Sri Lanka. What will be your focus?
A : Well, most expect a Minister of ICT to think only about computers. That was what I too thought even in my final year at university. How wrong I was! That era is gone. So today my focus will not be just on computers, other digital devices, Internet and not even on gamut of associated technologies varying from Virtual Reality (VR) and Social Networking to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT). Our objective is, with these technologies used in the right manner, to let you enjoy the life standard of a developed world citizen in a country with USD 4,000 per capita GDP, by the optimal use of the right mix of technology, economic and legal frameworks. We are committed towards this objective.
Q : Tell us what you have been doing for the past few months. What are the ongoing projects in your ministry?
A : Well, let me tell you one by one.
I have been told by the industry one of the biggest issues they face is the lack of skilled ICT professionals. This needs to be addressed. We aim few projects to double the ICT student intake to state and private universities. The students will be offered easy payment loans. Initiated by our ministry, it has already been presented as a budget proposal by Minister of Finance. Also non ICT graduates will be trained on ICT skills so they can commence their own ventures. For school students, we plan to continue the school ICT labs program.
In the e-government front we have an ambitious plan to bring the entire government under one umbrella, virtually sharing data among themselves, by creating Sri Lanka’s “Population Registry” - which we call the “mother of all databases”. That will have information of entire population at databases centrally built and administered for all government ministries and departments to share data. It will end the isolated information use by different government bodies. Once done. all government systems will be interoperable. Yes, that is an unprecedented task. Everybody talked about it but nobody did. We will be implementing it. In addition at departmental level we have multiple programs too to digitally reform the processes, for example, may be in Department for Registration of Persons, Police or Department of Prisons.
We work closely with private sector to build the hard and soft ICT infrastructure essential for the business. For example, we research and implement right policies to develop the tourism industry. We take special attempts to back rebuilding North and East. IT parks at places like Kilinochchi are on the pipeline.
For community we implement programs for women - particularly the women entrepreneurs - rural poor and disabled. We have plans to assist online freelancers and digital marketers. I also plan to bring back Nenasala telecenters, a program that has been successful once, but failed because of too much political intervention
At national level we plan to introduce a long discussed but never materialised national payment platform. We work with industry specialist to get IoT and AI Roadmaps approved. Overall we are in the process of preparing a single Digital Information Technology Plan for the nation.
Q : Cyber security. It is an extremely important topic today that we can never avoid. Has Sri Lanka taken any issues to address cyber security concerns? Are you happy about them?
A : Yes and No. Yes, Sri Lanka, under previous administrations, has taken many steps already. But No, we cannot be complacent about them. Not anyone’s fault. The technologies develop so fast that we have to run faster and faster on the treadmill. Under my guidance, we are just about to bring some new legislation. Already draft copies of the proposed Data Protection Act and Cyber Security Act are ready. In the coming weeks we will share them will all relevant stakeholders to get feedback. Once we all can agree, these bills will be passed in the parliament. I am a man of action. I don’t give more than three months for the whole process. So within three months, believe me, the country will have an advanced and updated cyber security framework for the industry to work with making Sri Lanka a preferred destination for IT enabled services hunting. These steps will certainly improve our ranking in ease of doing business.
Q : On a bit different topic, what role do you think Huawei has so far played in Sri Lanka’s digital infrastructure industry? You think the Sri Lanka market is comfortable with Huawei products - even in the backdrop some western markets show concerns given that it is a Chinese product?
A : I guess products of Huawei Technologies Co., a Chinese multinational telecommunications equipment and consumer electronics manufacturer, has been in Sri Lanka market for nearly two decades now. Worldwide Huawei has 14.7% market share in Smartphone market according to IDC. Sri Lanka is among 170 countries Huawei Technologies has deployed its products and services.
As for using Huawei technology, Yes. Why not? Business and politics are two different things. We should never mix the two. Sri Lanka has successfully and safely been using Chinese products including Huawei in a big way. Politically countries may have different agendas but they should not stand in the way of consumers benefiting from the cutting edge technologies. They claim Founder of Huawei served in the military. So what? Many CEOs might have served in military. That does not make their commercial products military or political. In a free market what matters are the quality and price of the products. Huawei offers great products. Why not use them to our own business advantage? UK and France are of that view. I am happy to see US President Donald Trump too tweeting “I want the United State to win thorough competition, not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies”. So it is not the US President behind this move. I too share Trump’s stance. I am sure that is the stance of the Sri Lankan market.
Q : Thank you very much for your time Minister. Can we have just one last word summarizing your vision?
A : We live in a challenging era. What we practiced five years now seems outdated. We all have a role in making the world a better place, as the beneficiaries will be all of us. That can only be done through innovation. Digital technologies plays a key role in that. I think it is high time we stop giving excuses for not using it and pay serious attention to doing it.