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Peter Krantz, CIO at Sweden’s national library, the Kungliga Biblioteket (KB), constantly asks himself how citizens can be served better today while preserving a nation’s cultural heritage in a format that will be accessible decades from now.
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Krantz was appointed as the KB’s first CIO three years ago following a major restructure which saw the library’s IT operations integrated from various departments into a single IT organisation. Since then, the library’s focus has been on driving the interoperability and usability of digital services and the openness of data.
“The national library has worked with free information and building knowledge in society for many years,” he said. “I wanted to be part of a journey to see if we can bring more information to citizens and make people more focused on getting actual facts into discussions in society.
“The KB has done some great things over the years. It has been working with open data and has done a lot of work around usability, but it was unevenly spread around departments and projects. Now we have a shared vision of what we want to achieve and how to do it.”
What attracted Krantz to the KB was the challenge of introducing modern operations into a 355-year-old organisation. The first thing he set out to do was to harmonise how the library works with IT by applying a set of core principles – cross-functional teams, emphasis on usability, and a focus on the effects, not the features, of a service.
An important part of this strategy has been to create a more flexible IT environment for the library’s employees by ending the practice of everyone working on the same standardised platform.
“A standardised platform was probably easier for internal IT to handle, but we have noticed our users are more comfortable if they have control over their computing platform,” says Krantz. “We do have a platform for those who don’t really care which one they use, but we also try to support the people who want to use a different operating system or device.”
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Although this increases the burden on internal IT systems, which need to be compatible with various platforms, it improves their usability in the long run, says Krantz.
“A lot of organisations will have to follow this path because people grow up with their own computing platforms at home,” he adds. “They are used to them and that needs to be supported at work. The days of standardised platforms are running out in the public sector.”
Not many people know Sweden’s public sector IT landscape better than Krantz. Since 2007, he has worked for the Swedish eGovernment Delegation, been adviser to the country’s IT minister and chairman of its national forum for usability and accessibility. He is passionate about making digital services more usable.
“The government in general is becoming a lot better in the area of usability than it was even 10 years ago,” he says. “We now employ several user experience specialists who know how to conduct user research to find out what users need, instead of just asking them what they want.”
Krantz says users often confuse what they want with their actual underlying need. “It is important to remember that the cheapest service is the one you didn’t develop,” he says. “That is the big advantage of having specialists who can identify at an early stage that this thing that requires a fortune to build has very little value because users don’t actually need it.”
At Sweden’s national library, this is solved by trying to focus on effects rather than features, and involving users in the development process at an early stage. Staff have been trained to focus on effects, including drawing an effect map for a service, and early prototypes are encouraged.
Krantz is also a strong advocate of open government and believes this goes hand in hand with usability. He says people not only trust a government that is transparent, but opening up data leads to better services because the government can never support all potential use cases for the data it collects.
“If we release the data, other people can also develop new services,” he says. “We have now seen several services using our open datasets that we would never have had the time or resources to create ourselves. Opening up data can actually create more useful services for end-users at a low cost.”
Preserving a culture
Data is something the national library has plenty of. Since 1661, the KB has had a legal obligation to collect virtually all printed and digital material – including music, books, TV broadcasts and YouTube videos – that are published in Sweden for its 9.5 million citizens. Today, this collection totals about 18 million items and nearly 10 million hours of audio and video.
“The new legal deposit law means organisations also have to send digital material that they create to us,” says Krantz. “We are probably one of the largest data hosting organisations in Sweden because of the information we collect.”
But only a fraction of this data can be opened up. A large part of it is copyrighted and expensive to share, while privacy issues dictate that some of the data can only be accessed by researchers.
The KB is now working on how to digitally preserve all this material. This involves not only storing the data – the library uses its own datacentres in various locations – but ensuring that it is accessible, because documents collected today will need to be understandable for researchers 50 or even 500 years from now.
“The hard part is all the different formats we collect,” says Krantz. “Today there are documents that are hard to read because the software doesn’t exist any more.
“Preservation in the digital era involves continuous migration. We need to find out if a format becomes unreadable, not because we don’t have all the ones and zeros but because the compatible software is hard to find.”
For example, many games are now network-based and even if the game is stored, that does not help 10 years from now if the game servers are down. To tackle this, the KB collects a lot of material around games, including tutorials and video clips.
It is not a task many CIOs need to worry about, but Krantz is helping to ensure Sweden’s cultural heritage is preserved. “Our goal is to find out what is popular and make sure we have some kind of representation of that preserved,” he says. “But this is not unique to KB – all memory institutions have the same challenge.”