Top 10 Benelux IT stories of 2018

From cyber security planning to smart city initiatives, here is a selection of articles about IT developments in the Benelux countries

The Netherlands might be small in terms of population and land area, but it is a leading nation when it comes to the use of technology in society.

There are numerous examples of the transformative nature of IT in the Netherlands in this top 10, such as plans for autonomous ships and smart city developments.

But the article that tops this list is one which demonstrates the country’s openness in terms of cyber security. Authorities there have been incredibly open about a recent attempted hack on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague. The reason for such openness was to shine a light on the activities of cyber attacks sponsored by the Russian state.

In Belgium, we feature the capital’s call to financial technology firms. Brussels is setting itself up as the perfect hub for financial services startups. And why not? It is close to the legislative hub of the European Union, as well as a financial services centre. Also, with the UK looking increasingly unattractive due to the uncertainty around Brexit, 2019 could be the chance for the city’s fintech profile to be raised.

Also in Belgium, we take a look at how one startup is turning security into a game.

1. Details of Dutch reaction to Russian cyber attack made public deliberately

Four Russians attempted to break into the networks of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, while it was conducting investigations on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, as well as the poisoning of Sergei Skripal. Dutch authorities revealed significant details on the attempted hack, which was due to take place in April – before being thwarted by the Dutch military intelligence agency (MIVD), after cooperation with intelligence agencies in the UK and the US.

Dutch military intelligence chief Onno Eichelsheim said it was difficult to say what the reason for specifically targeting the OPCW was. “Looking at the technical evidence, it’s impossible to be sure,” he said, adding that it occurred at the same time as the investigations into the Skripal case in the UK and the chemical attack in Douma, Syria.

The level of openness from the MIVD about the operation is striking. During a press conference, the intelligence service named the four suspects and revealed almost every detail about the attempted attack. 

2. Brussels aims to become an insurtech hub 

Proximity to regulators, a rich mix of nationalities and its location make Brussels an attractive proposition for financial technology (fintech) startups, and those disrupting the insurance sector are in particularly high demand.

Tech hubs across Europe are seeking to attract startup companies, and the Belgian capital is no exception.

Financial services industry-owned B-Hive, which has offices in Brussels, New York and Tel Aviv, is an organisation that helps fintechs to achieve growth by finding funding and connecting them with buyers. But B-Hive also has a role in promoting Brussels as a centre for startups to locate.

Fabian Vandenreydt, chairman of B-Hive Europe, said Brussels had about 160 startups on its books and the number was growing. Vandenreydt was previously responsible for innovation at financial payments company Swift.

3. Dutch port readies itself for autonomous ships

The Port of Rotterdam is using IBM’s internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies as part of its digital transformation, which will eventually enable it to host autonomous ships by 2025.

The Dutch port, which is Europe’s largest, is working with IBM to make use of AI and cloud-based IoT to improve efficiency and ready itself for autonomous ships.

The port handles in excess of 461 million tonnes of cargo and wants to improve traffic management through the use of the IoT. Sensors are being installed across 42km of land and sea. These will collect water and weather data, as well as information about docking berths.

A centralised dashboard application will collect and process the information. Through this data, which is analysed by IBM’s cloud-based IoT technology, vessel traffic in the port can be managed more efficiently to maximise cargo loading.

4. Language barrier won’t hold back chatbots in the Netherlands

An increasing number of Dutch organisations are using chatbots to get in contact with potential customers. Machine learning and AI play a part in the innovation, but economics is the main driver. One institution that has experimented with a chatbot is the Dutch police force. The organisation recently started work on a chatbot of its own, called Wout. The name is a play on words, being both a common Dutch first name as well as slang for police officers.

Wout can receive common complaints from citizens about things such as noise disturbances, which that currently can only be reported by phone.

After choosing from a set of possible predetermined situations, Wout asks users to give more details about their complaint. It asks questions such as where the disturbance is or how many people are involved.

Currently, Wout only asks its users closed questions, all of which are carefully mapped out into a decision tree by developers.

5. Belgian startup makes a game of creating secure software code

A startup that has its tech development heart in Belgium is helping developers in the banking sector produce secure code through a platform that uses gamification technology.

Secure Code Warrior was founded three years ago by CEO Pieter Danhieux and chief technology officer Matias Madou. It is currently helping banks reduce security vulnerabilities in code.

Danhieux and Madou knew each other from university, but their roads separated when one moved to the US and the other to Australia. When they met again three years ago at a trade fair, they decided to merge the IT companies they had developed separately.

“We have been building our platform for over a year,” said Madou. “We did so in close cooperation with a number of banks in Australia, which were our launching customers. In 2016, we brought our product to the market, and with the venture capital we have now picked up, we can realise international growth quickly.”

6. Even the smallest of Dutch towns are becoming smart

The 10km bike route between Woensdrecht and Bergen op Zoom, in the southwest of the Netherlands, used to be a scary one – especially in the dark winter months. The Antwerpsestraat – the long road between the two towns – had no street lights, and some children dreaded cycling home in the dark after a long school day.

To increase safety, the city government purchased 65 street lights last year. But the city didn’t just buy regular lights, it opted for connected LED lights that use movement sensors. The lights are switched off by default, and automatically come on when a car or bike is nearing. When vehicles have passed, the lights dim again.

The smart lights are quite an investment, but a durable and sustainable one. The lamps don’t require a lot of energy and the luminaires on top of the lampposts can also house connected cameras and microphones. 

7. Dutch SMEs’ cyber security is insufficient

Ahead of the introduction of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May, it was estimated that between 80% and 90% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Netherlands did not comply with the rules. 

The regulation is being strictly audited by Dutch privacy watchdog AP, and companies found not complying could be fined up to €20m, or 4% of their turnover, whichever is greater.

Christian Oudenbroek, director at Brand Compliance, said many SMEs in the Netherlands would fall short of GDPR compliance. “We have many SME companies from the Netherlands and Belgium as customers and, from discussions and meetings we have had in recent months, I would say 80-90% of them are not ready for it,” he said ahead of GDPR’s introduction.

SMEs make up 90% of the Netherlands’ business world, and so largely determine the country’s economic activities. Research by Capgemini and insurance company Interpolis showed that many entrepreneurs in the country scored well in the areas of physical security, access to the corporate network and security of the website, but lacked vision and policy in the organisation of business processes.

8. Dutch government IT projects run €1bn over budget

Government-controlled IT projects in the Netherlands go over budget by 40%, on average, according to analysis by a Dutch newspaper.

After studying 125 large government-funded IT projects, Financieel Dagblad (FD) – the Dutch version of the Financial Times – concluded that costs ran higher than projected in a majority of cases, and at least doubled in 22 cases.

The newspaper said it had made a rather conservative estimate, since it did not look at every project, as not all IT projects were categorised in the datasets it analysed, such as IT projects in the Ministry of Defence.

The examples of projects running out of control are plentiful. For example, the project to unite all public transportation systems in the country under one definitive payment method (the OV-chipcard) went over budget, and the communication system for emergency services P2000 was unreliable for a long time. In some cases, such as the Electronic Patients File – a database for healthcare data of civilians – projects were shelved or integrated in different ones.

9. Dutch region Zeeland to get datacentre without diesel backup

Good accessibility, connectivity and relatively cheap land makes companies from all over the world choose Amsterdam and its surroundings as a location for their datacentre sites.

But a datacentre project in Zeeland, the westernmost and least populated province of the Netherlands, could trigger a land-grab farther from the Dutch capital.

Amsterdam is the fastest growing location of the four top European datacentre sites: Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam and Paris.

But in the Netherlands, the market growth is not limited to Amsterdam. More rural areas can count on interest as well. That might be due to the fact that the Netherlands is a small country and every datacentre is within a 30-minute drive from anywhere in the country.

“New datacentres [in the Netherlands] will be filled. Customers will automatically find their way to new datacentres,” said Gregor Petri, research vice-president at Gartner.

10. Dutch cycling culture pumps up bicycle tech startups

Few people in the world like their bicycles as much as the Dutch. The sheer number of bicycles in the country has provided opportunities for tech startups – but it might also lead to problems for Dutch cities.

The Netherlands has 22 million bicycles and a population of only 17 million – that’s 1.3 bicycles per person, even including babies, the old and the disabled. Being flat, the country lends itself to getting around on a two-wheeler – something that an increasing number of small startups are realising.

In recent years, a number of startups have appeared, mostly in big cities such as Amsterdam, taking advantage of the fact that citizens would rather use bikes to get around than any other mode of transportation. Most of the startups use a sharing system for bicycles.

Bicycle sharing isn’t a new idea in the Netherlands, with various failed schemes over the years. But the rise of technology heralds a new era for shared bicycles. Startups are equipping their bicycles with GPS, locks that can be opened and closed with an app, and other high-tech gadgets such as integrated navigation systems. Electric bikes are increasingly popular, with companies such as Urbee making high-tech bicycles that are in demand from all age groups.

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