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Going mobile in Moscow: city digitisation the Russian way

Computer Weekly meets with Andrey Belozerov, strategy and innovations advisor to the CIO of Moscow, to learn how the city government is taking a joined-up approach to digitisation and smart city technology

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Smart cities are all the rage across the world, but often, smart city projects are written about in terms of internet of things (IoT) sensor networks for street lights, parking, waste disposal and so on, and a lot of the underlying digital processes needed to make these use cases a reality are never really heard about.

In Moscow, under the leadership of mayor Sergey Sobyanin, huge amounts of money and political capital have been spent on building up Moscow as a city that serves its people as efficiently and transparently as possible, through the use of smart digital technology, as well as establishing it as a hub for collaborative, knowledge-based businesses.

With a population of 12 million, the Russian capital produces over 20% of the country’s GDP, and besides functions of the Russian federal government, serves as a major centre for the international business world.

Andrey Belozerov, strategy and innovations advisor to the CIO of Moscow, has been responsible for implementing information systems across all spheres of city life, with a special focus on smart cities. He took up his post in 2011, after being appointed by the Russian government to lead its Electronic Government initiative a year earlier.

To understand how Moscow’s digital government functions, it is important to understand that Moscow differs from a city such as London (which has a roughly comparable metro area population) in a crucial aspect.

Where the Greater London Authority controls limited parts of London’s day-to-day functions, many critical aspects of city life, including education, social services, waste collection and environmental health, are effectively outsourced to its borough councils. In Moscow, however, everything is centralised under one organisation. Moreover, healthcare and education are private in many cities, while in Moscow most schools and clinics are public – which makes the overall responsibility greater than in many cities.

“We have a responsibility for every IT system in the city,” Belozerov tells Computer Weekly. “I think it is very important. It is much cheaper for Moscow to have centralised IT because we can plan better, we can integrate business processes and systems more easily.

“If the education department makes its own decisions, and so does the health department, at some point it will be necessary to integrate them in some way, and the cost of that, if systems aren’t ready for it, is much bigger than with one IT department running planning, strategy and integration from the start.

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This not only means Belozerov has to serve the IT needs of almost a million public sector employees, including teachers, doctors and so on, but has unprecedented power (at least as a Londoner would see it) to use IT as a unifying force, and around $500m to play with every year.

In 2010, with support from the Russian federal government, Moscow launched its Information City programme to inform and guide the entire digitisation period. A central plank of the city’s Department of IT (DIT), it was recently extended until 2018.

“It is divided into three parts,” says Belozerov. “The first one is smart infrastructure; it’s about datacentres, networks, connectivity to schools, hospitals, Wi-Fi in parks and on the Moscow metro and so on. The second part of the programme is citizen services, including citizen engagement projects, a public services portal, mobile applications. The third part of the programme is smart city government, business processes, internal email, etc.”

Under the auspices of this programme, DIT oversees approximately 150 different projects every year, touching multiple aspects of the lives of the people of Moscow.

From federal to local government

Around 10 years ago, the federal government in Russia started to make public services available through an online portal. Moscow, which has a unique status in Russia as both a regional and municipal entity, was able to integrate the capabilities already demonstrated, including single sign-on for citizens between federal and regional public services. This made the process of setting up mobile apps for Moscow’s citizens much easier.

“This single sign-on works not only on the web but across any channel,” says Belozerov. “We now have about 10 applications, mobile parking, mobile health, mobile education, mobile services, mobile voting and so on and all those apps are created on the city mobile platform and the single sign-on works on the app.”

Training and education for a digital world

One of the biggest challenges facing the DIT has been winning the hearts and minds of the city’s massive public sector workforce.

Belozerov characterises this as a challenge for every large smart city project: “If government employees can or will not think in another way, all of those investments fail,” he says. “I talk a lot with my colleagues, with Barcelona, with New York, and I think the main problem for every big city is the necessity of changing employee mind sets.”

Over the past five to six years, the DIT has had to work particularly hard to address some of the mental barriers to digitisation, persuading people that electronic signatures are legally just as valid as traditional ink on paper, for example.

In Moscow’s health system, the IT department invested a lot of money in new computing equipment for doctors to replace paper notes on patients, but hit a snag with how clinicians were using the technology.

“But when we went to the clinics to see how it was working, I saw with my own eyes the doctors were sitting and typing very, very slow, much slower than with a pen, so we had to teach them how to use it,” says Belozerov. “Everything, step-by-step, should be integrated: business processes, user competence and qualification.”

Encouraging citizen engagement

Another major challenge has been encouraging citizen engagement. Although Moscow is a highly developed market with strong smartphone penetration, like almost everywhere else it also has a problem with digital exclusion, and the excluded tend to be the elderly, who rely on traditional feature phones if they possess a mobile at all.

To tackle this, Moscow has established 127 multifunctional public service centres at the district level where citizens can access public services. Originally these centres were set up to cut down on bureaucracy, but now incorporate training services to enable people to get up to speed on how to use their devices, surf the internet, and access public services online.

“Year by year we are seeing that more and more people are using the electronic way, not the general way,” says Belozerov.

At the other end of the population pyramid, Moscow recently announced a $280m investment in upgraded digital schools for the city, covering everything from new classroom workstations, interactive whiteboards, local area networks and Wi-Fi, to new systems to support teachers and students in the learning process.

“We are doing a lot of investment in gamification of learning content. We will have virtual labs to run interactive tests for children and so on. Electronic schools will be a very big project for us, starting this year,” says Belozerov.

Blockchain comes to city hall

Moscow recently created a smart city laboratory, a new division responsible for searching out disruptive technologies and piloting them in the city. Belozerov hopes to have programmes around artificial intelligence (AI), neural networks, augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR), and blockchain in the coming years.

“Blockchain is not generally taken into consideration, it is used in banks and financial services but not by the government, so we are starting a blockchain pilot, which I hope will be the first government blockchain project in the world,” says Belozerov.

Moscow already has an electronic voting system called Active Citizen, which seeks to improve engagement in civic matters, such as setting speed limits on local roads, or naming a new metro station. Active Citizen has been around for about four years and boasts well over a million users.

“But as with any vote there are always people who don’t believe it is fair and clear and transparent, they are saying ‘you guys are trying to lie to us and just doing what you want as an administration’,” says Belozerov.

“So the idea is to have a blockchain network under Active Citizen so we push the voting system and votes to that network and everybody who wants to be sure it’s a transparent process can download the control node software and be a controller for this voting.

“The most important feature of blockchain for us is that it is not possible to change anything in the network from yesterday. So the idea is to show everybody we are transparent, and if you don’t believe us, please come – be a controller, download the control node and come onto our blockchain network,” says Belozerov.

This pilot is scheduled to start later in 2017, and currently the team responsible is hedging its bets over which of Hyperledger or Ethereum will become the platform of choice.

Meanwhile, Belozerov hopes AI will start to be used in Moscow in the next decade or so. He sees this rapidly-advancing technology as a boon to staffers engaged in the day-to-day management of the city by automating business processes, call centres and so on. The IT team is already developing a new mobile application that will incorporate elements of AI, using chatbots to respond to citizen requests.

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