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Nordic CIO interview: Anna Eriksson, Swedish National Land Survey

Swedish land registry’s CIO tells Computer Weekly about the organisation’s approach to digital transformation

Sweden’s National Land Survey (Lantmäteriet) wants to push the IT boundaries to transform the way it operates.

So far, the agency has put Swedish maps into Minecraft and developed a blockchain concept for digital land registries, and CIO Anna Eriksson says the digitisation effort will continue. 

“It is very important for us to develop because the world around us is changing,” says Eriksson. “The role we have as a government agency will probably continue, but the way we do things will be different because society will be different.”

A year ago, Eriksson created Lantmäteriet’s own digital development team, which undertakes experimental projects and keeps an eye on technology trends. Eriksson established the team after noticing that there was not enough room for innovation if the whole department was focused only on project delivery.

The digital team also works closely with Lantmäteriet’s business departments. In fact, the idea to allow Minecraft players build their worlds on top of real Swedish maps came from the business side of the organisation and the digital team helped to implement the project.

Similarly, a blockchain-based system for recording property-related transactions, which was piloted early this year, was created through a collaboration between Lantmäteriet’s IT department and the land registry unit.

“It is important that the IT side comes up with ideas, but you always have to anchor them into the business,” says Eriksson. “We contribute our technological knowledge and the business units contribute business knowledge.”

Eriksson joined Lantmäteriet nine years ago as head of its mapping division. This was a major change for her after a long career in IT and the telecoms industry, and it gave Eriksson a valuable insight into how the business operated.

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It also a gave Eriksson a new perspective on the changes required in Lantmäteriet’s IT when she became CIO in 2011. A year later, she launched an extensive programme to transform IT from its supplier function to become a collaborative partner in the agency’s business side.

“I saw the technological development that was going on all around us and how government and citizen requirements were changing,” says Eriksson. “We needed to do something to be able to work smarter and create more value for the business because there was going to be so much more demand for IT from the business perspective.”

The challenge was to make a fairly traditional IT organisation more agile and innovative. The first thing Eriksson focused on was attitudes to mistakes. People need to feel it is OK to make mistakes or they won’t try things out, she says, which can stifle development across an organisation. Lantmäteriet got this message across with open communication, including inviting the IT department to take part in board meetings.

“If you say people are allowed to make mistakes, then you as a leader have to be very open about your own mistakes – you can’t cover them up,” she says. “Real change won’t happen until individuals themselves decide to do things in new ways, so you have to create an understanding of what you want to achieve.”

Agile teams

Alongside this change in attitudes, Lantmäteriet has overhauled its IT operations. The agency has about 100 people working in systems development who have gone from being individually assigned to different projects to working in agile teams.

“Now it is the teams that get the assignments from different projects – we don’t break up the teams any more,” says Eriksson. “The teams also have responsibility for what they deliver.”

But although this boosted efficiency, it wasn’t all plain sailing, she says. This new way of working initially created conflict between how the systems development and operations teams worked together. Lantmäteriet’s solution was to implement a DevOps model, which emphasises communication and collaboration between the two departments.

This was coupled with the use of agile working methods. Agile development has existed at Lantmäteriet for years, but only at grassroots level by a few arbitrary teams. Eriksson introduced a people-centric agile manifesto to the organisation’s entire IT and development department, which has 220 employees.

“It was very much a cultural change, with focus on values and understanding different views,” says Eriksson.

Business and IT have also moved closer via Lantmäteriet’s “innovation days”. Eriksson describes these as 24-hour hackathon events, where all staff have free rein to develop new ideas. What started as a purely IT event five years ago is now open to the whole organisation.

“Last time, the first prize went to a collaboration project between business and IT,” says Eriksson. “The idea came from the business side and the implementation from IT.“

Master data

Lantmäteriet’s IT transformation has succeeded in turning its focus to digitalisation, but challenges remain. The agency plans to modernise its legacy IT systems by 2020 and is looking to use robotic process automation to connect new application services with older systems.

Another focal point is data. Lantmäteriet is responsible for about 3.2 million property records and all geographical data across Sweden, so there is plenty to work with. This data is already used by other public agencies, but Lantämteriet’s aim is to open it up for everyone.

“I don’t think we have realised yet how important data is going to be in future and how much value we can get out of combining our data with other data,” says Eriksson. “We want our data to be open, available and to be used – that is very important to us. It must also be easy to use, and that is what we need to work on with IT.”

But one challenge for experimental ideas is legislation. Eriksson says legal and technological developments should go hand in hand, but many Swedish laws still need modernisation.

However, this does not stop Eriksson having ambitious plans, such as using augmented and virtual reality to visualise geographical data, and transforming Lantmäteriet’s experiments into actual products and services.

“The next challenge for us is to really turn these trials into something you can put into production,” she says. “Trying things out is one thing, but we really need to get them out into the world as well.”

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