Betting on «Digital»
The article originally published on plus.rbc.ru
Digital technologies are transforming public administration and people’s lives in Yakutia, while addressing the issues of infrastructure and manpower shortage.
Yakutia, along with other Northern regions, is demonstrating some of the highest Internet uptake rates — 77.7% of the population access the Net on a daily basis (the leader is Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug with 81.5%). The harsh climate leaves its footprint on the residents’ use of the technology — for example, nearly 100% of all adults in the area use WhatsApp messenger. “The people in Yakutia demonstrate a high level of demand and readiness to receive services using information and communication technologies, which enable seamless deployment of projects aimed at developing “smart city” infrastructure”, says a spokesman for the Ministry of Innovations, Digital Development and Information and Communication Technologies of the Republic.
“It’s a giant territory with low population density, where keeping classical communications like mail, telephone and telegraph at a modern level is hard, if at all possible”, Dmitry Zhuravlev, General Director Institute for Regional Issues, explains. “Digitization therefore is not a fashion statement here; it is a vital necessity. Fortunately, the locals make enough money to afford the devices required.”
The development of digital technologies in the regions remains dependent on two key factors: the competence level of specialists and managers responsible for these processes, and the targets set during budget allocation, emphasizes Alexey Yashkin, Assistant Professor, Department of Public and Municipal Administration, Plekhanov Russian University of Economics. “Speaking about Yakutia, the development of digital technologies in this region is fueled primarily by the desire to overcome the obstacles to social and economic development caused by natural and climate factorsс, the expert explains.
Yakutia accounts for about 70% share in the exports of information services from the Far East Okrug. The first IT Park in the Far East opened in Yakutia in late 2018. The Center is tasked with overseeing the local IT centers, accumulating the projects, ensuring implementation of the complete development cycle for IT companies, provide services to residents meeting the national standards and integrating them into the national and international innovations ecosystem. The Park currently has about 50 residents, but the authorities expect this number to double shortly. A “B8” Business Accelerator, intended to support hi-tech startups in pre-seeding stage, has been established at the Park by the Innovations Development Fund of the Republic. Each project selected gets initial funding of up to 2 million rubles. Local IT centers have so far been opened in three districts of the Republic; by 2024 their number is expected to reach 17, and by 2035 there will be IT centers in all 34 districts.
Six years ago, Yakutsk was one of the first Russian cities to start implementing “Smart City” projects. One of those projects is the Universal Electronic Fare Payment system for municipal transport, “Smart Transport” mobile application, electronic passes and cafeteria cards in schools, remote data transmission system for communal utility metering devices, free Wi-Fi access points, and a fire safety monitoring system. Eventually this practice will be spread to all of Yakutia. “The authorities have set top-priority tasks related to the establishment of a situations center, implementing municipal property management system, loss management, smart water supply and sewerage systems, electronic local waste management model, increasing energy efficiency and energy savings. So the project is clearly going full steam ahead”, Dmitry Zhuravlev says.
Two intellectual high-resolution video surveillance cameras were installed last year at Yakutsk TV tower. Thanks to 30x optical zoom, these cameras can be used to monitor forest fires floods, unauthorized vehicles on ice and unauthorized waste dumping activities. Thanks to municipal-private partnership, the city received 24 heated bus stops equipped with online displays, ATMs and charging stations. Some of these also offer free Wi-Fi service.
As a result, Yakutsk has become a pilot territory for implementing the “Smart City” project by the Russian Ministry of Construction — the agreement was signed at the International Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg in 2019. In the six months since, a regional and municipal project office were created and a roadmap developed.
The Government of Yakutia is actively engaging Japanese business people to digitize various sectors of the industry, agriculture and municipal infrastructure, Universa Blockchain founder Alexander Borodich remarks: “Japanese companies see the future of investing in the development of, say, renewable energy projects, construction of bridges, greenhouses, and of course, growing “smart cities”. As it was declared at the recent Eastern Economic Forum, a further nine cities will join the capital of the region, Yakutsk, in the “Smart City” project in the near future, and the project will be implemented in cooperation with Mitsui, Nomura Institute and the Government of Yakutia.
State Services Online
Yakutia is also an avid participant in the “Digital Economy” federal program, according to Rustam Khafizov, Deputy Director of the Association of Innovative Regions of Russia: “The works are under way to develop hi-tech companies and build an innovative ecosystem.”
The Republic has adopted the “Service State 2.0” Strategy for Digitization of State Governance for 2019–2024. More than 68% of Yakutia’s population aged 14 and above have registered in the Unified Identification and Authentication System, and a sharp growth of online payments has been observed in recent years: for kindergarten services — 5.5 fold increase, for utilities — 3-fold. Works are being carried out on building a Unified Technology Platform for Providing State and Municipal Services. “To meet the growing demand for speed and quality of services, we are launching a project to re-engineer social services this year. As a pilot service, we chose paying child benefits on birth, based on analyzing aggregated data from various sources (maternity hospitals, civil records bodies, Ministry of Labor, Pension Fund of Russia). Eventually we are planning to completely automate the allocation of maternity capital. This will be possible thanks to platform solutions”, a digital ministry spokesman reported.
Connecting the North
One of the biggest barriers to digitize the country is the issue of infrastructure. “Bringing Internet communication links to every home in the region is not quite feasible, at least in the nearest future. That’s why for now one of the main issues is that of leveling out the Internet tariffs between the places that have optical fiber connectivity and those areas that use more expensive satellite communications”, Alexey Yashkin comments.
Currently 512 out of 637 residential communities in Yakutia have Internet access, which corresponds to 99.3% of the population. At the same time, only 169 have optical connections (80.1% of the population). In the last five years, more than 5,000 kilometers of networks have been built using the communication operators’ own investment projects, federal initiatives to bridge the “digital divide” and municipal-private partnerships. That brought the total line length to over 7,000 kilometers. The first fiber optic line beyond the Arctic Circle, from Udachny City to Olenyok Village, will be built by the end of 2020. Federal funds will be used to provide Internet connectivity to 1221 institution of social importance.
However, the only feasible communication links for the Arctic regions are satellite connections. “The growing demand for high-speed communication links among the local population, and the plans to implement the national “Digital Economy” program require the communication service providers to increase the capacity of satellite links. Existing satellites have the technical capability to do that, which will further grow with new launches, but the operators’ pricing policy remains a constraint”, the Ministry spokesman says. “Given the cost of satellite links, providing unlimited Internet access at speeds comparable to those of land lines is not feasible for the operators.”
“Directly forcing the providers to reduce tariffs is an unlikely thing to happen; this will require developing a set of incentives, including subsidy algorithms”, Alexey Yashkin adds.
The human resources for the new economy
However, manpower shortage remains the biggest obstacle to further digitization, the digital ministry spokesman admits: “Today, more than 1500 people in Yakutsk are engaged in the IT industry. The professions are usual: software developers, systems administrators, graphics designers. However, we are starting to understand that digital competencies must be present in all industries, as they are key to efficient usage of resources and achieving ambitious goals.” Children in Yakutia’s schools will start learning programming and computer graphics from the seventh grade, thanks to a joint project between the Government of Yakutia and Alexey Illarionov’s original school. The Republic is also one of the constituent units in Russia that will trial personal digital certificates for free education as part of the federal project “Human Resources for Digital Economy”, which will be awarded to 1,000 specialists. The government of Yakutia expects to teach digital economy competencies to 3,9000 specialists by 2021, mainly in the government sector.
By the end of this year, 500 officials will receive training on digital competency-building programs, with a further 150 trained on the digital economy in general. This august, more than 300 government employees from Yakutia completed training at RANEPA courses on the basics of digital transformation.
By Victoria Savelyeva.