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SA Government’s Cloud pledge: a huge step for citizen engagement, service delivery

Government’s recent announcement to decisively embrace Microsoft’s Cloud Productivity (Office 365) tools will have a very positive impact on service delivery and governance.

16th June 2017 – Opinion Piece, Peter Reid, Head of Intervate

Last week, the CEO of the State IT Agency (SITA), Dr Setumo Mohapi, confirmed a Master Agreement with Microsoft, to standardise on Office 365 across all government departments and institutions.

National Treasury Circular 11 defines the details of the agreement.

Mohapi’s announcement represents a concise and progressive approach to Cloud migration, and eradicates much of the hesitancy that may have been holding back departments’ Cloud journey. Now, with the full backing of SITA’s framework agreement, they can very quickly roll-out Office 365 to their teams.

Government and its technology partners can now build new services within the Cloud, making them available to staff and citizens at faster pace and lower cost.

Backed by extremely resilient Microsoft architectures, system downtime will be reduced; and staff can move beyond time-intensive administration and process work – to now spend more time on value-adding citizen delivery activities.

Enhanced services

But perhaps the biggest benefit will be found in the various Cloud-enabled Smart Citizen projects now set to get the green light.

Our experience in creating apps like the Johannesburg Road Agency’s ‘Find ‘n Fix’, and the Community Shield (to report suspicious activity and crime), have shown the incredible power of citizen engagement. With the right tools, people become more engaged, supportive, and demonstrate greater community spirit.

With Cloud architectures permeating throughout every department, expect to see a surge in Smart Citizen services – for users to report problems with public infrastructure, find information (like public transport networks), provide data to inform better city planning, report crime, and more.

From a financial perspective, Cloud services will make it easier for local government departments to, for instance, issue municipal bills digitally, publish water readings more accurately, or send notifications for various kinds of upcoming license renewals. With clearer billing, and a more engaged community, revenue collection becomes much easier.

Perfect timing with local Cloud news

When National departments – such as the Department of Justice – commit to Cloud migration, it sends a very compelling signal to smaller public sector bodies and indeed into the private sector. If the very body that governs law-making is comfortable from a data sovereignty and security perspective, then other institutions can safely follow suit.

SITA’s decision aligns perfectly with Microsoft’s recent announcement that its enterprise Cloud offerings would be delivered directly from data centres in Cape Town and Johannesburg. It also links well with the Department of Education’s programme to give all school learners and varsity students’ free access to Office 365 and a terabyte of OneDrive storage.

Our close involvement in this Education Department strategy – through building the activation portal that gives young South Africans access to the tools – has shown the enormous potential for Cloud Computing to make a real difference in our nation.

In fact, over the past few years, Intervate has increasingly moved into public sector spaces, digitising processes and creating applications that make a meaningful difference in the lives of all South Africans.

From reducing the number of lost dockets at the Department of Justice, to improving public hospitals with the Department of Health, we’ve become excited about the opportunities to apply technology to solve the biggest social problems.

So we’re naturally ecstatic that SITA has announced a commitment for all public sector bodies to migrate to Cloud services, bring greater efficiencies and ultimately help to improve the lives of all 60 million South Africans.

Array of local Cloud services will spur faster digitisation of SA Inc

The launch of various local Cloud platforms is a defining moment in the digitisation of companies and governments across the continent.

Microsoft recently announced that its Microsoft Cloud would be delivered from data centres in Cape Town and Johannesburg. This follows the news that T-Systems SA and Huawei will bring Open Telekom Cloud (an Open Stack public cloud platform) to local shores; and other providers preparing to establish their own datacentres around the country.

15th May 2017 – Opinion Piece, Peter Reid, Head of Intervate

 

Local organisations can now access some of the more advanced, computing-intensive fields – in areas like artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and connected sensors – which were previously not viable due to the costs of massive data volumes flowing to faraway Cloud destinations.

With direct access to these powerful and scalable Cloud tools, local firms can confidently commit to bold digitisation strategies – refurbishing and rebuilding systems in local Cloud platforms, architecting and designing with greater flexibility and becoming truly Cloud-ready businesses.

Perfectly positioned

With an over decade-long close relationship with Microsoft, and as the winner of multiple Microsoft awards, Intervate is naturally excited about the possibilities that Microsoft’s local Cloud will bring.

We’ll now be able to create applications that leverage the unique features of Azure – from advanced business intelligence and analytics, to their SQL database that includes embedded machine learning, performance optimisation and cyber-security defences.

Intervate is perfectly positioned to help local organisations get the most out of their Cloud migration journey – accelerating innovation, boosting entrepreneurship and helping to tackle some of our country’s most important problems.

Now, we can expect to see new businesses springing-up, new skills development programmes emerging, and heightened levels of innovation. Imagine the opportunities for the likes of facial recognition technology, real-time language translations, or sophisticated telemedicine services, for instance.

We’ll leverage the very best in Cloud platforms, to develop uniquely African solutions that solve our uniquely African issues.

No reason not to migrate

While many large SA firms have started migrating certain applications to hosted environments, fears and uncertainty around data sovereignty issues often prevent enterprise-wide Cloud transformation. Driven by new data and privacy legislation, many organisations have taken a conservative Cloud view.

In the Microsoft realm, for instance, while local firms may have already been using tools like Office 365 and Azure, the data has always resided in another part of the world.

But with global-class Cloud platforms available in SA, these concerns around data sovereignty and records management will quickly evaporate – allowing local organisations to accelerate their Cloud strategies. Within the Public Sector (where these concerns are even greater) we can expect to see a new wave of enthusiasm for Cloud-enabled e-Government plans.

From a technical perspective, local Clouds will address the issue of latency. With overseas data centres, latency is in the region of a couple of hundred milliseconds (at best). Now, we can bring this down to just a few milliseconds, and use dedicated lines to take full control over the connectivity linking your branches to the data centres.

This makes the world of difference if you’re crunching through vast volumes of data, and providing services that require real-time information flows. From stock exchanges to connected cars, the ability to bring latency down to virtually zero is a huge benefit.

As more and more global and local Cloud players commit to building South African Cloud environments, customers have greater levels of choice. And depending on your existing IT landscape, and your business strategies for the future, you’ll be able to pick and choose the platform that best suits your needs.

It will be exciting to see the effects on our digital economy, as local businesses take advantage of these new Cloud platforms, and go ‘all in’ with their digital transformation aspirations.

T-Systems sees early results of chatbot technology

As a global technology leader, it’s important that T-Systems explores breakthrough innovations within its own business. Often, services are tested and refined within the company, and then released out into T-Systems’ client environments as fully-fledged offerings.

With this in mind, it stood to reason that T-Systems would be one of the earliest adopters of ‘Pipa’, formerly known as ROBIT, a revolutionary chatbot developed by T-Systems’ own subsidiary, Intervate.

27th November 2016 – Customer Story, Dave Stevens, Business Development Executive

Intervate’s Dave Stevens explains that Pipa – which is accessible via the Skype for Business interface and as a web chatbot on the Microsoft bot framework – offers two primary features in her first iteration:

  • Integration into SAP, to enquire about invoicing and statements… with the user already authenticated into Skype for Business or in the web interface, Pipa understands the permissions of every user, and helps staff requesting documents from deep within the legacy SAP environment. Staff no longer have to wade through complex back-end systems; instead, they can retrieve documents with just a simple chat conversation. Conservatively, we estimate that this saves Account Managers 7-8 hours per month – time that used to be spent searching for documents. In a team of 25 account managers, this adds up to a significant annual saving of over 1500 man hours.

 

Booking meeting rooms… across the various T-Systems and Intervate regions, meeting room systems tended to differ and weren’t always integrated with one another. With Pipa, these systems are consolidated into one helpful, chat-based interface. Based on a short conversation to understand your requirements, she’ll find appropriate rooms. Staff can even invite colleagues & customers to meetings using Pipa, and sessions will be automatically synced to one’s Outlook calendar. If a previously-unavailable room becomes available, she’ll send you a message to let you know.

“These are simple, but surprisingly useful services that allow us to get to grips with chatbot technology in a practical way,” adds Stevens. “We’ve already moved beyond the ‘gimmick’ phase, and received highly positive feedback from early users, and tangible benefits”.

“It also serves as a great lead-in to a new way of working, where staff are able to be more remote, more flexible, and yet still access the entire spectrum of corporate services using interfaces that are familiar and easy to use.”

Looking further ahead, Stevens says that Pipa will grow in sophistication, and will likely benefit from the rapid advancements of Microsoft’s Cognitive services framework. Pipa is already able to answer common queries in over, 60 supported languages, by indexing a data source provided to the Pipa Engine. In time, she will connect with other specialist chatbots, from different fields, ‘borrowing’ their intelligence (and lending some of her own). This future state of ‘bot convergence’ will serve up some exciting opportunities, forever changing the way we work and the way we connect with organisations.

Building based on scenario’s or templates is what we are working on next – we recognise that many company’s have the same challenges, which may differ in terms of exact process but the outline is the same – check out the video below where we demonstrate using Pipa in a Helpdesk scenario.

Beyond the chatter: how chatbots will evolve into practical tools

With research showing that the number of new app downloads is slowing down, it’s clear that customers are becoming pickier about the apps on their phones and tablets. The slowdown also points to a phenomenon of ‘app fatigue’ – we’re getting tired of continually updating all our apps, of learning different UX and navigation principles, or remembering passwords.

5th November 2016 – Opinion Piece, Craig Heckrath, Head of Mobility & Peter Reid, Executive Head of Intervate

There’s a theory – popularised by a book, a talk at the South by SouthWest conference, and the hashtag  #NoUI – which says the best user interface is, simply, no user interface. #NoUI tries to address the issue of app fatigue.

Craig Heckrath, Head of Products at Intervate, explains that, “in the spirit of #NoUI, many of us are enchanted by the idea of a more natural, more human interface that could replace the small rectangle of smartphone glass which seems to continually demand our attention. And it’s for this reason that the idea of chatbots holds such universal appeal: verbal language is perhaps the most natural, most human way of communicating.”

Just think of the apps that are most often used. For most people, chat messaging apps like Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger and WeChat reign supreme. Many analysts predict that these platforms will develop into whole new ecosystems of services – the likes of ecommerce, payments, personal concierge, gaming, and more.

The promise

Intervate Head, Peter Reid notes that chatbots in the workplace perfectly combine the popularity of messaging as an interface, with rapid advancements in the field of artificial intelligence. They promise to help customers, staff members, partners or other parties engage more fluidly with an organisation.

“Chatbots are often hailed as the end of call centre frustrations – no more waiting on line, being transferred to other agents, or getting cut-off. Instead, customers can chat at any time of the day or night, with intelligent bots that can interpret various styles of language (in fact, various languages), and provide useful responses,” he explains.

For the organisation, chatbots can be used to automate certain repetitive tasks and common queries – such as IT helpdesks resetting users’ passwords, for instance. It’s a way to automate low-value activities, and redeploy the human staff to focus on more strategic work.

But these are the grand promises of chatbots. So far, the early examples of bots are fairly limited in their scope, and can become quite frustrating if users try to perform more complex tasks – above and beyond what the chatbot has been specifically ‘trained’ to do.

Cutting through the hype, getting down to business

The coming months and years will see businesses becoming more realistic with the way they implement chatbots into the organisation, notes Heckrath. “The focus will be on integrating the chatbot channel into the core systems and data repositories of the organisation. Those that try to become too ambitious too early will probably struggle to get their chatbot programmes off the ground. To increase the chance of success, we advocate a five-step process to getting started on your chatbot journey”

  1. Codify those common queries, and commonly-used information sources that could be used by a chatbot, to offer immediate value to users. Look at those repetitive tasks that are easy to automate and to surface in the chat format.
  2. Begin with a few limited channels – for some organisations, this may be Skype for Business, or a web chat window. You don’t have to give your bot a presence of every possible channel immediately.
  3. Monitor the early conversations at a very granular level of detail, use those learnings to understand user sentiment and frustrations, and adapt the bot as quickly as possible
  4. Allow your chatbot to “fail gracefully” – if it doesn’t know the answer to a question, allow it to become a simple digital assistant, which helps to patch the user through to a call centre, or direct them to a support email address, or escalate to a particular individual
  5. Don’t oversell the technology, to your stakeholders or your users. Don’t try to pretend that your bot is a warm-bodied human being. It’s important to set the users’ expectations up-front. Generally, people are quite forgiving if your bot has an open and honest personality

Glimpse into the future

By getting started early on a chatbot journey, companies will be perfectly poised to benefit from the huge strides that developers are making in refining natural language processing, enhancing the sophistication of artificial intelligence, and creating ecosystems where specialist bots can communicate and hand-over to other bots of a different specialisation.

Reid adds, “As chatbot technology continues to mature, we’ll start moving into the realm of predictive algorithms – where the chatbot can start initiating the conversation with the user, based on predictions about what the users will need. This has the potential to dramatically enhance customer service and satisfaction levels. In time, your chatbot will be able to synthesise and crowdsource information from a vast number of information services, to provide the best-possible engagement with users.”

“From there, the future is unknown. In much the same way that we could not have predicted the rise of apps like Uber and AirBNB a decade ago, it’s virtually impossible to imagine the new opportunities that chatbots will create in the future. Perhaps we’ll see entirely new businesses growing out of the chatbot revolution?”

Heckrath concludes, “Whatever the future holds, chatbots will play a role. There’s never been a better time to explore how your chatbot could help spur your company’s digital evolution.”