By Karl R. Smith
There can be no doubt that next year will be historical for some of us who have never witnessed a peaceful transition of power from one President to another or from one political party to another. With my limited knowledge of political science, let’s consider that I don’t know what I am talking about regarding the transfer of state power. However, there is one thing I do know for sure is that whoever the next president of Liberia is – there are some technology refinement that will be expected.
Some of my colleagues think I can be an excellent technology advisor to any elected President due to the multitudinous ideas I have in using technology to make Liberia better. I cannot agree any less with them since it will give me added clout in the society and the rebuilding of Mama Liberia. Notwithstanding, I have asked myself over and over if this is what I do want to do and the only answer that continues to ring in my ears is NO. I do not want to be an advisor, at least not right now. Maya Angelou, an American poet once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” – yes, she was very correct. I have sought for ways to tell the untold story, the technology plan for Liberia’s next president, a plan that the new president can consider, a plan that can be included in their manifesto when it comes to technology, a plan that could change the technology trajectory in Liberia. Yes, it is my plan, but a potential plan for the next president of Liberia.
There can be no doubt that there are lots of areas that should be covered when it comes to technology advancement in Liberia but I will limit this paper (Part I) to what I consider the top three high-level areas of focus for now: Technology Governance, Technology Infrastructure and Technology Services.
The objectives of any plan cannot be accomplished if there is a lack of proper Governance. For so long, the technology sector has lacked a Governance body that is solely responsible to drive technology initiatives in Liberia.
Presently in Liberia, there are three bodies that shadow the responsibilities for technology governance: Ministry of Post & Telecommunication, Liberia Telecommunication Authority and Liberia Telecommunications Corporation. These bodies have one thing in common and if you have not noticed yet, it is “telecommunication”. Sadly, in this 21st Century, we are targeting only the telecommunication industry, which was excellent in the 70s, 80s and early 90s.
We continue to witness the struggle of Governance between entities of Government in Liberia at all levels and sectors. It is irrefutable that there exists a serious technology governance gap in Liberia that the next President needs to consider. I believe that key to technology governance in Liberia will be the formation of the Ministry of Science & Information Technology (MSIT). The existing Ministry of Post & Telecommunication should be dissolved or restructured in a way that it drives the technology agenda of the Country. The Ministers should have strong sciences and technological background, well respected in the sector and seasoned administrators. The MSIT should sit high on the president’s agenda. The Postal portion of the existing Ministry should be separated with the creation of the Bureau of Postal Affairs.
The Liberia Telecommunication Authority (LTA) should continue to focus on regulating the telecommunication sector. There should be some reform! In the last couple of days, we have witnessed the National Legislators doing what I thought was the work of the LTA. The LTA should be proactive, they should move more toward ensuring quality services are maintained. It sickens to see GSM towers all over the country – what happened to the co-location agreement? These are the areas they need to focus on more by ensuring that all players are playing by the same rules. We are furious to know if our calls are being tapped illegally. Anyone can install and operate a VSAT in Liberia with the LTA having no idea about it. Again, they need to be proactive and that may require some sort of restructuring and funding.
Liberia Telecommunication Corporation (LIBTELCO) should not be considered as a regulatory body as they are often misrepresented in some places. I have always seen LIBTELCO as a serious revenue generating source for the Government. They should continue to operate as a State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) but with different mandates and approach. Should Government be getting internet from third party? Should Government consider Platform-As-A-Service (PAAS)? These questions and many more are yet to be answered. LIBTELCO’s focus must be to raise revenue for the Government instead to operate as a regulatory body and the Government should be the first customer for LIBTELCO.
The next president should create in their office a new portfolio for a Chief Information Technology Officer. The sole responsibility of this portfolio will be to advise and ordinate ICT activities for the President. This position should be given immediate priority for the next President.
The current Government’s focus was on building/rebuilding infrastructures. Lots of money were spent on roads, buildings and others, but very little were spent on building the technology infrastructure. The next president should focus on building technology backbone infrastructure; they should highly consider the decentralization of technology. Government should invest in building, operating and maintaining cellular towers. I know critics will say that is not the Government’s core function. I disagreed vehemently! The Government can set up a public-private venture with the Government putting forth a portion of the fund and the operations and maintenances stay with the private company. Government could outsource this entirely. The truth is, our people in rural Liberia need access to communication & technology and GSM companies will only invest when there are more subscribers. Business people always look for return on investment (ROI) but if the Government can invest in the infrastructure and maintenance, I am sure the shared cost will be able to maintain and operate the infrastructure.
Every Government Ministry in Monrovia MUST have fiber cable as a means of internet! No Ministry should get internet from third party. The Government should operate on a secured network where information is shared securely. LIBTELCO infrastructure should be configured to have all Government Ministries on a secured network. Cybercrime is real and I need not to remind us about the challenges we faced today with Cyber-threat.
I do not support every Government ministry having their own datacenter (server room) due to the high upfront and operating cost (though I would appreciate it). The reality is that the rest of the world is moving to Infrastructure-As-A-Service (IAAS) where you do not have to own it, just use it. The Government can now work with LIBTELCO to provide these kinds of services to Government. Imagining each Ministry have an average of 5 servers, we are talking about 110 servers for all Ministries. Can LIBTELCO host all those servers? The answer is yes. If the servers are 2U, you will need approximately 12 pieces of 48U racks to host all those servers. The overall saving is exorbitant considering if each of the 22 Ministries were running their own data center 24x7x365. The cost of cooling, electricity, storage and support will be shared among those ministries which will be far less.
Disaster recovery is another important area of focus for the next president. Our data should be regularly backed up and in the event of disaster, those backups should be restored. The next president should consider building a centralized disaster recovery site and all Government agencies should have their data backed up regularly. Backup data should be encrypted and secured.
I must admit that my first time back to Liberia – there was only one kind of technology service and that was internet service. IT departments were created only for internet access. Ministers, Directors only grade their IT department once they have internet access. Gone are those days that IT was defined by internet access. The next president MUST look at technology services from all angles. Technology services should be holistically considered from all sectors.
Every sector should be placed on the table for discussion and consideration and how each sector can use technology services to improve the service(s) they provide. There are some key services that should be given high preference. We need to have a proper immigration system at all the ports of entry. These ports of entry should all be linked to a centralized database that other agencies can pull information from. This is helpful for the National Security Agency, Police and other relevant stakeholders. The next president must consider automation of business processes for each agency. Government should invest heavily in health care automation and the securing and sharing of patients’ information between recognized hospitals. The National Identity Registry (NIR) should be given priority. I personally think the NIR is under the wrong Ministry and should be moved under the new Ministry of Science & Information Technology. One mistake that should not be made is for the Government to allow an outside company to implement the national biometric component of the NIR. This is a sensitive service that should be locally implemented and maintained to uphold that sanity of trust and Citizens’ confidence. Education Ministry should institute a policy that will mandate schools to have an automated system that will manage and keep academic data for all students.
As we move towards the elections, we will expect Aspirants to present their agenda for technology in Liberia. These agendas will be discussed and vetted amongst leaders in the sector for public opinion. We must always remember that there can be no development without technology in this 21st century. Liberia will rise again! It is never too late to start from the beginning.
About the Author: Karl R. Smith: is a seasoned IT expert who spent the last 11 years building enterprise systems in Liberia for the Government, Private and (I)NGO sectors. Karl is passionate about technology in Liberia and his vision is to use technology to transform and contribute to other lives in a meaningful way. Karl holds a Master Degree in Computer Science from the University of Leicester, United Kingdom and he is also one of the founding members of the Information Communication Technology Association of Liberia.