His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai, recognized that the global economy is rapidly evolving. He wanted his country and his people to thrive in a post-digital world, and, to ensure that goal will come life, he launched Vision 2021.
Vision 2021 is a comprehensive plan that sets ambition goals in terms of economic, social, and infrastructural change. It focuses on six national priorities that will position the UAE to be a world leader in innovation, healthcare, education, and sustainability. Vision 2021 seeks to secure the safety and cultural heritage of the UAE citizens as well.
H.H. Sheikh Mohammed wants the full realization of Vision 2021’s myriad goals to coincide with the United Arab Emirates’s Golden Jubilee (50-year anniversary) celebration in December of 2021.
Vision 2021 is a plan full of broad, ambitious, and noble goals. Defining targets and anticipating the impact that massive change will have on an entire country isn’t easy. It is, however, just the beginning. The heavy task of converting the concept of Vision 2021’s promise of Sustainable Environment and Infrastructure into a reality was assigned to the municipality of Dubai’s services and infrastructure team.
Under the directive of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai Crown Prince and Chairman of Dubai Executive Council launched the Dubai Paperless strategy in February 2018. The Dubai Paperless Strategy seeks to make sure that no employee or customer of Dubai government will need to print any paper to transact government business after 2021.
“When we received the targets of ‘100 percent paperless’ and ‘Go Green by December 2021’ from the Dubai government, we were puzzled about how we are going to achieve it. The services and the platforms and applications that we have in Dubai were built over the last 20 years,” said Prakash Inbasekaran, Dubai Municipality’s principal enterprise architect.
A part of UAE’s national plan for Vision 2021, Dubai’s paperless strategy includes modernizing government services and technology. “There are 20 years old applications which were built way back in 2000, 2005, etc., still running in Dubai Municipality…. How can we achieve all this digitalization by December 2021, and how can we make our workforce and citizens adapt to this digitization? This is really fast.”
Getting Modern from the Inside Out
In less than two years, Inbasekaran and his team have to take a paper-based services system and digitally transform it. Dubai Municipality has six sectors with 36 different departments and approximately 13,000 employees, according to Inbsekaran. About 30 percent of municipality business was conducted online before the project launch, but, behind the curtain, even those services required back-office manual input.
“The Dubai leadership wants to see Dubai be the number one smart city in the world in the next five years,” said Inbasekaran. “Basically, the key message from them is they don’t want to be number two or three. When it comes to digitalization and being a smart city … we are really marching towards it.”
Evolving from manual to digital processes is a massive undertaking. The Dubai municipality team defined several internal-facing requirements to break the digitization project down into more manageable parts:
- Automate all paper-based internal services.
- Consolidate and track internal interactions by creating an interconnected platform so that data can be accessed by multiple departments.
- Eliminate paper usage in the municipality, from millions of sheets annually to zero.
- Reduce the red-tape requirements that delay service transactions.
- Lower costs by consolidating services into single-window applications
In addition to the edict directed at internal services and systems optimization, the Dubai Municipality team also had to complete digitization and modernization of all citizen-facing social and business agencies. That means consolidating, rebuilding, and optimizing more than 100 different services for close to 3 million people.
“Obviously, no one likes to stand in a queue—you go to a government office, and you really don’t want to stand in a queue to avail the services from the government”, said Inbasekaran. “With this in mind, the Dubai leadership ordered all government agencies and entities to digitize their services—fully digital, not even one manual [operation] is acceptable—by December 2021.”
The Dubai Municipality team also created a set of external-facing digital transformation projects as a part of its Vision 2021 roadmap:
- Digitize all sectors and services by December 2021.
- Create a single portal entry point for public interaction with the Dubai Municipality government departments.
- Reduce human resource requirements for service transactions.
- Cut costs related to service transactions.
- Build a user-friendly platform that can handle hundreds of thousands of transactions and millions of visitors per month.
Hitting New Goals, Fighting Old Glitches
The Dubai Municipality team knew it had ambitious goals and limited time. However, as they began to scope the project and gather requirements from the business, they faced another challenge: winning back the department directors’ trust after less-than-ideal results from previous projects.
“They invested millions of dollars trusting that IT will deliver all the digitization expectations of their departments—but that never really happened because it took too much time,” said Inbasekaran. “Let’s say I promise that I’ll deliver the project in three years, but by that time, the business has already changed. They lose the interest and lose the trust that the IT department will deliver something that will add value for the citizens and the business.”
Previous projects used the waterfall methodology and were coming in overdue, Inbasekaran said, which left department leaders underwhelmed. IT was delivering solutions that met only around 10 percent of the requirements. Scope creep was also a problem. Any attempt to accommodate contemporary feature requests pushed back delivery timelines even more. In 2019, the Dubai Municipality team decided they needed a better partner and a better platform if they were going to finish the project on schedule for the UAE 50th anniversary celebration.
“Dubai municipality already had invested lots—millions—in several other competitive products. But even after investing so much, they still couldn’t even achieve half of their target,” said Aysha Begum, HR and business development director at RapidData Technologies, a software development and IT outsourcing company specializing in low-code digitization projects. “They were aware of Mendix as a platform, but there was no major player in the market to help them understand Mendix’s potential to really nail it down. So, that is where we entered the market. We showcased how much potential Mendix has and how soon we can help them to reach their target.”
Building with the Right Tool and the Right Team
The Dubai Municipality began working with RapidData Technologies in 2019. RapidData has experience working with local and large government entities as well as Fortune 500 companies. Their rapid go-to-market strategy and track record for incorporating scalability and security into successful IT optimizations made them a perfect fit for the Dubai Municipality project.
“RapidData brought Mendix to the Dubai Municipality team,” said Begum. “But convincing them was not an easy task, because they already had invested so much.”
After the RapidData team completed a sample demonstration, the Dubai Municipality team signed on in the summer of 2019 to use Mendix as the platform for their lofty digitization goals. “We explored a lot of products available in the market,” said John Socorro, project manager and technical lead for the Dubai Municipality team. “We identified that Mendix is a better product, because with the other platforms, every time you tested it, something or other breaks. Mendix is very stable. Also, it’s Java-based, which is advantageous.”
With RapidData as the partner and Mendix as the low code platform, Dubai Municipality team was ready to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of digitizing all the internal and external services in less than a period of two years.
Delivering with Low-code
The Dubai Municipality (DM) is the largest government organization in the United Arab Emirates, with thousands of employees and dozens of different services. To accomplish the task set forth by the Sheikh, the team in Dubai knew they had to provide an easy-to-use application that allowed quick access to all the services used by government employees. They knew they had to go paperless, increase productivity through automation, and, most importantly, finish development on schedule.
“We developed a project called Smart Office to provide quick access for all services that are used by DM employees on a day-to-day basis,” said Begum. “Smart Office eliminates the need for paper printing through the use of digital signatures and PDF annotations. It helps convert paper-based forms to digital forms, and it also automates workflows, which helps reduce time and increase productivity. We enabled advanced notification mechanisms via mobile push notifications, and we also integrated Alexa voice commands inside.”
In addition to tackling Sheikh Hamdan’s edict to eliminate paper use, Smart Office also reduced the amount of time needed for governmental approvals and transactions. Smart Office consolidated many service websites into one centralized portal, with centralized security optimizations and user-friendly access to different government business branches. Speech-to-task Alexa voice integration and a smart calendar feature, which automatically creates and schedules meetings and tracks and assigns tasks, were two innovative integrations beyond the original feature requirements.
“The challenging part was—we are building an enterprise application that more than 5,000 employees are using daily,” said Laith al-Qudah, RapidData’s lead Mendix developer on the Dubai Municipality project. “If you are building one solution for one department, it would affect other departments and other sections. So it will open more discussions and more requirements between these departments. But with Mendix, we can solve these kinds of problems with the first idea. We build, review, and release every two weeks. All parties were happy because of the speed of release.”
The Dubai Municipality team was able to hit their stride quickly, deploying on two major projects in less than three months. In addition to Smart Office, the team built DM Fees, an externally facing payment portal used to collect different types of municipality fees from private businesses. Smart Office has already reduced the municipality’s internal paper use by a projected four million sheets a year and has completed digitization of more than 50 percent of its internal services. The team is “100% confident,” according to Begum, that it will hit its target completion deadline, a sentiment Socorro echoes.
“I can tell you—being a .NET developer myself in my earlier days—if Smart Office were implemented with traditional technology, it would take anywhere from one to one-and-a-half years,” he said. “It would be that mega-scale. And we were able to do it, with the help of RapidData, in a very short period. Of course, we put in a lot of hard work and a lot of hours, but without a rapid tool like Mendix, it would not have been possible”.
Getting More Done, Faster
With Smart Office, the scope was broad, but with Mendix as the platform, there wasn’t much high-level development complexity to the programs and applications behind the project. The Dubai Municipality team was able to spread out much of the work using a low-code platform—creating forms and work orders, for example—to reduce the backlog for their higher-experience developers.
Low-code also increased collaboration between the business and the IT team, enriching the business role throughout the requirements gathering, workflow management, and user story creation stages. With the business able to quickly monitor and respond to prototypes in development, the IT team could pivot faster and easier to meet their requirements.
For example, the Dubai team was able to incorporate wireframes designed by analysts and other business stakeholders into the workflow using the platform’s drag-and-drop visual development interface. The result was a template that developers could start a project with, knowing it would meet their requirements and expectations of the business teams since they built it themselves.
“The business is very happy about it because they see all of the applications are following the PMP,” said Inbasekaran. “And they are able to control the development. This is the main collaboration that they were looking for and a key-value addition with Mendix.”
“in Mendix… We just focus on the business layer only, nothing else. This is something great.”—Laith al-Qudah
For al-Qudah, one of the biggest benefits of a low-code platform is the time saved planning and building the foundational technology stack. “I remember the old school way—we used to prepare our database, our front end, our backend, and all communication between them,” said al-Qudah. “But, here in Mendix, this no longer exists. We just focus on the business layer only, nothing else. This is something great.”
Socorro notes that Java-based flexibility and the ability to develop applications that service a high volume of both users and data demonstrate the low-code platform’s scalability. “We actually analyzed the capabilities of Mendix in terms of how it is structuring the data, how it is doing the indexing in the backend, how the segmentation is done from the data perspective, and all that is just perfect. It doesn’t become slow over a period of time—it’s a perfectly fine-tuned application.”
Partnering with RapidData, The Dubai Municipality team demonstrated the value of low-code development to department leaders shortly after launch. Inbasekaran reports that most of the complex transitional services have been implemented into the Mendix platform after only seven months of development. Costs have been cut by a fourth, and more than 65 percent of development timelines and schedules have been reduced. “They are really happy with the pace that we are proceeding to deliver their services,” he said.
Dubai’s citizen-facing service offerings before the digitization project were mostly done manually and physically. Such transactions incur high workforce costs and take forever, which, in turn, reduces and delays municipality revenues.
The government owns an impressive amount of real estate throughout Dubai, which it leases to other agencies, private sector businesses, and various individuals. The first public project undertaken by the Dubai Municipality team facilitated payments to the municipality’s property leasing, city planning, and construction departments.
“We call this Asset Management, and we were able to digitize the property leasing and everything else through the Mendix platform,” Inbasekaran said. By combining Asset Management with the DM Fees application, the Dubai Municipality was able to deploy two high-revenue public-facing optimizations early in the digitization project. “We collect a lot of fees from hotels, restaurants, environment agencies, and also from the building owners and citizens. We are talking about billions of dirhams worth of fees paid to Dubai Municipality, all automated using Mendix. This is the kind of transformation we are talking about.”
Making it Single-Serve
The success of this high-value digitization earned the team approval to embark on a more ambitious requirement—creating a single, public portal that connects millions of users to more than one hundred different municipal business agencies.
The platform needs to be able to handle a city’s worth of concurrent citizen-government interactions, and users need to swiftly and effortlessly switch between different governmental services. Redundant integrations across agencies need to be centralized and reduced. Antiquated applications, built as far back as 20 years ago, need to be rethought and improved. An ocean of user data needs to be stored and accessed across government agencies. Three million people will depend on this platform to conduct business with Dubai, and from Dubai, with the world.
“The main goal was to meet the expectations of the citizens—the citizens are the stakeholders,” said Begum. “All the citizens who are going to use these services, they expected and wanted easy access to these services.”
“The main goal was to meet the expectations of the citizens—the citizens are the stakeholders.”—Aysha Begum
Prior to digitization efforts, the public often had to make multiple visits to different departments to get the required signatures for a project. Not only did this extend the timeline for getting municipal approval for a request or to use a provided service, but it also always increased the costs for all such transactions.
“We deal with the environment, health and safety, food safety, and then the city planning, and construction departments. And all of these, even if you go to the hotels and restaurants, everything is monitored and controlled by Dubai municipality,” said Inbasekaran. “So, it’s a vast and diversified portfolio of services that we deliver to the citizens of Dubai.”
The Dubai Municipality team deployed the platform portal in June, which Inbasekaran calls “the kernel of all of our services,” as it will soon grow into a one-stop-shop for all public-government interactions.
Digitizing on Time
While only a portion of the scoped services is complete, the municipality is already seeing terrific results. Traffic on the new services sites is up to 9,000 visitors a day, with over 1.5 million page views a month.
“We also have delivered two mobile apps using the Mendix low-code application platform. And the services that we have built using Mendix, they have already received more than one million views—millions of transactions per month are already happening through this application,” said Begum. “If you go onto the website, we went live very recently, and it is a great success. We are getting rave reviews, and people have already started to log in.”
With less than a year under their belt, the team of Dubai Municipality and RapidData Technologies are already more than halfway complete with the digitization project, deploying as many as ten services in a month’s time. Both teams are confident they will finish their part of the Vision 2021 plan on time to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Arab Emirates federation.
“When it comes to the business, the leadership is certainly concerned to know if the IT team is collaborative. Does IT really understand our business? Are they able to deliver based on our business expectations,” said Inbasekaran. “What helped IT to prove this?… That magic tool was actually Mendix. Mendix facilitated the apt delivery of digital services at a rapid pace and this made the leadership of Dubai municipality really happy.”