"The mobile is as essential as our car keys and wallet"

Interview with Sultan Hamdoon Al Harthi, head of Muscat Municipality

samirsachdeva

Samir Sachdeva | March 1, 2012




Muscat Municipality was the first government organisation in Oman to tap into the potential of m-government with its SMS-based parking services. Today, the residents of Muscat can choose from many advanced mobile applications like instant feedback regarding any problem in the city. Head of Muscat Municipality, Sultan Hamdoon Al Harthi highlights the achievements of the municipality in mobile governance. Edited excerpts in an interview with Samir Sachdeva:
 
What is the potential of m-government in Muscat?
Evolving our mobile government services is a key priority for me. I believe that Muscat is standing at the forefront of a new technology frontier. We are all increasingly living and breathing technology as part of our daily lives and the mobile phone holds as essential a place as our car keys and wallet. The statistics is staggering. Our mobile penetration rate is now at 169 percent, meaning that many of us carry more than one mobile phone. And with over fifty percent of our population under twenty-five, we have a huge opportunity and requirement to keep pace with this technology-savvy target market.

What are the key m-gov initiatives that you have implemented? 
Our m-government plan is constantly evolving to keep pace with the latest technology developments and to achieve our overarching mission of delivering public services as efficiently as possible. Muscat Municipality was the first governmental organisation in Oman to tap into the potential of mobile services when we started our SMS-parking services. Drivers can now send SMS details of their vehicle plate number to a short code number ‘90091’ and receive a confirmation message with the allocated time. Five minutes before the allocated time expires, an automated SMS is then generated to remind the motorist to either move their vehicle or renew their parking. This was a pioneering service and it continues to be a huge success.
We have also launched iMuscat, a mobile application that invites citizens of Muscat to connect actively with the municipality. Services include the “where did I park” application that helps users remember where they last parked their car.
A popular function within iMuscat is also the new feedback form that enables citizens to now provide us with instant feedback regarding any problems in the city, from overflowing dustbins to issues with parking or roads. The functionality also enables the user to attach a photograph as well as pinpoint the exact location of the problem through the global positioning system (GPS) application on his/her Smart phone. 
This speeds up our response time to problems around the city and is helping ensure we become a proactive rather than a reactive organisation.

What are the major challenges that Oman faced while going ahead with m-government?
We are working proactively with the regulators (Telecommunications Regulatory Authority—TRA) to create mobile hotspots across the city that will mitigate some of the current issues with bandwidth and cost of mobile broadband connectivity.

Are all services available on simple handsets or is an advanced smart phone required?
Our philosophy is to achieve customer satisfaction by adapting to the trends in the market and offering services through as many channels as possible, either by mobile or internet. The majority of our basic services are SMS-based and for greater functional availability, we have apps for smart phones.                   
Do you offer a bilingual interface?
Yes. We offer all our services in both English and Arabic to ensure our services are accessible to all.

Does one require additional applications to avail these services? Is it platform independent?
The web applications are platform independent. iMuscat is currently available for use with Apple iOS, Google Android and Blackberry OS. Plans are also in place for both Nokia Symbian and Windows Mobile.

Did Oman require a specific legislation to facilitate m-government?
Our services use a telecommunication provider’s payment system (as billed item for post-paid subscribers and a ‘deduct from account’ for pre-paid subscribers).  There is currently an electronic transaction law that governs all electronic transaction within the Sultanate. As the usage of the mobile services matures, dedicated legislation for mobile payment might be devised.
 
What is the feedback?
We have received very positive feedback to date. M-government initiatives have been a major breakthrough in increasing accessibility to some of our core services. Of course, we still have a lot more work to do. We are committed to developing our m-government services in order to keep pace with technology.

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