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Can Mongolia’s Digital Revolution Help Meet Service Delivery Challenges?

January 28, 2015

By Tirza Theunissen

Last month, Mongolia celebrated the 25th anniversary of its democratic revolution, a moment that would catapult the country’s transformation from a communist regime to a dynamic power in the region. But more recently – and more quietly – the country has also been undergoing a digital revolution.

Ulaanbaatar

Given that Mongolia has the lowest population density in the world, internet penetration has been understandably low. But this rate has been steadily increasing over the last couple of years. Photo/Matthew Pendergast

In the World Economic Forum’s 2014 “Network Readiness Index,” Mongolia ranks 61 out of 148 economies in terms of its ability to leverage ICT to boost competitiveness. With the lowest population density in the world, internet penetration has been understandably low in Mongolia. But this rate has been steadily increasing over the last couple of years facilitated by the rapid expansion of the telecommunications network and in particular the increase of (Android) mobile phone use. Increasingly, ICT is also being recognized an important enabler for innovation and development as well as potential solutions to governance and transparency issues and service delivery challenges both in Mongolia’s urban and remote rural areas.

The Ulaanbaatar City Municipality has been ahead of the curve in utilizing ICT innovations to advance governance reform. In response to President Elbegdorj’s “From Big Government to Small Government,” initiative, the City Municipality launched the “Smart Ulaanbaatar” program in March 2014. The program, which focuses on six “smart” components – governance, economy, service, people, environment, and well-being – will utilize new technology solutions to improve the quality of life the citizens of Ulaanbaatar city, home to almost 50 percent of the total population, and will be implemented in three stages until 2020. The city has already started some of these smart initiatives including the establishment of a citizen feedback call center using ICT software to categorize complaints and forward these to relevant departments, city vehicle e-tax collection, and a new online Android application that provides data publically on ongoing construction projects.

The Asia Foundation has been supporting the Ulaanbaatar City Municipality in particular in the areas of governance and service delivery, and in 2014, we partnered to improved transparency by developing an integrated database containing over 48,000 key decisions and city legislation made by the Capital City Citizens’ Khural, the governor’s office, and the city’s nine districts and agencies. We also partnered to help resolve one of the most publicly disputed issues in Ulaanbaatar – land permission and issuance – by digitizing over 150 land demarcation maps of which a selection has been uploaded onto the city’s land and property office website. Together with the city, we established a community mapping website as an interactive resource for citizens and city officials to find information and download maps for advocacy and planning purposes on 11 different indicators about the accessibility and availability of public services in the city’s sprawled out ger districts. Most recently, we have been working with the city to develop an electronic customer database on solid waste collection, which will be linked to Ulaanbaatar’s service center to enable ger area residents to receive information and provide direct feedback on collection services via SMS.

One of the main challenges in further developing ICT solutions is the still limited access to the internet by much of the population, especially of the residents in Ulaanbaatar’s surrounding ger districts and in the countryside. In 2013, Ulaanbaatar established 99 free Wi-Fi zones across the city, but still coverage is not wide enough. Therefore, in December 2014, the Mayor and Capital City Governor, Mr. Bat-Uul, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Cisco, which includes further expansion of its Wi-Fi network to all city residents, including the nearly 60 percent who live in the ger areas. Other areas of cooperation include good governance solutions based on cloud technologies, including a data center that will serve as a general data network of all public services and of information about education, health and other industries, the establishment of an e-governance network that can connect all administration units of Ulaanbaatar to the general network, and Cisco’s Internet of Everything (IoE) software to collect the population data to inform planning on public safety, environmental sustainability, and productivity. A smart education program will provide trainings and lessons for schools located in remote areas of the city, using WebEx technology video instruments. In October, the Ulaanbaatar City Municipality also signed a MoU with Google to help strengthen the city’s economic competitiveness and develop tourism through closer collaboration with Google Maps. The city and Google launched Google Street View of Ulaanbaatar, which allows users take a virtual “walk” to view scenes of documented streets, avenues, squares, museums, restaurants, and buildings on Google Maps.

However, one of the main challenges in urban planning and service delivery has been the lack of a comprehensive accurate and detailed map of Ulaanbaatar that can show roads especially in the ger areas, where many roads are unpaved. Building upon our existing community mapping project, the Foundation has been partnering with the City Municipality of Ulaanbaatar to use remote sensing technologies and open source tools and services like OpenStreetMap (OSM) to develop a more complete and accurate online, open, and free map of Ulaanbaatar. DigitalGlobe recently granted the Foundation more recent and higher resolution satellite imagery for tracing in OSM. Mapbox, which provides a powerful and diverse platform for the creation of custom online maps, has processed the raw satellite imagery to prepare it for use in OSM and is hosting the resulting map tiles. There are now more than 2,000 square kilometers of high-quality satellite imagery of Ulaanbaatar available for viewing and editing in OSM. We also collected even higher-resolution imagery of Ulaanbaatar’s ger area road and elevation data using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). To ensure that the city has the capacity to use the data provided by the new imagery to inform policy making and planning makers, the Foundation last week conducted an advanced GIS training course for city planners providing a platform to show their analytical skills while learning about more innovative, lower-cost and faster ways of improving urban planning in Ulaanbaatar.

While ICT tools alone can’t solve Mongolia’s toughest governance challenges, the city’s willingness to embrace innovative partnerships and its determination to find solutions just might be what it takes.

Tirza Theunissen is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Mongolia and can be reached at tirza.theunissen@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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