Barbara Van Den Haute on data sharing as a growth engine

Barbara Van Den Haute is a firm believer in the importance of data sharing and the API economy as enablers of growth and digital transformation. As Administrator General of Digital Flanders, the digital agency of the Flemish government,  she is responsible for a new project to kickstart data-sharing initiatives in the Flemish region of Belgium.

Digital Flanders – or Digitaal Vlaanderen as it’s called in Dutch, the official language of Flanders – employs 450 people and has numerous responsibilities with quite some digitization and digital transformation projects.

And there are more to come. Earlier in 2021, the Flemish government announced several initiatives in the context of the recovery plan with an essential role for Digital Flanders. The agency was also heavily involved in several projects in the context of the pandemic.

As mentioned, the interview’s main topic is data sharing and business growth – and more precisely, what the government and its digital agency plan intend to do to drive growth and accelerate digitalization through their data sharing initiative.

This interview is part of a series on digital and business growth in the context of an event in Belgium, “Wired for Growth” where Barbara Van Den Haute has a keynote entitled “Digital government 4.0 means company growth“.

Data sharing and APIs as drivers of growth and transformation

Data sharing, the possibilities of data-driven collaboration, and the API economy are anything but new for Barbara Van Den Haute. On top of being Administrator General of Digital Flanders, she is also president of NxtPort, a successful data company that acts as an innovation hub for major seaports.

NxtPort has its Data Utility Platform that enables to unlock the potential of sharing existing data between different players in the port ecosystem and already realized several innovations that continue to demonstrate the usefulness and value of this approach. By way of an example: we previously talked about a smart port project powered by blockchain technology.

Barbara Van Den Haute wants to transform Digital Flanders into a player in the API economy. To that end, the government collaborates with players outside the government for data-sharing initiatives. The other way around, looking outside the borders of the own organization is essential for business seeking growth, according to Van Den Haute. Especially data sharing projects where the private and public sectors meet can offer much value. By removing some of the complexity, profitable activities should be facilitated in the form of valuable applications built on standardized data streams.

In the past, government initiatives leveraging digital technologies often focused on digitization to enhance efficiency, provide online services and achieve administrative simplification. These aspects are typical for the information age and all remain essential, and simplification does make life easier for citizens and organizations.

However, digital government 4.0, in analogy with Industry 4.0, goes much further, and so does the vision of Van Den Haute with a clear link between the digital transformation of government and business growth.

And thus, data sharing is one of the areas Digital Flanders is investing in with the imminent establishment of a data utility company. Discover the what, why, and how of this government-initiated approach.

Sharing data between the public and private sectors: a host of opportunities

Digital Flanders offers government bodies in Flanders solutions to digitize and digitalize. Governments are there for citizens and businesses. How will the data and technology solutions that should lead to the transformation of the government also enable companies to transform and grow?

Barbara Van Den Haute: We’ve built a good tradition of digitization and administrative simplification by becoming more data-driven. Admittedly, there are still many challenges, and the work isn’t finished.

However, for some years, we noticed that the matter in which we’re mainly active, namely data, obviously doesn’t stop at the government’s borders. Moreover, the solutions to achieve the greatest simplifications in government services, the economy, and society are situated in sharing data between the public and private sectors. That’s also what we do at NxtPort.

This domain of data sharing between the public and private sectors is constantly growing. At the same time, it is complex because often many stakeholders are involved, and they are regularly competitors. However, it really helps make a difference in areas such as mobility, health, and many vertical sectors. As a consequence, it’s an area we want to focus on more and more.

The Flemish government now indeed decided to provide extra resources to start up a company to realize this in the context of the relaunch plan. That company is the Flemish Data Utility.

A data utility company is an intelligent data interchange that ensures a level data playing field for all public and private players within connected ecosystems (Government of Flanders Recovery Plan)

One of the intentions is to go further in public-private data sharing and be a neutral player between different companies in the private-to-private sphere, a role that is often lacking at present.

Many valuable applications and functionalities don’t get realized because the underlying data flows are not organized due to all the complexity. Therefore we often remain active in only smaller vertical applications while the significant progress sits in broader applications that aren’t getting realized. So, change was needed, and we saw a role for the government to facilitate it.

Data as electricity: enabling valuable data-driven initiatives

The potential of data sharing and so-called data exchanges or data ecosystems is vast. Gartner expects that by 2023, organizations that promote data sharing will outperform their competitors on most measurable business metrics. That’s pretty impressive, but at the same time, many companies are struggling to make the most of data, with data management remaining a challenge and relatively low levels of data maturity. How exactly can the data utility play a role here?

Barbara Van Den Haute: The maturity of companies in terms of optimally managing and exploiting data is indeed variable. Often the data streams are not ready to be shared in a standardized way, which means less sharing.

“I have always believed in a product-oriented organization where teams work around end products for the customer and don’t just deliver a part” – Barbara Van Den Haute believes in maximal customer contact and a ‘No Wrong Door’ policy

Furthermore, as mentioned, there is a lack of neutral players to take on this role. Hence the initiative, because in many industries, there is a whole chain of players whom each have their own IT systems but where the great added value for all is often to better organize and streamline everything, ensuring both technical and semantic interoperability.

And that is the underlying work that takes much time, effort, and money and hinders progress. Moreover, it is the work that is crucial but not immediately profitable.

The data utility aims to handle it with the profitable activities then being the applications and functionalities built on the data to achieve a worthwhile goal: increasing operational efficiency, enhancing comfort, improving well-being, increasing competitiveness, and more.

By doing this heavy and expensive underlying work as a government, we can help drive growth in sectors and applications where data sharing can create value. In Belgium, we aren’t ready yet to get the data out of the silos and develop outlets where data comes out – just like electricity – in a standardized, reliable, and qualitative manner while respecting data privacy.

Groundbreaking data technologies for a standardized approach

Does that also mean open standards, as in a recently announced mobility project whereby a US Mobility as a Service (MaaS) platform provider was selected? 

Barbara Van Den Haute: Absolutely. That mobility project was recently announced indeed. The provider of the platform, which is used for similar mobility projects in cities such as Amsterdam, London, and Berlin, obviously can do nothing without the data.

So, Digital Flanders, the Department of Mobility and Public Works, and several large local authorities will ensure that many data sets can run through the platform in a standardized way, making the functionalities it provides meaningful and fed with the right data.

It’s a project that will require several iterations, but we strive to be live within a year. That probably won’t be with all the data flows yet. Providing the data for this project is indeed a critical mission for us, and the data integration services for mobility are a separate relaunch project.

Open standards are definitely part of the whole approach. It’s also worth noting that the owners of the data that companies share retain their rights.

We can help drive growth in sectors and applications where data sharing can create value (Barbara Van Den Haute)

The data utility acts as a neutral link between those who supply data and those who need them. But it is always a matter of a right of use. To this end, Flanders will be the first government to work with the Personal Data Vaults of the Solid project of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s Inrupt, in which, among others, Ghent University Imec play an essential role (more in the announcement from Inrupt).

Growth means looking beyond the boundaries of your company

Clear. What would you recommend to companies regarding data and more intensive data sharing to achieve growth over time?

Barbara Van Den Haute: I think it’s essential to look beyond the company’s boundaries and see in what larger process your business is operating.

When you talk about the API economy and data sharing, you need to try and look in an open way at what your services, white-labeled, etc., could possibly mean for other people’s processes, how they can add value.

That often requires looking in front of you and behind you in the process; what is exactly happening, and how can we better organize ourselves in the entire chain? Data sharing then often proves to be the solution.    

We want to be the trusted third partner to set up and manage complex data-sharing initiatives. Technology only makes up 20% of such efforts. It’s also about how to make them financially sustainable, how to adjust your processes, what possible legal context there is to make or change, and more (Barbara Van Den Haute)

Some roles will also gradually fall away. In NxtPort, for example, we sometimes say, “there are 36 parties between you and your Nike shoes”. That’s much start-and-stop activity that we could actually organize more smoothly, quickly, and sustainably if data is shared in advance so stakeholders can better collaborate and finetune their operations collaboratively. And perhaps the result is that the function of some intermediary parties in the global supply chain then may be less relevant.

Building bridges and kickstarting initiatives where the investment risk is high

It’s a matter of looking at your core business model, examining what you have, and, depending on that, entering an ecosystem where, for example, you can start offering services and thus expand or transform your business model?

Barbara Van Den Haute: Yes, that’s right, absolutely. And then, of course, get insights from the data you already have, which requires very organized data before you can obtain good insights.

Now, that’s easily said, but it’s not so easy in practice. It is less my specialization, however. We’re primarily in operations, in data sharing for automation, rather than insights. It’s not that we don’t know anything about it. We certainly provide the government with all kinds of tools and instruments to get various insights from their data, but data science is not our specialization.

Confidence in the data economy is created by establishing a neutral third party – a utility company – to set up data sharing within vertical sectors without companies, organizations, and public authorities in this ecosystem losing control over access to their data. (Government of Flanders Recovery Plan)

What is the core task of the government for businesses in this whole story? Building bridges and driving data-driven initiatives?

Barbara Van Den Haute: The reason why we are going to start the data utility is to give a kickstart to that complex underlying work that we believe is holding a lot back today.

We’ve succeeded many times in response to crises, but you don’t have to wait for a crisis to achieve growth. So I think the government’s role is primarily to kickstart something where the investment risk is high, where the innovation risk is high, where you need that neutral party a government can be.

As said, a lot of economic benefits are precisely there where public and private sectors meet. So in that sense, we try to build that bridge as much as possible whereby we try to combine the public and private sector because you can actually realize a lot.

You are an enabler and accelerator.

Barbara Van Den Haute: Yes, and we want to be the trusted third partner used to set up complex data-sharing initiatives and manage them (editor’s note: trust is crucial in fostering a data-sharing culture).

And that’s not just a matter of technology; technology only makes up about 20% of it. It’s also about how to make it financially sustainable, how to adjust your processes, what possible legal context there is to make or change, and so on.

And then, of course, the information, the architecture, the functionalities, and everything else required to succeed. We have much experience in different sectors in this area, and we want to boost that with the data utility company.

Again, because it’s too risky, too complex, and too unprofitable in the short term and, as a result, the private sector is not doing it.

Constant customer contact creates a very demand-driven culture (Barbara Van Den Haute)

Continuous customer contact and a ‘No Wrong Door’ policy

Among the factors that contribute to business growth from the perspective of data and digital transformation, you recommended looking beyond the company’s boundaries. Are there particular elements that you have noticed during your career that, in general, are very important to be able to grow and evolve as a company?

Barbara Van Den Haute: I have always believed in a product-oriented organization where teams work around end products for the customer and don’t just deliver a part, and that belief has only been strengthened through experience.

We’ve been organizing for years – and I’m getting more extreme about it over the years – in such a way that as many people as possible have customer contact. Developers, analysts, many people have customer contact.

Of course, you also always have to organize a good front door for customers who don’t know their way around directly, but I’m never going to force customers to come in through the front door; they can come in anywhere in the house as far as I’m concerned. Of course, there has to be a control room. The questions that come in have to be registered somewhere, and that is sometimes a challenge, I admit, especially in an organization that is getting bigger and bigger and has more and more scope.

But I think it is essential that there is constant customer contact. Why? Because I find it creates a very demand-driven culture, especially if you work with profiles like the ones I work with, engineers and IT people, and so on who sometimes fall in love with the solution instead of the problem. By keeping them constantly in touch with real-life issues of the customers I keep them in love with the problem as much as possible. And I think that’s the key to success.

You also avoid the iceberg phenomenon that sometimes, people who should don’t know what’s going on in reality and an overly top-down approach?

Barbara Van Den Haute: Yes, that cliché about keeping your organization very flat. I am really obsessed with keeping it that way.

This mentality also seems to seep into the communication a bit. Staying close to people with an open communication style?

Barbara Van Den Haute: I try to communicate about realizations and radiate down-to-earth solidity, decisiveness, and a focus on results.

A do-mentality and not coming across as too established. That’s also why there is such close customer contact and why customers don’t have to enter through the front door.

I should add that I had to adjust the latter somewhat since a recent merger. The ‘real’ IT and infrastructure services are now also included. As a result, we serve our customers from A to Z; from the network over the workplace to the data, applications, mobile apps, and sometimes broader analyses about how they need to transform.

We now offer all of that, and it involves the same customers. That did require a bit of reorganization to also provide some service that spans all of our products. In other words, we have to organize the front door a little more consciously.

A question about one area covered in your integrated offering, the workplace: we see that there is much talk about that today, with topics such as hybrid working. What is your experience within Digital Flanders?

Data does not stop at the borders of the government - quote Barbara Van Den Haute

Barbara Van Den Haute: Our organization consists of many high-end IT people, and of course, you don’t need or want to patronize them too much.

We discussed the work model and finally settled on coming to the office at least one day a week. Many people also have a lot of structural meetings, and here we decided they had to follow one in three. That’s a guideline that we’re not going to enforce one way or the other.

I am in a labor market that is already not so evident, and, of course, in the type of organization that we are, you can quickly determine whether someone is achieving results or not. Moreover, we operate on the principle of trust until proven otherwise and not the other way around. So, yes, we have made several agreements within the framework of the working model.

And the workplace services you offer?

Barbara Van Den Haute: I am responsible for the digital workplace for about eighteen thousand Flemish civil servants.

Not everyone purchases workplace services from us; there are more civil servants than that. But this runs pretty smoothly and in a relatively standard way with Office 365 and support from Cegeka, the provider selected for this offering.

We cannot ignore it: the impact of the pandemic on digitalization. The general impression is that digital transformation has accelerated. Many need to cut costs with perhaps a little less innovation here and there. What do you see as a government agency on the level of budgets and innovation?

Barbara Van Den Haute: As far as the government is concerned, it is an investment moment in the next two years. This has to do with the European recovery plan and, among other things, the resources that are going to Flanders.

Of course, savings will have to be made on recurrent expenditure. The budget discussions are now underway. The exercises you are now seeing in the Flemish government are questioning certain subsidies and continuing to automate. So also digitalization for the sake of efficiency, rather than for fundamental transformation, remains important. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that either because it’s not just about new business models and new service models.    

You need the resources to innovate and grow as well. It’s no different in the private sector: investing in growth and at the same time in efficiency to reduce costs, also as a stepping stone to sustainable growth through innovation and transformation. A final – more personal – question. How and why does someone who studied political sciences, followed by a specialization year in International and European Law, end up in a world of IT professionals and engineers after an additional course, “Mastering IT management”?

Barbara Van Den Haute: The big advantage I have is that I don’t tend to fall in love with solutions (smiles).

How did I get into this space? By leading projects that, as time went on, became more and more digital. Because I took a lot of initiative and am pretty interested and result-oriented by nature, I increasingly led larger digitalization projects, and I always felt that digital and data were key and the best and most direct way to change things profoundly. 

Barbara Van Den Haute, thank you for your time and for sharing your insights. And all the best with the launch of the data utility initiative.

Next interview in this ‘Wired for Growth’ series: David van der Laan