Tereza Mlynarova, our Head of Product Development, and Graham Needham, our Content Editor, interviewed Alvar Pihlapuu, Head of Data Governance at the Estonian Tax and Customs Board, about how the implementation and adoption of Accurity are going and how our solution is helping them with the Estonian government’s mandatory drive for regulatory digitalization and harmonization of data and services.
The Estonian public sector is making great strides in data description and data cataloging. There was an initiative around five years ago to create the framework of data description management and data quality for public sector agencies.
At that time, I was in the private sector at a commercial bank. The banks had already started these activities 10-15 years ago. They were very active and successful with data descriptions, data catalog, and data warehousing with predictive product offerings, calculations, risk management, etc. Because of my experience with this from banking, I was invited to implement these frameworks in the public sector.
So, I chose the tax and customs board because it is one of the most important agencies and has a direct connection to the state budget, at which point you can help increase tax revenues, but it also means that the government’s expectations are high.
I discovered that although the agency had a good framework, the proper tools to start data descriptions and data cataloging in the public sector were missing. Therefore, we started, of course, in Excel. But you can imagine how big an effort that takes. You can't create the uniqueness of terminology. And the complexity is very high here, so we have more than 100,000 data fields, and the combination of what they do, such as risk management, fraud detection, and tax collection, is very complicated.
I took the frameworks created for the public sector and tried to implement them, and at first, I started to look at the shareware or free software. I found Apache Atlas, so we asked our IT partner to set this up, but we discovered that it was very specifically for big data management and NoSQL mostly. And to use it, we would need to implement Hadoop internally. That would add extra cost, so I started to surf around and found an online list of potential products. After I had tested some of them, I came to Accurity and found I had the opportunity to sign up for the Business Glossary and Data Catalog for free online.
And that immediately worked for me. It got my interest. The free trial period was perfect, so I started putting up some of my Excel sheets, the next one, and so on. And then, when we needed more help, and a longer test period, the Accurity team was very helpful in setting up an extended trial period to get us going at a larger scale and work with us for the public procurement and here we are.
Yes, we have the Ministry of Economic Affairs, which is driving the data governance at the state level, so they were also responsible for ordering these frameworks.
The overall public sector expectation is that the highest-level terminology will be governed and managed outside of the agencies centrally. The premise is that particular agencies cover all the parts of the lower-level hierarchies. The government’s main idea with this system is to avoid duplication, which would mean that different agencies don't keep the same data.
For a long time already, there has been a shared system in place between agencies called xroads. This is a secure channel between government agencies to share data without collecting it separately, but these new initiatives aim to take Estonia to the next level by delivering event-based services. So, for example, when you have a baby, you have support services, or the kindergarten place is provided to you. So, you will have rights, which will be provided to you automatically. And it means citizens only need to apply somewhere once, and the state agencies are sharing the information.
The most important thing to us was that we could immediately understand that Accurity is intuitive to use. We have a huge number of applications in our agency, and preparing one for use requires heavy training and involvement of the staff and the main stakeholders, which wasn't what I was looking for. I wanted to find a very simple tool to implement and get started with.
The chosen solution from Accurity enables us to limit the initial scope to just two parts: the business glossary and the data cataloging. Such a narrow scope helped us to start quickly without being overwhelmed with features we don’t utilize now. So, my data stewards immediately understood the hierarchy of the data set, the structures, and the fields. And we were able to follow the framework that we had done independently from any product, which was very important. We found the framework we described to be a very good match with Accurity. These data stewards could understand the framework and saw that the implementation was very easy within Accurity, which was pretty unique on the market. So that puts Accurity on top over others for sure.
The main impact is on the organization itself because we were not used to thinking on the channel level. To understand, we have, let's say, more than 100 public services, and they were sort of sitting in their silos. They didn't interact with each other. And when we started to create the terminology hierarchy, they had to come out from the silo, start to negotiate, and discuss.
There were interesting lessons learned, like when some of the services tried to start to connect with the terminology of other services. So instead of creating a synergy of cooperation, some service owners started to delete the relations from the Accurity tool because they were used to sitting in their silos and not understanding that the tool could assist with that cooperation.
At first, we didn't have an understanding of the context of the terminology. It means we were not introduced to the business rules and the business rule functionality, which is also one of the most important ones. Therefore, in Accurity, we have not implemented these properly because we're still collecting the lower-level metadata, naming the fields, and collecting them as next-level business terms.
And this led to a very interesting discussion in our organization about creating the trees or hierarchies of the terminology. For example, you might consider a top-level term to be “a person”, but internally we never actually talk about “a person”. We always specify the next-level terminology, such as whether they might be a physical person or a company. And are they residents or non-residents? So, we introduced the understanding that parts of the top-of-the-tree terminology are outside our organization, and they may also be used by other public agencies, such as the agency for statistics, and the top-level term needs to be defined more centrally.
Some of the terminologies are our everyday language which was being spoken over all the services. Even with only 20-25% of our data in Accurity, we already discovered that the “person” could have more than 50 roles inside the agency. They are different for customs or the tax office; you can be a declarant, a warehouse keeper, a fraudster, whoever, and the different roles need different business rules.
Accurity opened our eyes wide because since we started last summer, at first, users were not keen to spend their time on this, but now when we have 10,000 fields and 2,000 terms, they see the whole picture of the agency. And this is especially true of business users. Previously a lot of this was hidden in the IT partner databases. Now, with Accurity, it’s open, and users are very interested in continuing the journey to agree on the internal business language for us. So, these were some immediate benefits of Accurity.
I'm still inventing them a little bit. I see possibilities when we start using more functionality of Accurity. Right now, we are not using it to its fullest capacity yet. We are only at the first layer, where we are describing public services related very clearly to the source systems, where it's just data fields, the names of the fields, connections to terms, and what we call static hierarchies. So, for example, initially, it might just be a user declaring goods or customs-related things.
But at the next level, when we get to it, we have the agency's supervising part where we are actually looking over the companies, how they act by paying their taxes, and who is committing fraud. This might be hidden goods or narcotics or something similar. So it means all kinds of relations, all over different data being used, and we will call this next level something like data services or data management services.
And so, I started to describe the data services as well into the regular part of the business terminology. However, it does not fit properly. Soon, with the Accurity team, we will focus on exposing the process way of thinking inside the tool. And that will push us to the next level of using Accurity.
Yes. There are heavy regulations, so everything is often hidden. We are working under state secrecy. The use of any kind of SaaS or cloud service in our agency is unprecedented. We needed to get the approval of our internal control and the data security team. But, thanks to the fact that the metadata is actually the public data, but the content of the data is hidden and restricted, we managed to convince them and get the approval to go with the cloud deployment for Accurity.
We are currently using Accurity for 300 users within our agency. Our data management unit has around 65 people working there. Our primary tool is the SaaS institute platform, and we collect data into the SaaS platform and deliver the analytical reports. That's our primary job, and as a part of the IT team, we appointed the data stewards. They need to know about the source systems, where the data originated, and how it transforms. And these data stewards are one part of the team.
And a second part of the team is the business and public services owners. As an example, we can describe a situation when you file your taxes as a physical person – you have a service, you can open up an e-tax application, you file your taxes where we have prefilled data, then you just push a button, and get refunded, etc. And for this kind of service, we have around 100 people.
With customs, there are declarations, importing/exporting goods, or excise. So different warehouses connect with the agency electronically. This digitalization involves 100 people, and they call themselves after business data as “business services owners”. I call them “data owners” as they edit data or they create data through the source systems. These data owners must take ownership and provide the definitions, connections, relations, etc. We are dividing all the terminology between 10-15 main data owners (business managers), and they are working in pairs with the data stewards.
In fact, that was a very good experience. It's one of the clearest websites I've seen, and it was very well structured with good examples, and it kind of invited me to try the product. The website very clearly explained how I could get a trial period and what features I could have with the different business plans, and this encouraged me to sign up.
The biggest selling point and value of the product for us was that you could start immediately using Accurity from scratch.
I had contact with other providers during the public procurement process. For all other vendors I dealt with, despite having a SaaS platform to provide, you need to buy a pre-project where they are analyzing what you are doing and setting up the cloud environment for you. And that’s what instantly made all these offers far too expensive.
And actually, we were able to skip this step with Accurity. It also means any state agency can start with their low-hanging fruit data projects and are implementable straight away. And, of course, there are more complicated steps if you want to dig a little further and deeper – based on what you want to use.
All of this was very important to us, and Accurity achieved this.
I can extend what I have said here today. You have very strong support services with a great ticketing system, and the response time is always quick.
I also like that I can easily see that you are developing the product further. Right now, we are enjoying the custom fields and custom properties, and I'm adding local agency requirements by putting data owner names and data steward names into every data item. I also found the search feature very convenient, so you can find whatever items you want, of course. The graphical representation of the business terms, as with data lineage, is very impressive, and it's like a selling point immediately to any business user buying it because nobody wants to see the list of Excel sheets, right?
Although implementation in the Estonian Tax and Customs Board is in its early stages, it is already proving invaluable to them. It would be the same for any state department in any country that must invest in its data governance initiatives, especially when mandated at the national level.
Our scalable pricing model is designed to provide the service any organization needs without any unnecessary or unused features, and they can even get started easily for free. It allows for a more cost-effective solution, with the ability to grow and iterate with the tool and the data initiative. In addition, the variety of deployment models, integrability, and customizable features provide a solution suitable for any organization looking to implement effective data governance.
If you want to learn more about how the Accurity Business Glossary and Data Catalog solution can help with your data governance initiative, you can get a free demo with our product experts who will show you the important features for your particular use case.