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How the Crisis Could Speed up Society’s Ultimate Digital Shift

Hungary’s ICT sector is far from immune to the devastating impact of the COVID-19 emergency. Until a much-awaited targeted stimulus package arrives, the local IT community says it is busy making the large-scale digital upgrade of society and the economy happen.

Roland Jakab, AI Coalition president and managing director of Ericsson Hungary.

If you think that the information technology sector is pandemic-proof, since IT guys can work from anywhere anyway, you are wrong.

As the latest survey of the ICT Association of Hungary (IVSZ) shows, 70% of local IT firms have reported canceled or delayed orders, nearly one-quarter has cut capacity, and one-third have already introduced shortened work hours. The future looks just as grim. Sectoral revenues are expected to plummet by 71% of those polled.

The experts say the figures clearly demonstrate that government intervention is badly needed in this segment of the economy as well. Accordingly, on the basis of the findings of the survey, IVSZ has put together a set of proposals for the government.

Proposed measures include the need to help keep employees on payroll, boost competitiveness by providing dedicated R&D&I funds and cutting red tape around EU funds allocation, and launch programs to spread digital competences.

As an IVSZ statement puts it, “a digital relaunch of the Hungarian economy is of the essence in order to put it back on a new growth track that could add thousands of billions of HUF to the national GDP within a few years.”

Joining Forces for Change

Strengthening the sector is even more important because IT businesses are playing a crucial role in the battle against COVID-19. They not only develop solutions that will help society adapt to the crisis (see Hack me if you Can, below), but they are also the main pillars of the large-scale digital shift the entire economy was forced to embrace overnight. They provide essential extra computing capacities and support those at work, in their immediate environment and in education, that are eager to prevail in the digital world.

These efforts drew the attention of political decision makers. It dawned on the government shortly after the pandemic started to turn serious that it requires a joint effort to draw up a comprehensive digital battle plan. Hence, the so-called Digital Solidarity program was initiated by the Ministry for Innovation and Technology, which invited the digital sector to offer tools, solutions, and services to the public.

In a matter of weeks, 190 offers were made available from which one million workers, 1.6 million students, 200,000 teachers and two million elderly citizens can benefit, whether it comes to distance learning, teleworking, connecting with family or caring for the elderly.

The effort, which was coordinated by the Digital Success Program (DJP), is gaining traction not least because leading sectoral organizations have joined forces to mobilize their members such as the Hungarian 5G Coalition (5GK), the Artificial Intelligence Coalition (AI Coalition), the Communications Conciliation Council (HÉT), IVSZ, the Informatics Association for Society (Infotér) and the János Neumann Computer Science Society (NJSZT).

Turning Crisis into Opportunity

A digital skills boost is long overdue in Hungary anyway. The country ranks 19th in the EU in the human capital dimension of DESI, the Digital Economy and Society Index, meaning there is plenty of room for improvement in terms of internet and advanced computer user skills.

As Roland Jakab, AI Coalition President and managing director of Ericsson Hungary says, the process of digitization now has the chance to speed up, so we might be able to leap forward some five-to-eight years in just a few months. As a result, the moonshot projects of the national AI country strategy could also be implemented faster.  

“We want to make sure that automation and other AI-driven tech benefits the people and the economy so that economic efficiency and competitiveness can improve nationwide,” Jakab said.

“By joining the Digital Solidarity effort, our goal is not only to survive this critical period, but rather to accelerate the widespread adoption, and earn visibility for, AI technology. This way we can go back to normal even sooner.”

However, the proliferation of artificial intelligence is just part of the deal. People have started to use many new applications on a daily basis, and Big Tech has made a lot of digital solutions available as well.

“This period is set to present a fantastic opportunity to make the digital shift reality, not least because a generation will grow up that learns at school how to cooperate with one another online,” added Jakab.

Hack me if you Can

While local IT businesses continue to flood society with freely available digital tools, services and solutions under the Digital Solidarity initiative, individual developers have proved themselves to be worthy for praise as well.

More than 800 participants signed up for the Hungarian edition of “Hack the Crisis”, a hackathon launched originally in Estonia and now organized in 30 countries.

The purpose of the 48-hour coding marathon was to come up with solutions that help healthcare workers, communities, businesses, and education to fight the current emergency.

The 12 prize winners were selected from 134 applications, with work assisted by more than 70 mentors. The Ministry for Innovation and Technology, together with the Digital Success Program, gave prizes for four solutions, while corporate sponsors included Magyar Telekom, T-systems, IT Services Hungary, Docler, OTP Mobil and Janssen.

Among the winners, Covidbed came up with a digital hospital bed log system that provides real time data about ward occupancies, while Cognitive Creators’ NoCrowd app enables users to monitor crowds in nearby stores, making social distancing easier.

A special prize was awarded by Ericsson for the best AI solution, which was an online Math exercise generating platform. Winners received cash and other in-kind services that hope to propel their ideas to the next level.