“It wouldn’t have been possible without us”
– interview about the FIR project, the lessons learned and opportunities with eNET’s head of consulting department, Szabolcs Debreczeni
15. 08. 2022.
Szabolcs Debreczeni considers himself a “second-generation” consultant: both his father and mother were involved in consulting, and he himself got his first job of this kind nearly thirty years ago. He has been strengthening the eNET team since 2018, he was appointed group manager at the beginning of 2019 and head of department half a year later. One of his eNET challenges has been the biggest project in the company’s life ever since: he was active in the success of the FIR project* with his colleagues – we talked about the lessons learned, opportunities and experiences of this.
If you had to define what FIR means to you and why it is good for people, what would you highlight?
There are many administrative procedures and types of cases that directly affect citizens, in which satellite images can also be used. The concept of the entire FIR system is to provide a central government capability to support administrative procedures in which satellite images can be used for decision-making. For this, the European Union provided the Government Information Technology Development Agency (KIFÜ) with the resources, and the satellite images are provided by the European Space Agency (ESA), which is able to retrieve, process and store the satellite images. These results are actually used in 15-16 administrative procedures. Those that can be used in general and do not serve a very special purpose are made available to citizens by the eFöld module of the FIR system.
Do you think there are more opportunities in FIR?
Of course, 100%. Administrative procedures in which satellite images can be used were selected for the project. The supported administrative procedures had scope limitations, as the primary goals include the creation of the infrastructure of the FIR and the creation of the central satellite image processing capability. The completed solution is not comprehensive in terms of the procedures involved; the given framework cannot allow this. What has been completed is the infrastructure, the basic functions, the logic, and the support for about 15 public administration procedures. The system may include additional administrative procedures in the future. However, in my opinion, the most important area in the future, which the FIR was not open to at the start of the project due to scope reasons, is the control of agricultural subsidies.
For area-based subsidies, farmers must report a lot of information and comply with many conditions: for example, what plants they plant, when they leave their areas green, how much fertilizer they use. The verification of subsidies took place before – and although we have now reached a turning point – I think it is still being done in this way, that an orthophotographer took pictures of the country from an airplane. In one year, a third of Hungary was done. Based on the processing of the photos created in this way, it is determined whether the farmers in the given area comply with the regulations and whether they have entered correct data. As a result, a farmer received an inspection every three years. The EU is pushing for a solution where the images from the Sentinel satellites – these are the satellites used by the FIR – are analyzed and used for this purpose. This twists the logic in such a way that the satellites are made every 5-6 days, they can be checked at any time, and the FIR-type systems process them continuously, so the trend can be followed in steps of 5-6 days. My personal opinion is that at some point in the near future this will be the task of the FIR, since the control of agricultural subsidies using the established infrastructure can be much cheaper and better than with the orthophoto solution.
How did eNET contribute to the success of the project?
In the public procurement procedure of the FIR system, we submitted an offer as a member and leader of a consortium of contractors and concluded the contractor contract with KİFÜ in the same way. The administrative organization of the entire system, GIS and other developments were part of our task, we provided the project leader, and we also undertook expert support for codification and legislation creation for the FIR. In addition to the above-mentioned, eNET also took part in many concepts’ elaboration tasks. I confess that without us this would not have been possible!
You mentioned GIS earlier. What was the role of these experts in the project?
The processing of Sentinel satellite images in the FIR has two principles: the processing of remote sensing and the resulting images, and the accurate mapping of the processed results. The system works by providing smaller specialist systems to the relevant institutions, for example the Disaster Management, NÉBIH or the General Directorate of Water, they use these recordings in their own public administration procedures. These professional systems provide the processed results by placing them on a map in a geographically correct and dimensionally accurate way. The changes can also be followed chronologically in comparison with the current state. This solution does not exist without a map, because otherwise we would not be able to determine where it was taken from a photograph. By the way, this in itself was a very exciting part of the work process, on the one hand, because it was necessary to be able to identify where the given image belongs in software, and on the other hand, because, for example, perspective distortions had to be corrected: if a satellite is not looking exactly down with its sensors , then we don’t get a regular square image. These distorted images had to be squared and the coordinate and projection system recalculated.
The fact that we do not use the same system as Western countries caused a particular difficulty with the projection system. The so-called WGS is partly used in the EU, and the EOV system (Uniform National Projection System) is used in our country. This also differs in terms of spatial geometry, it must be calculated differently, and these conversions must also be carried out. Therefore, GIS was not a negligible part. Satellite image processing can also be treated as a kind of border area. In practice, this took place in such a way that independent algorithms had to be prepared in order to achieve the specific processing goal and result product.
I would mention disaster protection and water affairs as examples. The FIR provides support for the Disaster Management, for example, in the detection of fires in the countryside and in fire prevention. In the case of fires in the countryside, the system helps to examine the extent of the fire, while in fire prevention, it is possible to identify violations that cause a fire hazard – for example, the accumulation of dry branches at the edge of the forest – with the help of satellite images before the problem occurs. The FIR provides the greatest help to the General Directorate of Water in inland water protection: it is no longer necessary for the dam guard to go out into the field and tell roughly how many hectares have been flooded by inland water based on a visual inspection, they can accurately determine and do all the necessary steps from the center based on satellite images, to order inland water protection preparedness.
Many different fields of expertise met during the project. What were these?
The whole process started with the administrative organization and system planning period. In simple terms, this means that the relevant administrative procedures had to be thoroughly studied, then a process framework should be built for them, and the point where the services of the FIR can connect with the satellite result products had to be established. This required a processual, organizational, somewhat legislative approach, and I led this working group.
The next step was the preparation of the system plans, which included logical, physical, infrastructural, security, and integration aspects, mainly business analysts and system organizers worked on it. Then the development period began, when a team whose specialty was remote sensing was already working on the project, for example the aforementioned GIS specialists. The testing part also had to be supported with the business analysts and development managers, these were tasks related to the production of the system.
Two very interesting side threads also emerged during the project: one was a system that works within the FIR universe and provides an interface where, in accordance with the Public Procurement Act, space acquisition requests can be initiated, and framework agreements can be concluded. This is the so-called ÜMÉR (Space Order Delivery System). The other huge challenge in the legal working group was the creation of the legislative background that creates the task and operating environment of the FIR system. This worked by delegating legal advisors from the relevant ministries to the working group, with roughly 20 people working on the drafting of the legislation for almost two years. Until the project lasted, it was our expert responsibility to ensure that the legislation really fits the professional goals of the FIR, and that its processes and the system itself are well represented in the legislation.
The third exciting side thread was the idea of the Earth Observation Operational Center. This is an institution, an organization that operates the FIR in practice, has a professional understanding of it, and can be contacted if a technical error occurs. The creation of this center was also delayed due to the fact that the legislation was delayed for so long, but we already had to prepare a plan for its operation during the project. We finally solved this by using so-called ITIL reference models, thus creating a general, standardized approach to the operation and service provision processes of the system.
What was the most exciting part of the project for you?
I would highlight a TOP3. The process assessment, brainstorming, and leadership of this work group related to the development of the administrative organization system plan are on the podium. Secondly, I would mention the legislative process. The whole background was changing at that time, it was very exciting to tap the noses of twenty legal advisers on issues related to the professional processes of the FIR without offending them. And the top experience for me was the already explained ÜMÉR, coming up with its concept was an extremely diverse and exciting task.
What was eNET’s biggest success in relation to FIR?
In the FIR project, many professional nodes were concentrated, which before and have been very important for eNET. I am thinking here of topics that we have been continuously working on ever since, new and new projects, opportunities, R&D tasks. This includes remote sensing, GIS, public administration IT!
We can also mention administrative organization, which is also knowledge that can be utilized and developed in many directions. In connection with the FIR, we also acquired the ARIS software for process modeling, which can also be considered a milestone in the sense of how we think about ourselves and our services. For me, the most important result of the project is that we can now say with certainty that we understand remote sensing and public administration, and we have done large-scale public administration software development. What the founding owners of eNET have been working on for so long has come together because of the FIR, a lot of previous work has come to fruition, and this has created a solid foundation for the future. This is what no one can take away from us. Countless subsequent projects found us because of the success of FIR. For me, personally, the biggest thing was that I was able to start working for this excellent company on merit, we got to know each other with the team, and a good relationship was also formed with the consortium members and subcontractors, and we continue to help each other to this day.
How smooth was the project? Has there been a more intense and tense situation than usual during work?
The deadlines did not have to be modified at all, there was no change of project manager, there was no change of professional manager, the two-year work went with roughly the same team. However, it was an extraordinary situation when we realized that ÜMÉR could not function as originally imagined by the customer. There, we had to change all our perceptions very quickly, at the level of the support contract, detailed feasibility study, developments, and our contract. Fortunately, the team remained constructive throughout, but there were really moments when we suddenly didn’t know how to get out of it. Another, ever-present situation causing tension arose due to the parallel work of legislation. The organization responsible for the client’s KIDÜ project is a project implementation organization, its entire operating model is about implementing projects, and when the project product is ready, it is handed over to the institution that will own and operate it. However, due to the parallel development of the legislative background, the FIR “remained on their necks” for quite a long time. The other side of this coin is the issue of the space research and GIS professional team operating the system. FIR is a framework system, but in practice it cannot function without substantial developer intervention, as very special knowledge is needed to develop processing algorithms, to process new types of space images and to integrate them into the system.
Have you received any positive feedback from the client?
From this point of view, I think the most important thing was that the project went essentially smoothly. All questions were resolved, error corrections were made, and the warranty period also went well. Although we closed it months ago, we can regularly use the results as a reference. Communication about the project has recently started in various media, as the legislation has only just entered into force.
The interview was conducted by: Luca Kiss
*The FIR project started in September 2018 and lasted more than two years in total. On behalf of eNET, approximately 40 colleagues worked on the multi-billion project, which is to date the largest unique value project in the company’s life.