Almaty City, Kazakhstan: A gateway to the future

Almaty is an ancient city dating to the Bronze Age. Since then, it has undergone many economic, cultural, and political shifts, and is now gearing up for what might be its most significant transformation—becoming a preeminent digital hub in Central Asia.

For Almaty City, becoming future-ready hinges on one thing: its people. Citizens are no longer satisfied with the basic government services of the past, according to Bayan Konirbayev, Almaty’s chief digital officer. “Our citizens have a more global view and expect the same kind of services available in New York, Chicago, or Seoul.”

But the future is not just about what Almaty City can do for its people, it is also about what its people can do for the city. To this end, Almaty’s leaders are focusing on another part of their future vision: attracting and keeping the talent the city needs. “We provide the kind of user-friendly environment not available in most countries nearby,” says Konirbayev. “That is why a lot of talented people are coming here.”

Almaty’s attractions include not only its natural beauty, set in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains, but also its 38 universities. They serve some 182,000 students, who make up more than 9% of the city’s population of 2 million. Once those students graduate,  Almaty seeks to hold onto this talent. 

Laying the digital groundwork 

With that in mind, Almaty has devised a future-ready city plan out to 2050, with phased short-term goals by2025 and medium-term goals for 2030. It seeks to make Almaty a highly livable, smart city with a trendy cosmopolitan atmosphere, modern services, and attractive natural environment. The city is implementing the plan in phases, starting with a major digital transformation.

Konirbayev explains that the city is implementing its digital vision on a three-layer foundation: digital infrastructure, data, and services. The infrastructure layer includes mobile towers and stations, fiber optics, data processing centers, and IoT sensors installed throughout the city. For example, the city has tripled the number of cell phone stations in the last two years, in cooperation with the four telecoms operators providing services.

The data layer includes a unified data governance and data exchange platform and warehouse. Through its data exchange platform and advanced data management system, Almaty has brought together a wide variety of previously siloed data from different government departments, such as social services, education, healthcare, and housing. “It has become our single source of truth,” says Konirbayev. This part of the data warehouse includes personalized data on citizens available only to the city government.

There is also a public side to the data warehouse that includes non-personalized datasets—an innovation that can serve as a model for other municipalities. Almaty has created five central databases in cooperation with the private sector that gather demographic information stripped of personal identifiers.

These databases include a range of information, such as data on spending and borrowing patterns from banks and credit card providers; infrastructure usage data from utilities; and housing data from landlords and real estate firms. The private sector gains access to it on a barter basis—to get data, they must also provide it.

The result is a continuously growing bank of data available to public and private entities to improve city services, infrastructure, and commercial decisions.

Proactive citizen services

Both the non-personalized and personalized data bases fuel the city’s service layer, which now includes both mobile and desktop applications for citizens to gain access to services. For example, the city provided more than 11 million health-related services online in 2021 vs. only 100,000 similar services offline. Some 97% of the city’s services—such as reserving a school place for a child or getting water service—are now available online, although there are  provisions for those who prefer to go to a physical location. “The service layer is just the beginning,” says Konirbayev. “After that, we want to focus on proactive services.”

The idea of proactive services is very much in line with Almaty’s focus on making the city comfortable, livable, and appealing to the region’s most talented people. The plan is to anticipate what citizens might need and offer them those services without any action on their part. The city government will be able to do that using its extensive databases combined with AI analytics.

Almaty has already launched two such proactive services. If a household includes a disabled person, the government will automatically include a discount in utility bills, without citizens needing to apply for it. Similarly, the government will automatically send transport discount cards to students, retired people, and people with disabilities who qualify for reduced public transport fares.

“Instead of the citizen asking for something from the government, the government will seek out the citizen, and say, let us help you with this,” says Konirbayev.