Geert Rensen is the Director of Business Development and Co-founder of Be Informed. He’s been part of Be Informed since 2003. In this blog, we spoke to Geert about the development and challenges at Be Informed during the past twenty years.
Geert, you have been part of Be Informed since 2003. Are you still excited?
Absolutely! We started in 2003 with a grand vision. Now, almost twenty years later, we are both a lot wiser but still enthusiastic. We started with the idea of automating knowledge-intensive processes: to support government agencies and improve service to the citizens. The basic idea was to capture knowledge from regulations and policies and put them in Be Informed platform so we could support people in making better decisions, help people understand the impact of regulations, and improve regulation-making.
Two decades later, we still pursue this vision, although we also realize we might have underestimated the efforts that are necessary in order to reach our goals. The good news is: we are getting there! The standards are established, and the technology is much further, so our vision now really is attainable. That keeps me up at night to stay working on that.
Starting with the vision of automating knowledge work
The very first name of our company was ‘Be Value’, and then it changed to ‘Be Informed’. Why?
I joined Be Value in 2004. Then I was asked to work on the strategy for the company. We decided to specialize. We identified that the automation of knowledge work and supporting knowledge workers was a key area we wanted to focus on.
In the process of specializing and becoming one of the leaders in automating knowledge work, we recognized that we had to build a product. We started building that product within Be Value. Be Value was a consultancy company that advised public sector and financial services companies. We realized that being a consultancy company and selling your own product didn’t fit together.
At the end of 2005, we concluded that in order to grow the company we needed to set it apart. That is why we started a new company, focused on developing and marketing the Be Informed Platform. We chose the name Be Informed because we wanted to provide people with the knowledge and information needed to make decisions, just in time. From the first of January 2006, Be Informed was on its own. We continued to work with Be Value as an implementation partner, Eventually Be Value was acquired by another company, but the people who started Be Value, continued working together in Be Informed.
Why has the company grown so much since its inception? Is it because of you?
I think we worked really hard. We had a team of very passionate people, and a great idea. You might even say that we are actually not as big as we should be. We were one of the first companies to start automating knowledge work using semantic technology. We developed the concept of case management very early, which is now a domain of its own. In the field of business rules, we were one of the early companies to have a mature product. We didn’t grow as quickly as some of our competitors. Partly because we got involved in some impressive projects that demanded a lot of attention from the management. An example is the Dutch Immigration, the National Permit Portal project and projects for pension funds administrators. We could have grown faster, but we were very focused on engineering the product and making implementations happen and forgot about marketing and sales.
The way forward
Why are you so passionate about digital transformation?
When I think about it, I see two reasons. I studied innovation in industrial networks in Uppsala, Sweden, and have always been fascinated by the process of getting new standards and new ways of working adopted.
Secondly, ever since I started in IT, I have worked for the public sector and was confronted with the growing complexity of regulations. Early on in my career, I was lucky to be able to work with some inspiring people like Piet de Kam (DTA), Professor Tom van Engers (UvA), Cor Franke (CWI), Hans Blokpoel (IND), and Erry Stoové (SVB). People with a strong vision of how they wanted to support citizens using information technology. If you really want to help citizens and enterprises, you must put them at the center, and provide them with the knowledge they need to make decisions. Explain what regulations apply and what these regulations mean for them specifically, instead of forcing them to go to 10,000 different websites. In order to make this possible you have to capture the knowledge hidden in regulations in such a way that it is understandable by both computers and humans. This way computers can help people understand what applies to them. We were lucky to be able to work with these people on some fascinating projects to make this vision reality.
In these projects, we discovered that open standards were needed to make our vision a reality. Open standards make it possible for governments to publish a structured interpretation of the regulation next to the legal text. If this is applied on a large scale it becomes possible to help citizens and regulated entities find their way in the complex maze of regulations that applies to them.
Ever since our project for the Dutch Immigration, we have been working with TNO and the University of Amsterdam to get this approach and standards adopted. Often an uphill battle, but recently, the US government bought into these standards. Now we are working with a large coalition of partners to get these standards adopted. This makes me proud. We can transform the way government works. The technology is there. The standards are there, now we need to go out and convince the world.
Can you share with us one of the big projects you are currently busy with?
Everything I am working on is about getting these open standards adopted and improving the lives of citizens and businesses. One of the big projects we are currently working on is ITTS. The goal of ITTS is to make regulations transparent across the globe. The main goal is to make it easier for organizations to engage in international business. I believe that international trade is good for our economies. Economies grow and thrive due to international trade, resulting in jobs and income for people. When engaging in international trade, you have to deal with a lot of regulations. Regulations exist for a reason, to protect society and the environment. Unfortunately, every country has its own set of regulations, and these regulations are written down in a horrible way. This makes it very difficult for small and medium-sized enterprises to engage in business across the globe.
On the one hand, the internet makes it possible for them to reach customers across the globe, but the complexity of all these regulations makes it impossible for small and medium-sized enterprises to engage in international trade without the help of expensive brokers or consultants. We want to make regulations transparent. Our ITTS application is designed to help organizations understand what requirements apply to their international transaction and check if there are any issues.
The eRulemaking project in the US is similar but aimed at citizens. It is about improving the process of making and changing regulations and helping policymakers understand better what the impact of change is. We will use the open standard FLINT to interpret the proposed regulation and use that to explain to citizens what the impact of the proposed regulation is for them, so they can provide valid input and feedback on a proposed regulation. In a nutshell: eRulemaking is about helping countries make better regulations and improve the lives of their people.
How do you envision the impact of this new solution on the highly regulated organization and government?
What is interesting is that we started with this idea in 2003. In fact, I was at a conference in 2008 where we presented the initial results of some of our projects. There were some officials from the US government who saw the presentation and loved the idea. However, the approach that we had chosen, capturing knowledge in knowledge graphs, did not scale well. We learned that subject matter experts do not want to use knowledge graphs to capture their knowledge and that people who understand knowledge graphs are not experts in the regulatory domain. We kept in touch with the US government and kept them updated on our latest developments.
A big breakthrough for us was the development of Calculemus/FLINT for the explicit interpretation of regulations. The FLINT standard developed by TNO and the University of Amsterdam makes it possible for legal experts to make explicit interpretations of a regulation using a structured language. The use of FLINT and all the research behind it, in combination with the use of Natural Language Processing makes our approach much more scalable. This is the major change, I think.
The type of applications that our customers build on the Be Informed platform has not changed. What has changed is that we have developed a way to make it easier for subject matter experts to encode their business knowledge in the knowledge graphs that we need to power our Be Informed platform. With our new Be Informed Workbench for the interpretation of normative sources, FLINT as an open standard, and NLP to support subject matter experts our approach has become much more scalable. Now, fifteen years later the technology and standards are in place to deliver upon our vision from 2008.
So, why Be Informed?
Be Informed is not the biggest company among our competitors, but we are a highly dedicated team full of passionate people and we are working on technology that can transform societies.
We are not alone, as we are working with a network of partners, consisting of leading universities, large research institutions, and consultancies like Deloitte, BearingPoint, and Accenture. It is exciting to work with so many different people from different cultures. I’m proud to see that Be Informed is currently used in 25 countries.
Last but not least, what makes Be Informed stand out compared to other companies?
It’s ur background. We come from the public sector and our focus has always been on helping people deal with the complex regulatory system that they operate in. This is not a simple task, but if we succeed, this can be transformative for our societies. In this domain, we are one of the leading firms in the world. I have not seen other companies that have taken this challenge so seriously, thought it through so well, and spent so much time developing the technology and standards for this domain.
There are many competitors with great technology, just like us, but their focus is on building applications. We focus on automating knowledge work, providing organizations with the tools, standards, and best practices to implement a systematic approach for capturing business knowledge from authoritative sources, defining policies, and deploying business knowledge and rules into day-to-day business operations. I think we have a unique position here and that really makes me proud.
Geert is one of the founders of Be Informed and has been active as Director of Business Development, Chief Operating Officer, Managing Director of the US, and Director of Marketing & Sales. Previously, he worked for Logica as an Account Manager, Business Unit Manager, and Sales Director for the Public Sector.