From the WCO drawing board to Customs strategic plans: is the nCEN Programme taking Customs by storm?By Iwona Sawicka, CEN Programme, WCO
When it all began, in 2013, the National Customs Enforcement Network (nCEN) application was only used in one country which needed a tool to collect, store, analyse, and disseminate law enforcement information efficiently in order to establish robust intelligence capabilities. . In the first year after its release, eight countries began using the application, and, as time went on, others followed suit. Today, nCEN has been deployed in 35 Customs administrations, and concrete plans are in place to increase this number to 50 by the end of 2020.
The fast growth in the number of nCEN countries is, in large part, due to the generous funding provided to the WCO from several donor countries. Indeed, the WCO offers the nCEN software to its Members free of charge, but does not cover the purchase of the hardware needed to run the nCEN application, the costs associated with training, and the costs related to modifications of local IT infrastructure, which is sometimes necessary.
Donors’ funding also enables the WCO to make important functionality enhancements to the application. The continued success of the nCEN Programme is largely dependent on these donations, especially taking into account the long list of candidate countries in need of such support.
With the first version of the nCEN, the focus was primarily on data collection for risk management. As the user base grew and more countries began using the application, the communication component called Icomm was improved to allow for simpler and more comprehensive data exchange between Customs administrations.
Today, the interest of enforcement officers in the nCEN goes beyond risk analysis, towards profiling and targeting of suspects, companies, or means of conveyance. The latest version of the nCEN, soon to be released, contains basic data analytics functionality such as automated searches on new data, and matching rules that allow users to identify connections between data elements in the application. New versions of the nCEN are released to nCEN countries periodically through an automated update manager component in the application.
Discussions are underway to further expand the functionality of the nCEN to meet the expectations of Customs administrations and the broader enforcement community, by reevaluating and standardizing the current ways of collecting data on suspects and offenders, and creating an additional “persons” database.
Data transfer between the three applications which form the CEN Suite – the CEN, CENcomm, and the nCEN – has also been made easier. Aware that data collected by different systems cannot be easily integrated, often lacking variables for matching across systems, the WCO has been investing in making the CEN Suite increasingly interoperable.
The latest version of CENcomm, also to be released shortly, enables seizure data collected during Customs operations to be transferred to the nCEN at a push of a button, while the third party connection feature in the CEN and the nCEN makes it possible to feed seizure data automatically to those applications from existing national systems.
Although it was designed as part of a connected and interoperable CEN Suite, the nCEN is, in fact, an application that is composed of a set of independent modules, which can be utilized in combination or separately, depending on the operational or legislative needs of the implementing Customs administration.
While in certain administrations the nCEN is proving to be an effective tool for communication between local stakeholders (other enforcement agencies and other services) and information sharing for the purpose of training, others appreciate the tool’s workflow management features and its structured communication relating to the investigation process or post-seizure action items.
Moreover, recent deployments of the application in Customs administrations already possessing centralized systems for enforcement data show that the nCEN can be instrumental in setting up cooperation mechanisms at the regional level or beyond, as all users of the application form part of a Global nCEN Network.
Despite the availability of the nCEN in multiple language versions, the connection between users is facilitated by a rigid data model, enabling the structured translation of labels and data lists. This, in turn, allows for the breakdown of language barriers and easier conversion between the different nCEN language versions.
The technological advancements of the nCEN have been driven directly by its users. With a growing number of deployments, the WCO has been facilitating the creation of regional cooperation structures that enable nCEN users to exchange best practices and experiences, and discuss functionality enhancements to the application.
Regional meetings on nCEN matters now take place in East and Southern Africa and in Asia/Pacific, and the Global nCEN Network keeps growing in importance as more countries implement the application. The nCEN is also being integrated into the strategic plans of its user administrations, a much needed step in order to guarantee an adequate level of support for the growth and strengthening of the implementation programme at the national level.
In conclusion, is the nCEN taking Customs by storm? From one pilot country to 35 countries, and soon 50! The numbers speak for themselves.
The Suite includes three stand-alone applications:
- Customs Enforcement Network (CEN), a web platform that acts as a depository of enforcement-related information, which analysts can mine to produce valuable analysis and intelligence. At its core is a database of seizures and offences as well as pictures. Its value rests squarely on the steady flow of quality data provided by all WCO Members.
- National CEN (nCEN), an application that gives Customs the ability to collect, store, analyse, and disseminate law enforcement data effectively. It consists of three independent databases. The principal database of national seizures and offences comprises data required for analysis, as well as means of conveyance, routes, and the possibility to view photos depicting exceptional concealment methods. Two supplementary databases contain information on suspect persons and business entities of interest to Customs, thereby facilitating a structured investigation process.
- CEN communication platform (CENcomm), a web-based communication system permitting a closed user group of officers to exchange information, in real time, for the duration of an enforcement operation or project. Information reporting can be standardized with the use of templates, which can be customized to only include data fields that are pertinent to a specific operation.