Enhancing data collection – A call to action!
12th October 2022By Iwona Sawicka, WCO CEN Programme
When the first discussions on the creation of the Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) were initiated during the Enforcement Committee in 1999, there was agreement that the CEN would have positive implications for the organization of Customs enforcement services around the world. The project was unanimously supported by WCO Members and the Regional Intelligence Liaison Offices (RILOs), with the common understanding that implementation and success of the project would depend on all parties being willing to share information in a timely and secure manner.
As we look back at its 20 years of history, we realize that the core reasons for building the CEN are just as applicable today as they were at its conception, and till this day, the CEN is the only global Customs database of seizures and offences. Against the backdrop of Customs embracing a data culture and building a data ecosystem, the relevance of providing information to the CEN to enable better analysis, as well as more effective risk assessment and profiling for all types of fraud, remains high.
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data” — Sherlock Holmes
The key issue in the discussion on the enhancement of data quantity in the CEN is the fact that data is provided by WCO Members on a voluntary basis, and many Members do not comply with the recommendation and request to provide data to the CEN in a comprehensive and timely manner. The main challenge is therefore to encourage and convince WCO Members to contribute more to the CEN database, both in their own interest, and for the sake of the global Customs community.
It is in this context that the “WCO Charter of Data Quantity and Quality Enhancement in the CEN” came into existence, as a fundamental strategic commitment of WCO Members, RILOs and the WCO Secretariat to enhancing data submission to the CEN. It is a document outlining 14 key principles, some addressing the need to re-examine the value of providing data, others addressing the challenges of providing data. These principles require buy-in from all actors that work with the CEN, including all WCO Members, RILOs and the WCO Secretariat, but they have different implications for each actor. The CEN Charter was first endorsed by the Customs Enforcement Network Management Team (CENMaT) at its January 2021 meeting, and a few months later by the Customs representatives participating in the WCO Enforcement Committee and then the June 2021 WCO Council.
Engaging WCO Members
As a basic principle, the CEN Charter calls on heads of Customs administrations to raise awareness among their staff as to the added value of the CEN at the national level, in order to convince them that by providing high-quality data to the CEN, they can derive more accurate and reliable analysis and enable a data-driven decision making process.
They are also requested to ensure the monitoring of CEN data entry in order to provide timely and comprehensive data input, and to ensure the transfer of their operational data from the Customs Enforcement Network communication platform (CENcomm) to the CEN during operational activities. Lastly, they are requested to consider automating data transfer to the CEN through the implementation of the National Customs Enforcement Network (nCEN) application, which is already being used by 55 administrations.
Mobilizing the RILOs
The RILO Network is a unique and critical part of the broader WCO Information and Intelligence Exchange Strategy. Although most are already active in this domain, the CEN Charter calls on RILOs to regularly monitor the status of CEN data input of their affiliated Customs administrations, and to provide training on data input and data analysis, with the aim of enhancing the capacity of Customs officers to enter data into the CEN, and to additionally derive benefits from this data. In particular, in relation to the latter, RILOs are requested to provide more operational and strategic analysis based on the CEN, and thus showcase the benefits of data collection in the CEN. Although concerns have been voiced that the amount of data in the CEN is limited, the analytical work conducted by some RILOs has proven that the CEN allows for meaningful analysis and for the definition of trends. It should be noted that the production of analytical publications can potentially highlight gaps in data from certain countries or regions, which in turn can prove to be a motivating factor for Customs administrations to provide more data.
Involving the WCO Secretariat
The creation of the WCO Charter of Data Quantity and Quality Enhancement in the CEN was initiated by the WCO Secretariat as a call to action. Customs digital transformation has seen an increase both in the availability of data, and in its relevance in support of the decision making process – from the frontline officers who profile shipments, means of transport, or individuals, through to the strategic decision makers who rely on data for their strategic planning.
While WCO Members and RILOs are called on to enhance and monitor data entry, the Secretariat is entrusted with providing technical solutions for facilitating and automating data submission to the CEN. In fact, it has already made important steps towards developing technical solutions to facilitate data entry. One example is the introduction of the Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) component in the CEN and nCEN, allowing for seizure data import from Excel spreadsheets. The introduction of the EDI component has also made it possible for machine-to-machine connections to be set up between the CEN or nCEN and other third-party enforcement databases. For example, the CEN has already been successfully connected for several years with the European Anti-Fraud Office’s CIS+ application, allowing for data to be pushed automatically from CIS+ to the CEN on a regular basis.
With these existing data entry facilitation measures in mind, the CEN Charter calls on the Secretariat to look more closely into enlarging the data source pool, through enhanced cooperation with other law-enforcement organizations and the improvement of the interoperability of all WCO enforcement applications. More specifically, the Secretariat is requested to create a new integrated CEN application, “ICEN”, capable of gathering data from various sources and integrating data in various formats, with computing functionality allowing for efficient data processing, analysis and visualization.
In terms of showcasing the value of data collection, the CEN Charter calls upon the Secretariat to encourage WCO programmes, WCO Members, and other law-enforcement agencies to use CEN data for pre-operational activities, and to provide analytical products based on CEN data.
“Ideas mean nothing without execution”
While the strategic initiative is critical to fulfilling our goals, every initiative has to have its own strategy. For the WCO Secretariat, this means, on the one hand, putting in place technological solutions to facilitate data entry, and working on furthering the concept of the ICEN; on the other hand, it means promoting the broader goals of the CEN Charter: encouraging greater data submission and enhanced use of the CEN for analytical purposes.
Having conceptualized several applied solutions in response to the CEN Charter, the WCO Secretariat, through the CENMat, has developed a simplified input form in the CEN, allowing Customs administrations to record minimal data for statistical purposes. For those administrations experiencing a strain on resources, the simplified input form will facilitate data entry, while continuing to provide quick statistics for the use of frontline officers. With the release of this new functionality, the WCO Secretariat offers every administration the capability to enter data in this simplified format. The functionality has also been extended to CENcomm, with each closed user group (CUG) having the option of collecting data using this simplified format.
Another data entry facilitation measure released in the CEN (and nCEN) is the desktop application. This additional component, downloadable from the main menu of the CEN (or nCEN), has the same look and functionality as the main application. Although more restricted, it allows officers to enter data from anywhere at any time, whether they have an internet connection or not. The seizures entered in the desktop application can subsequently be exported and uploaded to the CEN (or nCEN) when an internet connection becomes available. This offline solution will facilitate the work of frontline officers at border checkpoints, and the operations in administrations where internet connectivity is unreliable.
In order to obtain more data and promote the use of the CEN and nCEN applications, it is essential not only to facilitate data entry, but also to showcase the value of those applications, and in essence the value of the data itself. In reality, however, many Customs administrations lack the analytical capability in their risk management and enforcement departments to process the data contained in the CEN in a meaningful way. To assist them, a basic visualization feature has been introduced in the CEN which allows for the display of search results in the form of charts, for a quick overview of the global illicit trafficking situation.
The ability of Customs administrations to reap the benefits of CEN data has also been addressed at the capacity building level. The new “CEN Capacity Building Initiative”, currently in its first phase, has the aim of training RILOs and nCEN Regional Leaders on the use of the latest CEN and nCEN functionalities (simplified input form, desktop application, data visualization, etc.), as they are the key actors dealing with enforcement data collected through the CEN and nCEN. In a second phase, it is planned to extend the initiative to WCO Members if specific needs are identified. With a complementary “Stay Connected Initiative”, the WCO plans to raise awareness and practical knowledge among nCEN countries and CENcomm operational coordinating units about interoperability and automated data transfer features in all of the CEN suite applications.
A call to action!
The enhancement of data quantity and quality in the CEN is not an easy feat. When we pause and try to determine the next steps we need to take, it becomes clear that what we need is global action. We need to have buy-in from national contact points working with the CEN, and from nCEN Programme leaders in each Customs administration; we need to have the support of every RILO; and we need to commit resources at the global WCO level in order to make this strategic vision a reality. Our aim is in this way to translate this vision into tools and measures which can be used by every Customs officer at every level, ensuring the continued relevance of the CEN for the Customs community.