Jan Žák: Brno iD lives on MUNISS ideas

Jan Žák from the Department of Corporate Economy FEA MU was one of the founders of the international student competition MUNISS, which inspired him to develop and lead the city e-shop Brno iD, whose popularity is ever-growing and which makes life easier for Brno citizens and tourists alike thanks to the computerization of services.

9 Aug 2021 Ekonomicko-správní fakulta

You were one of the founders of the international student competition MUNISS. Let’s go back to the very beginning. What was the impulse that kicked off the project?
It was an attempt to move from the managerial game called Manahra to another level. To move from team cooperation of people from one faculty to at least an inter-faculty dimension. The idea originated in 2010 and the first event was entitled Masaryk’s University Student Competition. I tried to build teams of nine participants, one from each faculty. I managed to persuade Brno Municipal Authority to give a chance to a pilot version. In the end, the teams comprised six or seven students due to the difficult coordination. Nevertheless, the main idea proved successful. When you put together a few people from different disciplines, a completely new level of innovative possibilities opens. People working or studying at the same faculty tend to be similar. Moreover, we wanted to teach interdisciplinary cooperation, as I say “across different languages”; if a lawyer talks to an economist, they might not fully understand each other.

Did the form of a competition seem ideal for reaching such goals?
Yes, indeed. We searched for an environment where it would work. I could contribute with my experience of Manahra. Three teams started to compete for the best concept of the assignment. It seemed logical that the partner would be a municipal authority or rather the public sector, which often deals with highly complex themes. Enterprises resolve their particular problems on a small scale, whereas a municipal project always has many levels, and this is where the experience from many faculties can be used to its best.

About Jan Žák

He is a big Larp fan, not just as a participant, but also as an organizer. This hobby probably influenced his teaching style. Mgr. Ing. Jan Žák is a lecturer at the Faculty of Economics and Administration Masaryk University. He teaches Management and Project Management. His specialization is management simulation games, where student teams compete in the fictitious environment of automotive industry. It is no surprise that he was one of the founders of the international student competition MUNISS. The idea to establish the city e-shop Brno iD, in which he works as a project manager, was a logical outcome of Jan’s extraordinary efforts.

After the first successful year, you applied for European funding, which you obtained and could expand the scope of activities. What was further development?
We designed a version which included Masaryk University, plus Mendel University and Brno University of Technology (BUT). Inter-faculty teams expanded to inter-university ones. A number of topics were addressed and several hundred students took part in the first two years of the competition. The Faculty of Economics and Administration is the current holder of the subsidy from the City of Brno. There is only one theme, which is dealt with by three teams; apart from this, several additional topics are addressed. These studies are prepared outside the competition.

What is the focus of the selected themes? Is the choice influenced by any trend?
The last two or three years they largely focus on land use planning and development and so many lecturers come from the Faculty of Architecture BUT. These are experts both on architecture and land use planning. The teams also invite landscape architects to join their work.

MUNISS is referred to as “international”, but we have only spoken of Brno universities.
We cooperated with the Slovak University of Technology for some time; however, the project in Slovakia went into hibernation during the coronavirus period. We tried to involve Vienna, with no result so far. Our vision is that the competition could one day include Brno, Bratislava and the Austrian capital. The teams would be inter-university, interdisciplinary and international, which requires really complex coordination.

It is clear that MUNISS deals with important themes. Have any of the projects been ever implemented? Have they inspired the city to take further steps or put them into practice?
The topics of the first year of the big run included the Brno Card in response to the Prague Opencard, whose issues were then extensively discussed in the media. We thought: How to do it better in Brno? The main idea was to involve students with some experience in university information systems and make them approach the card from that perspective; get them think about the possible functioning of the card. They primarily addressed issues connected with students. In fact, what they wrote about was not as important as thinking about the theme and approaching it in different ways. An important starting point was the introduction of a universal account, which could be used for a lot of things. The project was joined by consultants from the Brno Public Transport Authority and Kordis. Ideas were shared, transferred and stored. When the right moment came, they were utilized.

That was the dawn of the city e-shop Brno iD, we can say. How did you get involved in the project?
People from the Brno Public Transport Authority considered the introduction of RFID chip cards in 2012. However, the plan failed. In 2015 I had consultations with people connected to the Smart City strategy and learnt of yet another attempt of computerization. In a few months, I got an offer to lead this project. I succeeded with the plan of a multifunctional city e-shop in the spring 2016. An important thing was to maintain the direction. The e-shop started with the transport pass (šalinkarta) which was to be launched the next year, but when people were told: “It will offer other things in some time,” further development was ensured. If the account remained only focused on public transport, it would be difficult to add other services in terms of technology and legal issues. Today, the account offers quite a number of services. Some of them, even though not visible, are controlled by Brno iD online as well as live. For instance, boat tickets and, since this spring, also ZOO tickets can be completely bought through Brno iD. The computerization has gone so far that paper transport passes (šalinkarty) are gradually phased out beginning this year.

Who can access the portal? Can Brno iD be used also by those living outside of Brno?
The portal is automatically open to anyone. Because the data are stored on a payment card, it is open to users worldwide. Anyone who has a contactless card can use the system. We have a direct variant, which functions in public transport, where you get on, tap the card and the transaction is recorded. These are one-off tickets intended mainly for tourists and visitors. Then there are prepaid passes, which are provided by the Brno iD e-shop: you open an account, fill in your data a purchase a transport pass. Your identity can be verified online – a novelty introduced during the pandemic. You take a photo of your identity card, send it out and everything is ready in about two days. No need to go anywhere.

You mentioned that the portal was not limited to ticket sales. What are the other things?
If you take the ZOO, for instance, besides tickets and passes, you can also adopt an animal online. In the Library module, you can establish a library account and then use services like a renewal of reader’s registration, credit top-up, payment of penalties. Then there is the Tourist Card, offered for one to three days. It includes discounts or free admission to various institutions. The public transport is activated automatically. Other modules enable the purchase of tickets to various city sports grounds, parking fees, payment for waste collection, and so on. One of the services that never occurred to me we could do is municipal cemeteries. It was the city’s idea and it has turned out the service is feasible. People can renew the lease of the grave or choose and pay online for gardening services needed for grave maintenance, without the necessity to come to Brno.

That’s part of life, too. What about theatre tickets? Do you have any plans in this area?
The first cultural institution will be the Brno Observatory. Theatres should join the party afterwards. However, because theatres already have their own systems, we will be asked to design an alternative. The process will happen step by step due to the number of theatres. The plan is to start with smaller theatres and proceed to larger ones. You need to move from simple things to complex ones.

Do other cities have something like Brno iD? I don’t mean just the Czech Republic.
No. A similar accomplishment was only attempted by Plzeň. Most of the transport e-shops are run by the public transport authority of the city concerned. Adding further services faces legal as well as technical problems, if not planned well ahead. Nothing like this exists in Slovakia and I don’t think Vienna has considered such a system. On the other hand, we found it interesting to have an outcome of what was once called Smart City. It lives on the ideas of the MUNISS project, an example of cooperation between the academic and public sectors, which has developed into this quite unique shape. We have managed to computerize even those service modules that weren’t feasible in the past. You can see, for instance, how the number of ZOO tickets bought online has been increasing. The scope of the whole project has long overgrown public transport.

Why wasn’t there an e-shop for certain services? Especially libraries come to mind.
Jiří Mahen Library tried to introduce an e-shop; however, this is not possible independently, because due to its turnover and amounts paid, it is not interesting for payment gateways. Therefore, it is ideal for the library to be connected to Brno iD, with a bonus of shared low commissions. Most of the payments in the e-shop do not exceed half a percent. It is a great benefit for smaller entities because they all share one gateway with the turnover of hundreds of millions Czech crowns a year.

Brno iD is clearly an amazing and successful project. Has it been noted abroad?
Yes, it has. For Brno iD, the City of Brno won the ITAPA V4 Award, which is awarded to the best Smart City projects and innovative services for citizens and businesses in the Visegrad Four countries.

Jan Žák was interviewed by Aleš Kohout.

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