The 14th edition of the annual WCO PICARD Conference, which ran from 22 to 24 October 2019 in Skopje, North Macedonia, ended on a high note after three days of presentations by speakers whose research was evaluated and selected by a Scientific Committee, followed by fruitful discussions among the participants.
The PICARD Conference has become one of the main platforms for Customs and academia to outline their latest research, needs and gaps. The Conference also provides interesting networking opportunities for participants to discuss innovative responses to challenges in the international trade sphere.
Hosted this year by Customs Administration of the Republic of North Macedonia, the 2019 Conference kicked off with opening remarks by Mr. Zoran Zaev, Prime Minister of the Republic of North Macedonia; Mr. Gjoko Tanasoski, Director General of the Customs Administration of the Republic of North Macedonia; Dr. Kunio Mikuriya, Secretary General of the WCO; and Dr. Anna Cho, Director General of the Customs Border Control Training Institute at the Korea Customs Service.
In his welcoming remarks, the Prime Minister, Mr. Zaev, stressed the importance of events such as the PICARD Conference to support the development of more effective policies to ensure an improved business environment and citizens’ welfare. Digitalization, which is at the heart of the modernization process of the Customs Administration of the Republic of North Macedonia, is predicted to significantly reduce the costs of trade operations. Topics featured on the Agenda of this Conference such as e-commerce, data analytics and artificial intelligence, are very much related to this trend.
The Director General, Mr. Tanasoski, recalled that the 2019 WCO theme “SMART borders for seamless trade, travel and transport” underlines the role of Customs in the way it facilitates trade and protects society. Achievements by North Macedonia Customs in becoming paperless–thus leading to an enhanced business environment–were also highlighted.
The Conference saw more than 40 presentations by high-level speakers from academic, governmental, and private sector entities and think-tanks, including the World Bank Group, the European Commission, international law firms and several universities, which were selected from over 80 submissions following a Call for Papers, issued in March this year, and welcomed 240 participants from approximately 50 countries.
In his address, Secretary General Mikuriya expressed his gratitude to the Government of North Macedonia and to the Director General of the Customs Administration of the Republic of North Macedonia and his team for hosting the PICARD Conference, and thanked the Korea Customs Service for supporting the participation of some of the speakers. With this year’s Conference focusing on Big Data analytics and its potential use by Customs, cross-border e-commerce with its opportunities and challenges, and coordination and cooperation at borders based on connectivity, Dr. Mikuriya noted that “there is a need for cooperation between business and academia on Big Data supported by a dialogue with the global Customs community.”
Director General, Ms. Cho, also reflected on the “SMART” acronym and the necessary ingredients for Customs to ensure seamless trade, travel and transport, and the support by Korea Customs Service for strengthening the communication between the public and private sectors as well as with economic operators to discuss and enhance coordination and cooperation at borders.
A keynote address on “Data science: Policy implications for Customs” by Dr. Mikuriya outlined his reflections on how Customs, with its long-standing experience of a computerized approach to risk analysis, is a prime domain for the Big Data revolution. Underlining potential challenges posed by machine learning such as the amplification of bias through poor-quality data, he also provided an overview of ongoing projects undertaken by the Secretariat to reinforce Members’ efforts to comprehend and embed Big Data technologies in their daily work. He emphasized the democratic nature of data: all Customs administrations have access to data and have indeed the ability to harness its potential. In this respect, he stressed the importance of training Customs officers using open-source tools rather than purchasing expensive software as the application of data science in Customs requires domain-specific knowledge, and further underscored the importance of Customs asserting ownership of the data they generate and warned against outsourcing. “As society is moving towards a form of governance by data, Customs should keep pace with the rest of society and consider using all available data,” added Secretary General Mikuriya.
The second keynote address delivered by Ms. Meeyoung Cha from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology University on “Data Science for fraud detection: Open Source Tools and Approaches,” outlined some inexpensive and effective means for Customs to use open-source tools to further support fraud detection.
In addition, the three-day Conference also included a Youth Forum, enabling some 12 students from Azerbaijan, Belarus, North Macedonia, Poland, the Russian Federation, and Uzbekistan to discuss topics pertaining to Customs, as well as future career possibilities in Customs and in the international trade arena.
In the margins of the Conference, Dr. Mikuriya availed of the opportunity to visit North Macedonia Customs’ Headquarters accompanied by the Director General of the Customs Administration, Mr. Tanasoski, and had a bilateral meeting with Dr. Nina Angelovska, Minister of Finance, to discuss ongoing Customs reform and paths forward. Armed with a business background, the Minister expressed her thorough understanding of challenges faced by Customs and highlighted the importance of cross-border e-commerce to foster growth in micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises and connect them to the global economy.
Dr. Mikuriya also met with the Prime Minister, Mr. Zaev, to discuss regional integration in the Balkan region and future cooperation with the WCO. Secretary General Mikuriya was also invited to attend the opening ceremony for a German investment fund initiative in the Industrial Free Zone, where the North Macedonian Prime Minister made a speech underlining the importance of Customs’ cooperation with the WCO to improve the business environment, including the management of free zones. Prime Minister Zaev personally asked WCO Secretary General Mikuriya to convey his best wishes to the global Customs community.
The Secretary General also visited the Chamber of Commerce of the Republic of North Macedonia and gave a presentation on the WCO and its partnership approach with business. He engaged with the Chamber’s members and students in attendance to discuss the current concerns of business, including the trade tension and the future of multilateral trading system.
At the closing ceremony, held under the auspices of Dr. Angelovska, Minister of Finance, the participants joined the WCO in expressing their gratitude to the Customs Administration of North Macedonia for its outstanding hospitality and efforts in making the 14th PICARD Conference a memorable event. They also conveyed their satisfaction with the Conference’s outcomes, which provided ample food for thought and new networking opportunities.
Mrs. Velma Ricketts Walker, Commissioner of Jamaica Customs, took the opportunity to officially announce that Jamaica Customs would host the next PICARD Conference and would be pleased to welcome participants to Jamaica in 2020. Further details will be made available in due course via the WCO’s website (www.wcoomd.org).
As part of its broader outreach strategy, the WCO livestreamed some of the Conference’s sessions via its YouTube channel and the videos are now available to the public, including all 183 Members of the WCO.