Q&A: How Singapore is using technology to transform its public services

What are the challenges facing government digital services?

Last year saw the launch of Singapore’s dedicated government technology agency GovTech. We sat down with the organisation’s chief information officer Chan Cheow Hoe to talk about some of the challenges facing government digital services and the technologies they are using to help improve the lives of citizens. 

1) London and Singapore are two of the most vibrant cities in the world; Singapore both a country and a nation. What are some of the biggest urban challenges that cities like London and Singapore are looking to tackle? How is Singapore addressing these challenges? 

Like many other cities, Singapore faces some of the biggest societal challenges today such as an ageing population and urban density which require a practical response. Singapore is the world’s third most densely populated nation, with nearly 8,000 people per square kilometre, and that’s only expected to rise. Global trends indicate two-thirds of the world will migrate into cities by 2050, adding pressure to existing transportation networks. Furthermore, citizens today are looking to governmental bodies to deliver and apply a range of real-time information in increasingly innovative, useful and actionable ways. 

Because of Singapore’s size and natural resources limitation, we’ve always looked ahead to keep our economy open, using technology as an enabler to overcome our physical constraints. That is why we have set ourselves the goal of becoming a Smart Nation. 

Being both a city and a country, we take a holistic national view, not just a municipal one. We’re mustering the full resources of our institutions, citizens and companies to focus decisively on solving real world problems, things which have an impact on people’s lives. But the key is to start small and dream big.  There is nothing like making things happen instead of being caught in a fantasy world of endless Proof of Concepts. 

For example, as a city we could work with companies to develop solutions for tele-rehabilitation, have your physiotherapist across video-conferencing, but as a country, we can look at integrating tele-rehab with the public housing infrastructure and the national healthcare system.

2) You are now the Government Chief Information Officer and Deputy Chief Executive of the newly formed Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech) which will drive the digital transformation of the public sector to design experiences and deliver more anticipatory services to the public. Briefly, could you explain the role of GovTech and your priorities for this new organisation? 

With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality, smart sensors and the Internet of Things, the digital and physical worlds have become more integrated than ever. While these technologies once seemed like a distant reality, they are now rapidly being adopted by mainstream consumers and a wide range of industries, from financial services to healthcare.

In Singapore, we’re looking at what these new technological developments mean to Singapore and Singaporeans. 

The new digital economy is identified as a promising area in which to build new capabilities. The government is encouraging citizens and businesses to upskill and seek higher productivity through creating new products and services by harnessing the value of data, and digital technologies. 

The public sector should be responsive to these movements in technology. That’s why GovTech was formed, to lead the change from within the government and apply technology to help Singapore and our citizens ride this new Digital Age.  

GovTech supports Singapore’s Smart Nation vision in three priority areas. 

First, we help optimise the running of smart city services by putting in place nationwide infrastructure and technology capabilities such as sensors & IOT, data analytics, to enable innovation in various domains such as mobility, homes & environment, healthcare and ageing. 

Second, for Digital Government, we drive the digital transformation of the public sector to deliver better and more anticipatory services to citizens. 

Third, we want to catalyse greater involvement from our citizens, building open source platforms, releasing more open data and real-time APIs to create the ecosystem, a community of self-starters, civic innovators, people who want to create useful applications for their own community. 

3) In the UK, new technologies and implementations like contactless payments on public transport services have saved lots of time for commuters, and earlier the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials opened a scheme to allow apps to link directly to UK emergency services. In what ways is Singapore using new and emerging technologies to improve the lives of its citizens?

GovTech will champion the deployment of a wider range of technologies to ensure our deep technical expertise go beyond just information and ICT to data science & analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality and more. Increasingly, we are able to leverage data to mimic human decision making, which we can then use to enhance decision making processes and to provide anticipatory services. 

Rather than govern as a provider of public goods and services, governments that embrace technology now need to have the ability to create market platforms or enable digital communities. Let me cite a few interesting experiments that we’ve rolled out in Singapore. 

GovTech developed the Beeline digital mobility platform with the Land Transport Authority, using data analytics to crowdsource commuters’ demand for transportation routes, and match them with private bus operators who will decide which routes are commercially viable to service. Beeline has garnered more than 45,000 app downloads, with more than 37,000 successful matches made, improving the commuting experience of residents in Singapore. 

One other meaningful digital application is the MyResponder mobile app which we have developed with the Singapore Civil Defence Force to crowdsource lifesavers that can render first aid or lend a helping hand to cardiac arrest victims within 400 meters radius, before the ambulance arrives.  More than 11,000 volunteers are registered as first responders on the app, with over 8,500 successful activations. 

Be it a choked drain or fallen tree branch, citizens do not wish to be stuck in a conundrum of which public agency to contact when faced with these municipal issues. We developed the OneService mobile app with the Municipal Services Office, empowering citizens to report these municipal issues through the app‘s photo-snap and location geo-tagging functions. This gets channelled to the right agency at the backend, and the issue gets resolved quickly with minimal disruption to citizens’ lives. More than 51,000 feedback cases have been submitted through this app. 

These examples are illustrative of the fact that digital governments are powerful enablers to improve the lives of people. We are focused on applying technology to be very practical, to developing solutions for citizens, not technology for technology’s sake, not technology looking for a problem. We are looking at how we can meet the needs of citizens.  

4) The Government has recently refreshed Singapore’s open data portal Data.gov.sg, how are Singaporeans (citizens and businesses) using this portal? What are your thoughts about civic innovation, and do you think other countries could benefit from similar policies and initiatives?

Open data sharing is one of the key priorities of Singapore as a Smart Nation. It will not only empower our people and businesses to make better informed decisions about their daily lives, but will also provide the enabling open source platform and real-time APIs for citizens to co-create with the government. Data.gov.sg is Singapore’s open data portal that gives everyone access to more than 900 free-to-use government datasets in Singapore from 70 public agencies. Whether that’s data from the Land Transport Authority on taxi locations or data on the dengue clusters island-wide, the portal gives developers the ability to create new, innovative citizen-friendly apps and services. 

A great example of this initiative in action comes from collaboration with Sport Singapore. To help users determine the best times to hit the gym and avoid the crowd, we used data provided by Sport Singapore to calculate the average occupancy rate of each gym and were able to establish when the busiest times were. Another example is the use of real-time transport APIs by a developer to show taxi availability across the nation. 

Smart citizen involvement is one of the areas that we have the most work to do, because it requires us to do something very different as a government, and that is not to provide everything ourselves, but to really work and harness the energy and ideas of a new generation of tinkerers, makers and civic-minded citizens. We will do so through building more open source platforms, releasing more open data and real-time APIs.

Globally, GovTech is working with leading digital governments and international institutions to exchange best practices and knowledge in areas such as public service delivery, smart cities solutions, open data and more. Together with the Ministry of Finance, we have also organised the inaugural Digital Government Exchange last year to engage in dialogues with digital governments from around the world. 

We also launched the Smart Nation Fellowship Programme to bring top data scientists and technologists around the world to Singapore for short stints to collaborate with the Singapore government on delivering digital and data solutions for the public good. All these efforts will spur the global exchange of knowledge in improving the lives of global citizens. 

5) In the UK many citizens are sceptical about large corporations and governments holding their data. How has Singapore cultivated this ‘open data’ relationship to earn trust between the government and citizens? 

When we talk about open data we are talking about datasets that are publicly available and free-to-use. These are the data sets that we want citizens to use to make more informed decisions as well as create new solutions to real world problems. This is non-classified, non-sensitive data that we already had from other government agencies. We’re simply finding new ways to purpose and visualise it in order to aid citizens’ understanding. 

Data protection and cybersecurity are key priority areas for our government. It’s vital that our citizens and businesses have peace of mind while we work behind the scenes to safeguard government data and protect citizens’ private information stored on governments systems. Recently our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong outlined the strategy for the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore (CSA), with four key components from building a resilient infrastructure; creating a safer cyberspace; developing a vibrant cybersecurity ecosystem to strengthening international partnerships in this respect.

For GovTech, we are the government’s cybersecurity lead to ensure the security and resiliency of government ICT infrastructure and systems in this environment of increasing cyber threats. We have been developing cyber security policies and setting governance standards within government digital infrastructure, platforms and services, and will continue to do more to ensure the robustness of our systems against malicious attacks. 

As part of our long-standing efforts to strengthen security and protect citizens’ data, we have created a national digital identity known as the SingPass, which is used by citizens to access more than 200 online government services. In addition, we have recently rolled out a new two-factor authentication (2FA) process to maintain high security integrity for 3.3 million SingPass users. 

6) Singapore has invested heavily in smart city technologies over the years, while other governments around the world are still in the first stages of such endeavours. In the UK, budget constraints in the public sector is limiting some of these investments. How has Singapore managed its resources toward innovation and what can be shared with the public sector in the UK? 

While delivering these priorities, GovTech will seek to find the most prudent solution, be it through in-sourcing, co-sourcing or out-sourcing, to obtain better value and drive greater productivity and efficiency for the public sector. We will do it in a few ways. We will use technology to drive productivity within the government through redesigning and digitising manual processes and by using data analytics to eliminate unnecessary work. We will set and enforce standards that promote interoperability of systems. And lastly, we will serve as a ‘smart buyer’ for the government by building the internal know-hows to purchase the right solutions, as well as architect and integrate systems for optimal effectiveness. This can be manifested in the aggregation of demand for technology solutions across the government. There are over 30 bulk tenders today offering agencies considerable savings compared to buying individually.

7) You’ve recently partnered with Microsoft on the ‘Conversations as a Platform’ initiative to look at new ways that citizens can keep in touch with their government. Are there any other new areas of technology that you’re looking at as interesting spaces for the future, with the potential for growth? 

Smart Nation will continue to create demand for ICT professionals with a range of deep technical skills. We want to spur innovation and inspiration outside of the public sector, and to do so, we also need to build and upskill ICT and engineering capabilities for the Government. We are developing in-house capabilities to do some things ourselves.  

There are six areas of deep technical capabilities that we will grow: data science, application development, sensors and IoT, government ICT infrastructure, geospatial technology (jointly with the Singapore Land Authority) and cybersecurity (jointly with Cyber Security Agency).

Chan Cheow Hoe, Government Chief Information Officer, GovTech
Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chan Cheow Hoe is the Government Chief Information Officer of GovTech. He oversees Singapore Government’s central IT systems and infrastructure, driving the development and delivery of innovative public services.