The power of digital governments around the globe

Singapore's Government Chief Information Officer, and the Government Technology Agency's Deputy Chief Executive. (Photo courtesy of Cheow Hoe)
Singapore’s Government Chief Information Officer, and the Government Technology Agency’s Deputy Chief Executive. (Photo courtesy of Cheow Hoe)

With the advent of artificial intelligence, 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.

This new reality presents governments with a crucial decision – embrace these technologies and their potential benefit to society, or shy away from the ambiguity and complexity they bring. In cities as diverse as Columbus, Ohio and Yinchuan, China, we are witnessing how governments that digitize are able to respond more proactively and effectively to citizens’ needs. In Singapore, people are at the heart of our Smart Nation movement. We’re mustering the full resources of our institutions, citizens and companies to focus on finding innovative solutions to big, complex problems, including aging population and urban density, to bring about better lives for our citizens. 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.

Singapore – an island smaller than Manhattan with no natural resources – is home to an entirely urban population. This presents challenges in civic matters such as healthcare and transportation, but opens up opportunities for technological advancement. Because of our physical constraints, we’ve always looked ahead to keep our economy open and think about ways to optimise public agencies’ delivery of smart city and government digital services.

The Digital Age has provided technologies that can transform the human condition. 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. The government needs to be proactive in placing strategic bets on the transformative potential of technology to secure our future. The new Government Technology Agency, or GovTech, is formed to lead this digital transformation from within the Singapore government and keep us at the forefront of technology.

To get a better sensing of how cities work, Singapore, Chicago, Amsterdam and many other smart cities are building new high-tech network of sensors to collect data on everything from traffic patterns and air quality to urban flooding and drainage issues. Pertinent to this is the ability to perform analytics and interpret real-time data as far as possible for the predictive maintenance of the city. And finally, visualizing these insights to help public agencies make better urban planning decisions and enhance their operations.

For example, to detect early warning signs of potential economic shocks, GovTech’s data scientists came up with the Pulse of the Economy that looks into the use of high frequency big data such as electricity consumption, public transportation, online job listings and other urban data sources to develop new indicators for better economic and urban planning. This allows us to leverage lead indicators instead of using just macro-economic data, which are essentially lag indicators. It aids in better policy planning and anticipation.

Another question that we often ask ourselves in terms of digital government is, if the Singapore government were not born as a government but as an internet company, how would we actually have designed our services? We asked our citizens what they thought about that, to better identify what it was that they want us to solve. Unlike commercial services, citizens usually come to government because they have to, not because they want to.

Two key insights were evident. Firstly, citizens told us they use a range of government digital services at key moments of their life, from getting married, buying a house to starting a family. Secondly, citizens have a deep desire to deal with one government, and not many public agencies separately. They want information that is real-time and contextually relevant to them.

With this in mind, GovTech is structuring and developing anticipatory government services, creating the digital platforms, the analytics, even the artificial intelligence in the form of the chatbots that we are experimenting to enhance citizens’ experiences of interacting with government. We call this “Moments of Life”, pushing out digital services to citizens when they most need them, so as to give them a more integrated experience.

While data and user-centric design of digital services are important, putting this information at the fingertips of citizens is key. While the government hopes to spur innovation and inspiration outside of the public sector, the idea 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. This is being achieved every day and around the world through open data portals, open source technology platforms and open real-time APIs. Sparking a civic innovation movement is one of the areas we have the most work to do, as it requires the reshaping of the very role of a government.

The United Nations’ open data portal has amassed more than 60 million data points that are regularly leveraged globally by journalists, companies and people. Over 120 countries have followed suit with their own portals, up from 97 in 2014. Singapore’s open data portal data.gov.sg currently houses more than 600 government datasets from 70 public agencies. It’s also home to a Developer’s Portal that consists of real-time APIs for co-creation with citizens and businesses.

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 to service. More than 32,000 route suggestions from the public have been submitted, with more than 20,000 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 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. Digital governments make it easier for citizens to access crucial services and resources quickly and proactively. From no-filing tax services to interacting with AskJamie, the virtual intelligent asssitant that can answer queries on government websites, Singaporeans are benefiting from technology at every turn. These innovations not only reduce cost and bureaucracy of the government, but also most importantly, lead to a better citizen experience – which brings us back to the Digital Age. While it may seem like it’s about technology, it’s really about people.

Today, we are at a critical juncture in which technology is blurring the line between the physical and digital worlds, ushering in the era of the Internet of Things, machine learning, cognitive computing, artificial intelligence and more. If digital governments worldwide are proactive, not reactive, in leveraging technology and data. The Digital Age stands to transform how we live, connect and work.

At its core, that is the goal of Singapore’s Smart Nation and Digital Government.

About Cheow Hoe

As Singapore's Government Chief Information Officer, and the Government Technology Agency's Deputy Chief Executive, Chan Cheow Hoe oversees the Singapore government’s central information technology systems and infrastructure, and drives the development and delivery of innovative public services for citizens and businesses. Cheow Hoe has more than two decades of experience in senior management positions overseeing organisation wide IT development and systems. His expertise includes leading organisations through transformational change and connecting IT to the needs of the organisation.

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