Singapore's Smart Nation report card

Singapore's Smart Nation report card
The Land Transport Authority has made available data on estimated bus arrival times through a special software called application programme interface, or API, to coders, entrepreneurs and others, who can use it to build other apps.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Creation of new high-tech jobs? Tick

Improved quality of life? Tick

Impact on society? Tick

When Singapore launched its Smart Nation initiative in November 2014, these were the goals the minister in charge of the drive, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, wanted to achieve.

Other facets have emerged as the digital push went into overdrive: openness of data and the notion of creating solutions.

Asked for his report card on the Smart Nation project in an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times recently, Dr Balakrishnan, who is also the Foreign Minister, says: "By looking at these areas, in terms of jobs, business, quality of life and openness of data and the whole (notion of) creating solutions, I think we have made reasonable progress in the past 18 months."

In terms of jobs, he says, based on reports in the media, there is a shortage of engineers, computer scientists, cyber security experts and data analysts, which is a good sign because "we have generated demand for jobs by Singaporeans".

There is no question then that Singaporeans know something is afoot, and that there are fresh opportunities for those who want to switch careers and get retraining in infocomm and communications technology (ICT) skills. General Assembly, a global educational firm that teaches digital technologies to mature students, for instance, has even opened an office here.

"Even the universities are getting better-quality students, truly interested in computer science, and this is good," he says.

There is a greater sense of community ownership, participation and problem-solving on the Internet - whether it is in coming together to help deliver masks during the haze or to identify and help those with special needs.

There is also good progress in the start-up sector. More start-ups are emerging. As a result, Launchpad@ OneNorth, which offers affordable office rentals to firms in this sector, is expanding by at least a couple of blocks.

There is interest from other countries, which want to connect their start-up communities to those in Singapore. And software developers and entrepreneurs are using more government data to develop their own smart mobile apps or solutions.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA), for example, has made available data on estimated bus arrival times through a special software called application programme interface (API) to coders, entrepreneurs and others, who can use it to build other apps.

Last month, the downloads for that API numbered nearly 400 million - or 83.3 per cent of the 480 million API downloads from LTA's Datamall, which contains other transport-related APIs.

Other third-party apps that use LTA's Bus Arrival Information include SG Buses and gothere.sg. With these, bus commuters do not have to wait too long for their rides. They can find bus arrival times, to more than 95 per cent accuracy, from the Mytransport mobile app.

Says Dr Balakrishnan: "So, if I can get people's waiting time reduced, travelling time reduced, you may think it's very mundane, but I think it's an important index that you're using Smart Nation and using technology to make life better."

There are also fewer complaints from the public about the inability to get data on different issues such as the incidence of lightning, flooding or weather patterns.

"We're willing to share government data with anyone. At the same time, we want to make sure that the Government is not a choke point, we need to ensure that we are more efficient. We must ensure that the APIs are integrated to our back-end systems, then we step out of the way and let the community come forward," he says.

Still, there are gaps to be plugged. The Smart Nation march has not touched mobile payments, for example. While there will be demand for it, implementation is not so straightforward, not only because of the kind of technology involved, but also because of the challenge in implementing it smoothly and securely.

'BIG HAIRY AUDACIOUS GOALS'

The Smart Nation initiative was launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with the aim of developing and deploying technology at the national level, to improve lives, create opportunities for the future and strengthen community togetherness. He appointed the tech-savvy Dr Balakrishnan as Minister-in-Charge. "I'm the runner for the Prime Minister," says Dr Balakrishnan.

To galvanise the smart city movement, a Smart Nation Programme Office (SNPO) was set up in the Prime Minister's Office, headed by civil servant Tan Kok Yam. This signalled to ministries and agencies that the initiative was vital for Singapore's continued growth.

The SNPO acts as a flag-bearer, nudging the public sector to create smart digital solutions. The more smart solutions that are created, the greater the velocity, and the Smart Nation movement can gather momentum.

The Smart Nation initiative is looking for "needle movers", the big innovations described by people as "BHAG" - big hairy audacious goals - that would push Singapore to the next level.

It is early days yet, says Mr Tan, and a leap of faith is needed. "It's almost like the swamp reclamation to build Jurong. Smart Nation is akin to Jurong. It may not be impressive but it is essential for our growth."

One measure of how well and how fast Singapore can build smart solutions rests squarely with the Government. Its facilitator is the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), which provides the technology know-how to assist and guide the public sector in developing its own smart solutions.

IDA drives the Digital Government, which is a key pillar of the Smart Nation initiative. It is doing this by building in-house software development capability, then mobile apps, and then "architecting" and developing bigger software systems to run larger projects.

About 120 specialists in data science, engineering, coding and other areas form the central team that undertakes product design and development work.

IDA assistant chief executive Chan Cheow Hoe says the team will be developing the Business Grants portal, which organises public-sector grants according to business needs at different phases of their growth.

First announced in this year's Budget, the portal addresses the issue businesses find time-consuming and challenging: finding the government grant that best suits them. This project cuts across various ministries and agencies and will be ready by the fourth quarter of this year.

Consultant Simon Giles, from ICT consulting firm Accenture, credits Singapore for being able to break down the silos represented by different agencies and ministries, and then proceed to integrate them to get smart services.

A city is only smart when you are able to co-relate data across dimension, he says. "It is where someone takes information from a mobility system and co-relates with meteorological info and derives some sort of insights to make a decision," says Mr Giles, who is managing director and industry lead for Global Cities at Accenture.

Indeed, Mr Tan notes that ultimately, the Government wants to make interaction with people frictionless, and because it knows the most about people here, it can anticipate their needs.

For example: Passport expiring? No need to apply for a new one, because the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore knows the expiry date and can send you a message with an icon on it.

Click on it and it means you need a new travel document, and it will be ready for you in a few days.

However, Accenture's Mr Giles feels that looking ahead, Singapore has lots more to do in the area of human-centred design, which is a creative approach to problem-solving. It starts with the customers and ends with solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs.

"Singapore needs to embed human-centred design, not only within government, but also among the private sector," he says.

For Dr Balakrishnan, implementation, data security and promoting local start-ups are challenges that need to be addressed. "Implementation of big projects must be rolled out that reach out across the whole of government. Local start-ups must be born global from day one. So, we must help them go overseas."

He says the Government must also ensure that people's personal data is protected, "otherwise no one will share their data with us".

In reality, medical records are already electronic. "But why can't we make it available to the relevant people?" he asks. The answer is security. Solve security and the other things will fall into place. But he adds that security is not trivial - it is hard to protect and defend data against cyber threats.

Looking ahead, the private sector also has to step up and play a greater role in developing smart solutions. The setting up of four corporate venture funds last week is a good development. The four, which received financial support from the National Research Foundation, are logistics provider YCH, agribusiness Wilmar International, real estate firm CapitaLand and local ICT firm DeClout.

Each of them can set up a $20 million corporate venture fund, with the NRF chipping in $10 million on a matching basis. They can use the money to fund start-ups to develop innovative smart solutions in logistics, homes and offices, and health.

Regulations have also to be re-thought. In past years, when information about businesses was hard to come by, it made sense to impose rules and check for compliance. But with analytics, errant firms can be pinpointed quickly and business practices tracked in real time. So, such regulation may amount to overkill.

Says Mr Tan: "We've to think a lot more about legislation. It should be used as a tool to enable tech adoption and create platforms."

For example, he wonders: Does Singapore require legislation for banks to offer a single payment system? It can be done but Singapore is an open economy and the Government is wary about intervening in business.

Looking at the sharing economy in the US, where services like Airbnb and Uber are gaining greater popularity, he asks if Singapore should also consider some regulation in this area.

"Do we need to take a look at labour laws, and do freelancers require legal protection?" he asks.

"All this is worth thinking through. But we shouldn't be so tight about our laws that any sharing economy service can't operate here. Fundamentally they create value - you call for a shared car that takes you from point to point, value has been created. We should ensure that there is a level playing field and leave the market to decide the winners."

As a small country, Singapore is on its way to being a Smart Nation.

Its work will never be done as new technologies emerge, new ideas and services become achievable, and fresh challenges appear.

But what is heartening is that IDA is rolling up its sleeves and getting its hands dirty again, being involved in the nitty-gritty of designing ICT systems and writing code.

As one part of IDA cuts over to the new GovTech Agency later this year, this in-depth technical "I-know-how-to-do-it" expertise will be crucial for its role as the chief information/technology officer for the Digital Government.

As everyone figures out how to roll out the smart services, it is worth remembering that the best measurement of success for any Smart Nation solution is when technology becomes invisible, and the service becomes natural to use.

chngkeg@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 22, 2016.
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