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Time for government agencies to be citizen-centric in Singapore’s smart nation push

March 29th, 2017 | by Alfred Siew
Time for government agencies to be citizen-centric in Singapore’s smart nation push
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Singapore skyline on February 5, 2017. PHOTO: Alfred Siew

When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last month that Singapore could do more in its ambitions to be a smart nation, it was a rare admission that the big bet on the city-state’s future needed some changes.

In a frank exchange with folks at a tech summit, he said: “I think personally that for all our pushing, we really are not going as fast we ought to.”

So today, the announcement came that some 10,000 public servants will undergo training in data science. The tie-up between the government and the National University of Singapore will enable participants to better use digital tools and data to deliver services to citizens.

This is a positive move by all measures. It is also an implicit admission that perhaps the rank and file in the public service haven’t moved as fast as they could have.

PM Lee talked about a national sensor network that integrated the data fed its way. Pictures from traffic police cameras as well as those from the water authorities can be pulled together to provide an integrated image, he said.

That cannot happen unless various government agencies, each with their own sensor or camera networks, come together and share data. This integrated approach is still a pipe dream, according to an illuminating article in The Straits Times last week.

Perhaps it is time to have a different approach to the smart nation efforts in Singapore. Since the unveiling of the ambitious plans three years ago, this top-down push to develop more technologies and smart projects has neglected what’s most important – the citizen.

Yes, the aim of a smart nation is also to spur innovation we can export, or create jobs more resistant to shifting economic winds. But first, it has to work for the citizen and truly transform his life. How has this worked out so far?

The Straits Times report has an interesting anecdote. Seniors who were given sensors in their homes to track their activities used towels to cover them up. The reason – they would like you to respect their privacy and independence, thank you.

In pushing for more sensors to be installed, new data to be collected and analysed, and supposedly better decisions to be made for public policies, the most important party – the user – should be central to any new smart project.

Did the elderly users appreciate what the sensors could do? Were they convinced they could help caregivers come to their aid, in the event of a fall? They had to buy in to the project.

Indeed, citizens have to be more involved in smart projects, from new traffic sensors to home sensors that track the elderly. Instead of setting the goals for a project before approaching the users, why not ask them what problems they are facing before using the technologies to solve them?

The lesson from Europe is interesting. In Copenhagen, for example, about 1,000 citizens are voluntarily placing sensors on their bicycles each day as they ride to work, so that they can provide a better idea of the road situation and air quality they face.

With that data, government planners can decide which roads to straighten or expand to offer bikers safer and better travel each day. The air quality information they collect along the way is shared with other citizens so they can decide where to have a jog, for example.

The reason why such a project has buy-in is because citizens were consulted early and they understand why their anonymised data is useful. The city also has a common goal – it wants to be carbon neutral.

What is Singapore’s common goal? Is there one that can inspire citizens to willingly strap on a sensor or share data that would help themselves and fellow citizens? Perhaps to alleviate traffic jams? That would be a worthy cause. Or to find the best routes to bike to work each day?

After pushing hard for big rollouts in the past three years, it is time for the government to involve citizens early in smart projects in the future. One agency, GovTech, which leads the government effort to digitise e-services, is doing that with regular conversations with users.

It’s no wonder it will come under the Prime Minister’s Office in May. That would give it more clout when urging other government agencies to be more citizen-centric. The rest of the public service has to adopt this approach if the smart nation vision is to be realised.

Related to this is the protection of private citizens’ data. Citizens have to know their data is protected. How that data is used has to be transparent as well. It is not good enough for the government to say “trust us”.

PM Lee spoke of a digital ID that would make it easy for citizens to transact online. Citizens have to be clear how this information is handled and used.

It is time the government communicated this clearly to citizens. Just as it mandates that the private sector has to have measures to protect personal data, it has to be clear how it carries out the even greater task of protecting citizen information in a smart nation.

How else can it win trust from people?

From time to time, breaches will occur and mistakes are made. Just last month, an army training centre inadvertently published the IC numbers and photos of national service recruits online.

What happens if such an incident happens again? Surely, data breaches cannot be just brushed aside. It’s time each government agency showed the steps it will take after each lapse. Trust is earned even if mistakes occur – and they will occur.

Ultimately, there has to be an acceptance that not all smart projects will work out. There’s a saying that you have to fail often and fail early to find the answer. In a smart nation, this has to be the working assumption.

So, expect many projects to be rejected by citizens. Perhaps only a handful out of dozens will grow into truly transformative services that make a real difference. If that happens in the next three years, that would be success.

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