The power of the community
When the Singapore government recently decided to use intelligent digital assistants — aka chatbots — to handle routine questions from the public, it did not turn to a huge multinational company to set them up.
Instead, it hired a tiny local startup, which handily implemented the chatbots in two government agencies within three months — at a fraction of the price a big company would have asked for.
“It’s not about the size of the company — it’s about getting the best solution for the purpose,” said Mr Chan Cheow Hoe, GovTech’s Deputy Chief Executive and Government Chief Information Officer, who related this anecdote during his keynote address at the FOSSASIA Summit on 17 March 2017.
“The whole idea we are pushing forward is building communities,” added Mr Chan. “Things have changed a lot, and I see a lot of opportunities for individuals or small groups to contribute.”
FOSSASIA is a non-profit organisation that supports the free and open source technology community, and runs the annual Summit. At the same conference session, Mr Harish Pillay of the Internet Society and Dr Lim Tit Meng, chief executive of Science Centre Singapore, also spoke about the impact that artificial intelligence would have on society.
A Community of Hive minds
Traditionally, the government has outsourced its technology projects; as a result, when Mr Chan joined the public sector less than three years ago, he found that it had no digital capabilities of its own.
“I realised that we didn’t build anything. Everybody called themselves a technologist, but we actually didn’t know much about technology,” he said. “When you outsource everything, you also outsource capabilities.”
This, Mr Chan and his colleagues decided, did not bode well for a government that was looking to move forward into the digital age.
To remedy this, Mr Chan tracked down several people who were working on small technology projects, and gathered them together. “They were really afraid because they thought I was going to shut them down,” he said.
“Instead, I told them that they would form the kernel of Government Digital Services (GDS).”
This was the start of the GovTech Hive, which today is the home base for a 150-person GDS team based in the Sandcrawler building at One-North.
There, a multidisciplinary team of data scientists, software developers, user experience design experts and infrastructure architects work on public sector technology projects, ranging from building apps to developing entire agile systems.
“We went from literally zero to where we are today: building core digital capabilities within government,” said Mr Chan.
“Most people thought it was not possible in the beginning, but it’s happening.”
Balik to the digital kampung
In addition to growing these skills within government, Mr Chan’s team also recognised the importance of building a wider digital ecosystem in Singapore.
A key aspect of this is the concept of a digital kampung or village, where ordinary citizens are involved in the use of technology, to address social problems.
One such initiative arose out of a collaboration with the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), which was trying to get ambulances to reach cardiac arrest patients faster.
But its efforts were hitting a wall — no matter how many ambulances were made available, heavy traffic limited improvements in their response times.
Deciding on a different tack, the GovTech and SCDF teams built myResponder, a crowd-sourcing app for life-savers.
“Anyone who has medical training — whether you’re a doctor, nurse, paramedic or Red Cross member — can enroll as a volunteer in this app,” explained Mr Chan. “If an emergency situation happens within a 400-metre radius, you get a notification on your phone and you can choose to respond.”
After two years in operation, the app has enrolled some 14,000 volunteers, who have helped in many emergency situations.
“This is a very different way of looking at government. It’s not about the government providing more ambulances — it’s really about our ability to get people together, to build a community,” said Mr Chan.
“The digital community is a lot more powerful than most people would have anticipated.”
Levelling up smaller players
Another important aspect of the digital ecosystem, said Mr Chan, is for the Government to engage smaller companies and even individuals.
To this end, GovTech’s InnoLeap programme runs sharing sessions to connect startups and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with public sector agencies; at these sessions, agencies present the issues they want to address, and companies are invited to pitch their solutions.
“We were able to do proof-of-concepts and pilots, and went live with many projects,” said Mr Chan. “These are not huge projects, but they allow the community to participate and help solve problems.”
To further engage the developer community, GovTech has also launched govBuy, a marketplace where government agencies can outsource microservices or small pieces of code to small companies or freelancers, who bid for projects in a reverse auction.
This frees up government teams to do more critical work, and eliminates the need for tedious procurement processes. At the same time, it also helps to build practical experience and talent in the wider tech community.
The Government, said Mr Chan, is keen to help give small companies a leg up.
“It’s not just about buying from big companies, but also about giving small companies the opportunity to be successful and scale up,” he told the audience.
“I think the open source community can make a huge contribution to Government in the future.”