GovTech HIVE main room

In May 2017, Singapore GovTech and IMDA invited me on a press tour that aims at showcasing the best innovations driven by government agencies in Singapore.

Singapore has a long tradition of government-led initiatives when it comes to developing infrastructure or high-tech innovation, one of the most important and recent one is “Smart Nation” launched in 2014, probably inspired by the “Start-up Nation” a.k.a. Israel, a term coined by the book written in 2009 by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.

Our week-long visit to Singapore’s incubators and government-backed R&D facilities gave me a better sense of how Singapore lives up to its Smart Nation reputation.

On the first day, we paid a visit to the GovTech Hive, a building that houses GovTech’s Government Digital Services (GDS). The Government Digital Services is a team of over 150 experts in subject matters such as data science, artificial intelligence, user experience design, software engineering, geospatial tech, Internet of Things (IoT), and all things digital.

This article is quite long, see below a menu for you to navigate faster to the main paragraphs:

GovTech Hive: overview by the Government Chief Information Officer (CIO)
Demo 1 – OneService @SG
Demo 2 – myResponder
Demo 3 – Ask Jamie
GovTech’s Geospatial Specialist Office (GSO) – geospatial technology
Other demos
Q&A  with Chan Cheow Hoe, Government Chief Information Officer (CIO)

GovTech Hive: Overview by the Government Chief Information Officer (CIO)

When we entered the Hive, Mr. Chan Cheow Hoe welcomed us; he is the Government Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Deputy Chief Executive of GovTech. He was very passionate about the Hive, an initiative he promoted, and that officially launched in late October 2015. According to Mr. Chan, when he joined the government in 2014, he assembled a core team of 7 experts that grew to over 20 and now totals 150 people.

After spending over 20 years in the private sector, Mr. Chan Cheow Hoe had an “epiphany” three years ago and wanted to help his country’s innovation process, so to achieve that, in April 2014, he joined as Government CIO of Singapore. During a short speech, he explained the mission and the strategy of the GovTech Hive. See below an overview of his presentation, and I have added a Q&A with him at the end of this article, after the products and services demos.

From outsourced software development to in-house innovation

In the past, the government outsourced all its software development, and for Chan Cheow Hoe, “technology is not an enabler, technology is a very critical capability,” so the idea behind the push by the government was to build a highly capable innovation team, internally. And such a strategy can be cost-efficient if the team and the projects are well managed, a fact that obviously, I cannot check.

However, we know that the Government of Singapore is famous for its efficiency when it comes to public hygiene, public safety, high tech infrastructure management and high-speed connectivity innovation and development. From a western democracy point of view, all that brilliance comes with downsides, when strict enforcement and lack of privacy are involved.


Building an efficient transversal platform for software development to create products

According to the Deputy Chief Executive, the team was built from the ground up with diversity in mind, from the hard-core developer to the product designer, the social scientist, the psychologist or the game developers from Ubisoft. “Diversity is interesting, and we found that the best products are created by diverse teams,” said Chan Cheow Hoe. Well, I totally agree with the statement, since lots of surveys support the claim.

Then, he explained that the government had to “move away from agency projects to build products,” and the strategy to act as a hub aims to prevent the mistake to function with isolated agencies, hence “the Hive.”
The second goal of GovTech and the Hive is to develop the industry and help the digital transformation of the ecosystem, by leveraging close collaboration with vendors. The GDS team start on to develop an idea, and when the concept is more advanced, then the vendor can continue the project.


Efficient software development – moving away from the factory model

“(…) Software has gone from factory model to an intellectual model” meaning outsourcing the development to a huge team in Bangalore for example.
We had to move away from the factory model” the government cannot support thousands of developers here but “the government can support 200 people here in Singapore,” said Mr. Chan.

The Hive – first impressions

From what I heard from Mr. Chan Cheow Hoe, Government Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Deputy Chief Executive of GovTech, and the demos I saw (see below), it looks like Singapore puts a lot of effort to innovate as fast as a startup for the benefits of its citizens.

Overall, I was impressed by the high level of competency and the top professional backgrounds of the Singaporean government executives I met, including Mr. Chan.

Some of the digital services showcased here do not exist in my home city of San Francisco, although it is at the center of “innovation land a.k.a. Silicon Valley” with a huge municipal budget of $10 billion for less than 1 million inhabitants (to date 864K). By comparison, Singapore gets about S$75 billion, or $55.3 billion, and as a country must support much more departments than what a city has to, such as the military.

Demo 1 – OneService@SG

presented by Mr TI Jie Bo, Associate Consultant, Product Design & Development, GDS

Singapore has an international reputation for its perfect cleanliness, thanks to its strict policies regarding littering (find the information). As a foreign visitor, I highly appreciate the modernity, the diversity, the safety of the country, and the high standard of cleanliness.

The OneService@SG mobile app, developed by Hive for the Municipal Services Office (MSO), will take the efficiency of the country’s urban maintenance to the next level. TI Jie Bo, Associate Consultant, Product Design & Development, showed us a demo of OneService@SG, explaining how the service can help to detect overgrown trees, among other issues that can be reported by citizens in a few clicks. As displayed on the home screen (see photo) Singaporeans can report issues in the following categories: animals, pests, roads & footpaths, drinking water, drains & sewers, cleanliness, trees & greenery, construction sites, abandoned trolleys, others.

OneService@SG is a platform that offers residents the ability to easily provide feedback on municipal matters. Launched in January 2015 for iOS and Android, the platform rolled-out as a web portal in September 2016. According to Chan Cheow Hoe, Government Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Singapore, there are over 1.2 million calls placed to the police every, for a population of 5.6 million! OneService@SG aims to prevent people from calling the law enforcement for non-safety related queries.

All cases submitted are displayed on the Municipal Case Map accessible from both the mobile application and the web portal. (See photo)

According to Govtech, the mobile app is quite popular with over 49,000 cases submitted to date while the OneService portal had garnered over 40,000 cases since launch. The app acts as a one-stop digital shop for various municipal services, and remove the hassle to search for the right agency to contact. The goal is to be a “multichannel network that connects the Government and residents, as well as residents with one another.”

According to Mr. Chan, the application was developed in nine months using APIs to connect with the historical IT systems of the nine agencies that are providing services on OneService@SG.
If the information is correct, it looks like the Hive is acting as an efficient and innovative startup to create useful applications for the citizens of Singapore.

He added that the team takes great care to prevent the “vigilante” downside out of such a service. In fact, OneService@SG conveys a subtle feeling of “big brother is watching over the city,” however, in a time of global crisis for public budgets, such solutions can save a lot of resources and money.

Demo 2 – SCDF myResponder application –
(SCDF: Singapore Civil Defense Force)

presented by Ms Gina CHIANG, Associate Consultant, Digital Design & Development, GDS

Singapore has the lowest rate of cardiac arrest survival among developed cities in the world, approximately 12%, according to SDCF. The problem to solve in Singapore is the to intervene in less than 10 minutes, and, according to Ms. Gina CHIANG, Associate Consultant, Digital Design & Development, it is almost impossible due to the constant traffic jams in the city. By comparison, in the U.S., the survival rates are between 60% to less than 10%, depending on the location!

To address that critical issue, The Hive, in collaboration with SCDF (Singapore City Defense Force), developed the SDCF “myResponder” mobile application. The main goal is to create a network of expert responders. Usually, healthcare professionals, who can immediately intervene in case a cardiac arrest happens close to their location.

How myResponder works?

The SCDF myResponder app is available both for Android and iOS, as a free download from both app stores. According to SDCF, since February 2017, there have been over 39,000 downloads and, over 14,000 people have registered themselves as Community First Responders. Automated Externals Defibrillators (AED) have been placed on the island, and since March 2014, the Singapore Heart Foundation (SHF) and SCDF have created a database of AED locations in public spaces, and the data is accessible to the public via the SCDF myResponder app.

MyResponder’s geolocation features allow the SCDF Operations Center to locate a registered responder in a 400-meter radius and send him/her an alert. Then, in case the responder chooses to proceed, he or she accepts the alert and provides CPR or uses the closest available AED until the SCDF ambulance arrives.

MyResponder’s users can also alert SCDF of an incident via the app.
As of June 2017, more than 16,000 people have registered as users of the myResponder app, with over 8,500 successful activations (instances of public responding to cases). Those results are quite encouraging since it has been proven that involving the community in providing rapid quality care saves lives.

Demo 3 – Singapore Virtual Assistant Ask Jamie (video)

presented by Ms. Gladys TAY, Deputy Director, Citizen Products, GDS

GovTech aims to make Singapore citizens and residents’ life easier when it comes to navigating government services. Using a Natural Language Processing engine and chatbots to provide an efficient Virtual Assistant is certainly the best way to help people find what they need! I wish my city of San Francisco – which is at the edge of the Silicon Valley – could do the same.
Ask Jamie, the virtual assistant developed in collaboration with the Hive, has been implemented in more than 30 government agency websites, including the Ministry of Education, Singapore Land Authority, and the Municipal Service Office.
Ask Jamie can retrieve an information from a different agency than the one where the question was asked since the virtual assistant engine is shared across thirty government websites.

The ability to retrieve information without knowing which agency to go to is certainly the best feature: it saves a lot of time for both the government’s agents and the users.

There is a live chat option to continue the virtual conversation with a real person as well, and Ask Jamie is available on the popular messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger, Skype, and Telegram.

GovTech’s Geospatial Specialist Office (GSO) – geospatial technology

presented by Mr. Ronnie LEE, Deputy Director, Geospatial Specialist Office

Mr. Ronnie LEE, Deputy Director, Geospatial Specialist Office

The Geospatial Specialist Office, a team of scientists that works with various government agencies to deliver location-based services using Geographic Information Technology, performed the last presentation.

The presenters explained in detail how important it is to develop a standard, in order to accurately represent the city in 3D, with metadata attached to each object and location. In my opinion, this is the future of IoT, where each sensor and connected object will be accurately and visually monitored. A few days later we were invited to a Virtual Singapore presentation in the Dassault System office in Singapore.

Other demos and presentations:

The User Experience and Behavioral Insights team showed us how they use an eye-tracking based software to improve the User Experience of the digital services developed at the Hive.

MyInfo is a practical application that allows citizens to provide their information only once to the Government instead of doing it every time they interact with a public digital service. See below how it looks like in the gallery.

We got a demo of the Business Grants Portal that gives access to aggregated and complex property information, in a compelling way. See below how it looks like in the gallery.

The Data Science team presented us their work and showcased a few uses cases.  One use case aims to understand which topics are debated the most by the citizens; another tries to decipher the key factors which impact the economy.

DataScience presentation at the govTech hive

Q&A with Chan Cheow Hoe, Government Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Deputy Chief Executive of GovTech

Can you provide a brief overview of your background before becoming Singapore’s CIO? 

I started out in the private sector, mainly working with financial institutions such as Citibank and Barclays as well as consulting firms like EY on a large-scale IT systems, and now have over two decades of experience in overseeing organization-wide IT development. I joined the Singapore government in April 2014.


Can you explain what the GovTech Hive is?

The Hive – occupying two levels – houses GovTech’s Government Digital Services (GDS) unit, which is a multidisciplinary and diverse group of software developers, data scientists, geospatial engineers, UI/UX designers and Internet of Things engineers.


What is the primary goal of the GovTech Hive?

Our primary goal is to develop and refine Singapore’s digital government services by first building the internal digital capabilities within the government in fields such as data science, software development, and IoT engineering, etc.

What are The Hive’s top achievements regarding the improvement of the efficiency of government services?

The Hive focuses on innovative whole-of-government platforms that transform the government’s interactions with citizens and businesses. A recent example would be the Business Grants Portal, a one-stop platform for businesses to tap into the various government grants available. It is based on a user-centric design, cutting out all the usual “friction” associated with dealing with the government.

I’m also proud of some of the apps we’ve deployed, including myResponder, which alerts volunteers to nearby emergency cases reported to the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). It takes a different approach to emergency response, beyond just deploying more ambulances. We’ve also guided government agencies to think deeply about their issues and pain points, before deciding if an app is even the solution. The key is to fundamentally reevaluate the existing operating model and data, technology and design to solve significant problems. This has definitely led to greater efficiency and impact through a host of digital services.

What services is The Hive working to improve in the next two years?

We are exploring new ways to enhance the delivery of digital government services so they anticipate citizens’ needs at key moments in their lives, such as childbirth, children starting school, buying a home, etc. The Government Digital Services unit is also working with other government agencies and GovTech units to build digital platforms that support Singapore’s Smart Nation mission.

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