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Smart Cities Are More Pragmatism than Pure Invention, Singapore CIO Says

Singapore CIO Chan Cheow Hoe reveals the aspirations and strategies within the city-state's aggressive smart city initiatives.

SAN FRANCISCO — If there was a quintessential centerpiece of smart city ingenuity, Singapore might be it. The city-state, with its diverse population of about 5.6 million residents, has been active since the beginning of the smart city movement a few decades ago. Singapore started with big data and analytics to extend smart city advancements into its core infrastructure. The city has plugged into energy and sustainable buildings, and analytics programs that can forecast traffic jams; it closely monitors waste and looks for new ways to adapt the latest technology into civic services. Fueling the use of technology is the nation’s need to maximize use of its roughly 427 square miles and its sizable population.

Future prospects are equally head-turning. As part of its Smart Nation initiative, a program meant to slingshot state technologies forward, Singapore's aspirations include one of the most sprawling sensor and camera networks ever deployed in a city. The sensors will enhance how the city monitors vehicle traffic, weather patterns and pedestrian movement, and even act as litter detectors to ensure cleanliness. What’s more, the data will be streamed into an architecturally accurate map called Virtual Singapore. The city map will offer officials real-time intelligence during emergency situations and data about infrastructure for construction projects.

At the center of this endeavor is Singapore’s Government CIO Chan Cheow Hoe. Chan has been tasked with being a guiding hand to implement, or offer guidance, on the various initiatives. In addition to the aformentioned projects, he has directed a refresh of Singapore’s open data portal and overseen a number of apps. These include Beeline, an app for citizens without easy access to public transportation to crowdsource their bus routes; Ask Jamie, a chatbot that answers queries on government websites; MyResponder, an alert system for registered volunteer medical providers about incidents of heart attack for first aid before an ambulance arrives; and OneService, a non-emergency service app that — like many 311 apps U.S. cities have introduced in recent years — enables residents to report municipal issues to service departments.

While visiting the U.S. for San Francisco's Bridge SF event, Chan spoke with Government Technology, offering his thoughts and candid insights about everything from procurement and data to cybersecurity and civic tech. Notwithstanding Singapore’s sizable investments in smart city technologies, his responses were warmly pragmatic. Chan stressed that invention alone is no indicator of outcomes, and the real driver of Singapore’s progressive achievements wasn’t about hunting for novel solutions, but optimizing the resources the country already had — things like infrasturcutre, data, and citizen and private-sector support.

Here are a few of his comments (which have been edited for length and clarity) from the interview.

Government Technology: In previous talks, you’ve mentioned that Singapore’s strategy toward efficient government is not only about improving the interactions it has with citizens, but also about reducing the number of unnecessary interactions and transactions. One example of this, of course, is automated tax filings for citizens with simple tax returns. How has the country applied this concept in other ways?

Singapore Government CIO Chan Cheow Hoe: Once you start looking at a citizen as a customer, a couple of things change. First of all, you look from what we call the outside in. Today, many governments look from the inside out. That is, this department in the government will do this, that department will do that. It's very department-centric. When you look from the outside in, you look at services from the eyes of a citizen. As far as the citizen is concerned, he doesn’t care whether it's done by five departments or one department — he just wants the problem solved.

With this kind of approach, all of a sudden it changes the mindset. I will give you a very simple example. One of the biggest difficulties about working with government, from the citizen’s perspective, is to be able make a complaint or report a problem. It's very difficult; if you have an issue, a municipal issue, for example like maybe a fallen tree somewhere or a dead animal needing disposal, you always ask yourself, “Who do I call?”

There are so many departments in government and they are all responsible for different things. A lot of times when you call someone they will say, “Oh, it's not my problem. Call the Department of Agriculture,” then when you call the Department of Agriculture they say, “No, no, call the Department of Transportation.” You get tossed around. It's because of the heterogeneous nature of government, the many departments.

We said, “Okay, let's look at it from the outside in.” The citizen has a problem, can we just make an app for them to communicate with us? So we created a “complaints app,” in a sense. It became this thing called OneService. It's like a 311 app in some ways. It categorizes itself into many categories, like pest control, drinking water, drainage and sewers, etc. Then when you click on any one of these buttons, what it does is allow you to photograph the thing and geolocate the problem. An algorithm then figures out where this request goes, routing you to the right department.

GT: Now it’s no secret that Singapore has invested heavily in smart city technologies over the years, while other localities are still in the first stages of such endeavors. In the U.S. many CIOs — whether city, state or federal — say that much of their budgets are spent maintaining outdated legacy IT systems. It’s a problem that’s hindered efforts to move certain infrastructure to the cloud or to innovate services. While there might be no easy answer to this challenge, how has Singapore been able to target its financial IT resources toward innovation and smart growth?

Chan: When I first came in from the private sector, one of the things that we changed dramatically was our technology architecture. Since many of the systems government uses are legacy systems, when you try to modernize these whole systems it is impossible. It costs a lot of money, the disruption of services is just humongous and it takes years to make it happen. What do you do about it? Well, what we did was that we started splitting up what we call our system of records with the system of engagement. What we did was we made the legacy system just a simple system of records. We shut off the front end and we essentially built a funnel on top of it.

That strategy has helped a lot, because what it did is allow us to be very agile in terms of building great customer experience on the front end — without touching the whole legacy system. It decreases the need for the legacy systems significantly,and over a period of time allows resources to be dedicated to the customer experience.

GT: It might be observed that a unique difference between the U.S. and Singapore is a culture where citizens are more receptive to sharing their personal data with the government in exchange for enhanced services and efficiency. In the U.S., citizens are a little more reticent yet are still making the same kinds of exchanges, but with companies like Google, for directions in Google Maps, or Facebook for an enriched social experience, or through financial apps like Mint for better financial management. How has Singapore cultivated this kind of relationship between government and citizens? 

Chan: You mentioned something quite interesting, because one of the big things that we are trying to do right now is to continue to build that relationship of trust with the citizen. It's quite interesting, because actually if you look at most governments, most governments don’t really have a relationship with individual citizens; they have a relationship on a very broad basis.

What we are trying to do is, through digital IDs, build this relationship with the citizen. You talked about data — the funny thing is that the [U.S.] government actually has a lot of data on you. They know your tax returns, your DMV data; they have a whole bunch of stuff. The problem is that most government agencies can't integrate this; you have something very bizarre, it's all siloed.

For example, if you go to the DMV today, you’ve got to fill out a form with your data, but actually, most of this data the government has already. It’s in the Social Security office, other agencies, etc., etc. What we’ve done is we tried to pool the data together and we started this thing called MyInfo. What MyInfo does is it pulls verified data of you as a citizen from various departments and we put it all together for other departments to use.

This data doesn’t belong to the government — the data still belongs to you as an individual — but you have the right to consent to give that data to somebody else. For example, when you go to a government department there might be a form with 16 fields to fill in. Instead of writing everything out you can say, “No, I'm going to invoke MyInfo and I'm going to pre-populate this government form with all the data I already have from the government.”

The beauty of this is that the data came from its source, which means it's verified. Instead of you bringing your ID card and everything to show these things, you don’t have to do these unnecessary transactions anymore because the data is pulled directly.

Even now, we are trying to do the same thing with the banks to do what they call Electronic Know Your Customer (EKYC).  In the past, to open a bank account, you had to bring your IDs and certificates and all that stuff. Today, you don’t really have to because a citizen can give the data from the government to the bank based on your consent and request, and it’s all  verified.

Yet to achieve such things the whole idea is to first establish a relationship, as we mentioned, and a point of trust between government and the people. The second thing — that I think is very important — is the concept of what we call “frictionless” government. What we are trying to do is to take out all this unnecessary friction as much as possible, and this goes back to the customer experience. You really want a seamless customer experience when you are dealing with government instead of having to go through all the friction just to get one small little thing done. These are all the basic concepts, and technology is doing that.

GT: Now, looking at open data; I know you recently modernized the Singapore open data portal. One of the biggest issues with open data — and many government officials want to know this — is how to identify the most valuable data sets to open. How did Singapore identify its high-value data sets?

Chan: Government has its own Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). And it's quite interesting, because about three years ago the KPI for open data was just how many data sets you could put out there for the public. All of a sudden everybody went ballistic and said, “Okay, let's put everything out there.” The problem is that the quantity doesn’t solve any problem. Most of the data sets are horrible because data is dirty, it's not machine readable. Some guys will put up like 50 PDF forms, and citizens would say, “Who cares?”

Then the other problem is that you realize a lot of people don’t care about that data that’s being put up, but everyone pats himself on the back and says, “I've got 100,000 data sets out there,” yet nobody uses them.

About a year and a half back we sat down and said, “No, this is bulls—t,” so we actually took down the old site and we rebuilt a new site and we had those two sites in parallel.

The new one we called Here, we cleaned up a lot of stuff and we found those data sets that are constantly being asked for. Then we moved away, more and more away, from the so-called pure static data to APIs. I think that process is extremely important because it allows people to actually use the data, and now we track it very closely.

When we start availing new data sets onto the site, we track usage, we track what you call, what people do with the data itself, and all of a sudden those that don’t make sense to maintain we just take it out. You notice that the number of data sets have shrunk significantly, but we know that these are the ones that people will make use of. Pulling out good quality data sets is not free; it costs money, especially when it's API-driven. Under these realities, we had to make sure that our investment is spent wisely. We actually monitor with a dashboard, the data usage quite significantly: what's downloaded, what's not downloaded, how are people using it, whether our own people are using it in the first place. If it's not, we take it out.

GT: With the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), and more items and infrastructure connected online, there is a pressing concern for governments to protect these online systems from being hacked. How is Singapore handling cybersecurity for its IoT projects and other IT systems in general?

Chan: There are solutions, but most of the solutions are still being invented, so I believe people are still trying to figure out the which IoT services to protect and the specific cybersecurity around them. I'm involved quite a fair bit in these things, but seriously, it's tough. The need for cybersecurity becomes so pervasive that it's hard to control; you can't control it, that’s the problem. It just mushrooms everywhere. The thing is that many IoT devices are not built for security. That’s the underlying problem. You buy a PC or another traditional device and there's anti-virus solutions available. For an IoT device nothing is built in there. It's easily connected and it's just meant to be connected to interpret data. That’s it.

Most of them are connected to home routers and to hack a home router is piece of cake; most people can do it. What results is that these are really impending problems that are going to blow up one day if we are not careful; we've just got to find a way around it. Frankly speaking, I don’t have an answer to it, nobody has an answer to it, and if people tell you they have they are a liars.

Cybersecurity is a big issue that we are all concerned about. I think many of us have reached a point where we know that it's impossible to stop cybersecurity problems. The question is, where do you dedicate your effort? Really, it costs money; it's not cheap to do all these programs.

The question for us now is really about categorizing systems. There are highly secure systems we will spend a lot of money protecting. For the rest, it is what it is. If something happens to it we are just going to accept the risk and move on, as long as the risk is not so big that it actually cripples certain critical services in the country. This is a very measured risk acceptance attitude towards cybersecurity.

GT: When collaborating with the international community on issues of civic tech or smart city innovation, is there a unifying solution that might be more pervasive than others? Or does some aspect of Singapore’s innovation initiatives resonate more broadly?

Chan: We do host a lot of international visitors actually. In fact, before I came, I just hosted Hirofumi Yoshimura, the mayor of Osaka, from Japan. I think we are all, again, searching for practical solutions to real problems. I think that the days of just talking about technology for the sake of technology is over.

There are a lot of people out there; let's be honest, that talk about the newest technology, but there’s so much hoopla behind it — it's just amazing. The ability to distill this down to things that work is really a skill. It's an art rather than a science, but more importantly it's to really understand some of the common problems we all have and how each one of us have pushed to solving these problems.

I think it's always interesting, because when visitors come we will tell them our point of view and they will say, “Wow, that’s interesting, that’s a different way of solving the problem that we have as well,” and they will tell us of their solutions and it could be totally different. Sometimes one is better than the other, sometimes there are just many ways to solve a problem, and there's nothing wrong with that. We just try to be very practical. That’s what we do.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.