Committee of Supply (COS) Debates 2019

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SPEECH BY DR JANIL PUTHUCHEARY

MINISTER-IN-CHARGE OF GOVTECH

COMMITTEE OF SUPPLY 2019

28 FEB 2019

 

1. Mr Chairman, I’ll make no assumptions about which derivative geek I am. But if I may follow on from Minister Vivian’s rallying cry for all of us to become involved in Singapore’s Smart Nation ambition, the Government cannot make this happen alone, cannot make this happen through force of will, by wishing it, by making speeches. We need the ideas and the capabilities of our people and businesses. As a nation, everyone needs to be part of our Smart Nation journey.

 

2. We do not have a monopoly on the best ideas and talent, and we need to create opportunities for citizens, community partners and businesses to contribute meaningfully to Smart Nation.

 

3. Members (Mr Teo Ser Luck and Mr Vikram Nair) have asked about partnerships between government, businesses and the tech community.

 

4. One of the ways we are facilitating greater partnerships from businesses, is through building something we call CODEX, which stands for Core Operations, Development Environment and Exchange, which is a shared digital backbone, part of which is the Singapore Government Tech Stack. This can be used to build applications and digital services. CODEX will be modular, interoperable, and will, in the future, allow an interface to parties outside of the Government.

 

5. As part of CODEX, we are working with public agencies to shift their ICT systems towards the commercial cloud. So government systems, public agency systems, on the commercial cloud - this will allow us to benefit from leading-edge private sector capabilities, to build products and services better for our citizens.

 

6. We are also actively involving the tech community. One example is a mobile application called “Kill The Queue”, which allows shoppers to save time by scanning and paying for items through their mobile phones, as they shop. This app was conceptualised by a team of GovTech engineers, but they then partnered students from Temasek Polytechnic to build a prototype, as part of the students’ final year project. This partnership also allows students to improve their skills through solving real-world challenges. So, partnerships through businesses by looking at how Government-built platforms and products can be interoperable and can create opportunities for businesses to interface with; [and] ideas that we can seed out into the students and the academic community, so that they can run with them and try to develop real-world solutions.

 

7. Members will have heard of “Developer’s Conferences” or DevCons. These are usually organised by tech companies, such as Apple, Google or Facebook and they are done to engage engineers and the tech business communities to leverage upon the product or the platform owned by that company. So, we might have an Apple iOS Developer’s Conference, or a Facebook Developer’s Conference, where time is given for software developers and businesses to think about how they can utilise their product better, for their own business purposes, and how their feedback then improves the product or the person running the Developer’s Conference. To facilitate greater collaboration with the community, and to look ahead to how the private sector can build products that layer onto or interface with our Smart Nation platforms, we organised our first ever Developer’s Conference, GovTech STACK DevCon 2018. I have yet to comprehensively verify this, so a bit of a caveat that I have not received evidence to the contrary, but I believe so far, this is the first and only Government-driven Developer’s Conference. This event attracted over 1200 attendees from the private sector, government, public sector, tech community.

 

8. Separately, we also support hackathons. Members may have heard of hackathons. So the difference between a DevCon, a Developer’s Conference and a hackathon, is that in a Developer’s Conference, the person organising it has a product, has a solution, has a platform, and wants to ask the community how to do things better using this product - how to make the product better for you. At a hackathon, the participants are generating ideas to solve the problems that they are concerned about. And the Government also supports this. This provides platforms for the tech community to come together, learn from each other, ideate and build products. And we have supported hackathons such as the Startup Weekend Singapore Mega 2018, and the “Smart City Challenge”, which was jointly organised by DBS, GovTech and SUTD.

 

9. We are extending these outreach efforts beyond the tech community, because we need a Smart Nation that benefits all citizens, from all walks of life.

 

10. And we are actively engaging citizens on Smart Nation initiatives through a project called Smart Nation Co-Creating with our People Everywhere (SCOPE).

 

11. SCOPE is a platform for us to bring out early prototypes of our digital products or ideas to citizens. So one example that Minister Vivian quoted was the Personal Alert Button. Very early on in its design phase, in its conceptualization phase, just as soon as we had something physical, we encouraged the participants to play with these products, to try them out, to test them, and their feedback is used to improve our product developmental process. This is something very common in the private sector, but now we are starting to use these techniques in developing our public sector Smart Nation solutions.

 

12. We’ve had a series of engagements over 4 months, at Senior Activity Centres, Grassroots events, and NTUC Events. Reaching out in this way to over 3500 citizens, we have collected many useful insights and suggestions.

 

13. One example of these insights is how receptive seniors are to active ageing services within the Moments of Life application. On our preliminary findings, the majority of seniors aged 60 and above have smartphones, and are open to the idea of using digital services. They also gave feedback about how to design the application in an easy-to-use manner, and how to provide support and coaching to seniors so that they can use these apps and benefit from these services. All of this will help us to develop and deliver a better product, better services and better experiences.

 

14. We will continue to scale up these efforts. To enable more Singaporeans, from different walks of life to contribute to Smart Nation, we will be signing an MOU with NTUC to further engage workers and their families, to help them make the most of new jobs and new opportunities.

 

15. I agree with Madam Rahayu Mahzam1, that even as we move ahead in building Smart Nation, we need to ensure that this Smart Nation includes and benefits all Singaporeans.

 

16. We are committed to Digital Inclusion and Digital Readiness, so that everyone is able to access these opportunities that technology creates. I will speak more about these broader Digital Readiness efforts in my MCI speech, but SNDGG will play our part, by ensuring that all Government digital services are designed to benefit all.

 

17. As part of these efforts by Government to improve the usability of our websites, we have developed a set of Digital Service Standards (DSS) for Government agencies.

 

18. For example, HDB’s website, MyNiceHome, is a portal that provides first-time homeowners with useful information about buying and renovating a flat, and this has been completely redesigned. The site has been made mobile responsive, and different forms of search and assistance have been added, and the content has been made accessible to people with disabilities. And as a result, the site traffic has increased significantly.

 

19. Ms Sylvia Lim2 has asked about data protection within the public sector.

 

20. The Government should indeed be held to high standards for the protection of the data it collects. In SNDGG, our role is not just about delivering good products, but also in setting and maintaining high standards of data protection for the public sector.

 

21. The Government has progressively enhanced security measures to safeguard sensitive data. We introduced the Internet Surfing Separation policy in 2016, and the disabling of USB ports from being accessed by unauthorised devices in 2017. We have also increased the number and type of internal IT audits, to check on agencies’ data access and data protection measures. As a matter of practice, agencies will use identifiable data only when necessary, such as for providing personalised services.

 

22. We will continually review our standards and measures, and will incorporate these lessons learnt and industry’s best practices. For example, we will be progressively automating user and account management to ensure tight and robust access control.

 

23. Where citizens suspect that their data have been misused or hacked, they can lodge a complaint with the agency, and if there’s any suspicion of a crime, they can make a report to the Police or they can contact GovTech directly. We have guidelines for the handling of data, and protocols that should be in place. Complaints will be thoroughly investigated, and appropriate action taken. And on top of that, if there are other issues or consequences as a result of that, we would like to discuss the ways we can help and support them.

 

24. To build our Smart Nation platforms and products, to engage the tech community and businesses, to develop and enforce rigorous standards across the public sector, and to create jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans, we will need to build up a strong core of engineering skills. We have been searching for engineering talent to join us. We are looking for people with bright minds, an eye for computational design, and the drive to contribute to society. There are exciting opportunities for engineers in Government.

 

25. And I’d like to cite a particular example, Ms Laura Lee. Members may or may not be familiar with Ms Lee’s first employer, King.com, which is a software developer. I suspect some members may be more familiar with one of their products, which is Candy Crush. While Ms Lee was working with King.com, helping Candy Crush become one of the best-selling games of all time, she read about how data was used by GovTech engineers to resolve the spate of mysterious disruptions to the Circle Line in 2016. So reading about that effort, by our data scientists to solve these real world problems, Ms Lee was inspired to come back home to Singapore and join us. Now she is currently a Data Scientist with GovTech, working to improve Government digital services, such as transport route planning and jobs matching. Like many of our engineers, she also pursues other projects as part of her personal professional development within the team. And currently she is part of a team that is trying to find ways to use technology, machine learning and our Smart Nation platforms to encourage more recycling. This is something that she initiated as part of a hackathon that she participated in, using her skills to pursue something that matters to her.

 

26. Ms Lee did not graduate with a computer science degree. Her training was in Mathematics, Economics and Statistics. While at university, in order to pursue one of the courses that she had, she had to learn R, which is a programming language focused on statistics, and her ability to use R to solve the problems and apply the solutions to what she was working on sparked her interest in coding and data science. So today, she is familiar with a variety of coding languages (Python, CSS, Javascript and HTML) and all of these she picked up after starting work. So, recently she’s developed a full-stack web application as part of an internal hackathon project.

 

27. And the point I want to make with this, what Ms Lee’s story demonstrates, and there are many others like her, the experience that they have demonstrates that the opportunities created in Smart Nation are not just for a handful of people, not just for a few. We are hoping to make them as widespread as possible, including the jobs that are created. It’s not just for those students who are currently pursuing a Computer Science courses, or participating in Robotics as a CCA. Ms Lee’s CCAs, by the way, were Hockey and Student Council. It is not necessary to have picked up all the programming skills before leaving school. What’s important is to have the drive, the curiosity and the willingness to pick up new skills, throughout our lives.

 

28. Smart Nation is a national effort, and we in the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group will do our part to work closely with citizens and businesses, to create jobs, opportunities, and a sense of transformation and optimism for next generation of Singaporeans. Thank you, Mr Chairman.

 

 

1 Cut by Rahayu Mahzam on Smart Nation and Digital Inclusion

2 Cut by Sylvia Lim on the role of GovTech in setting and monitoring standards of data protection within the public sector, the common baselines for public agencies in handling and protecting personal data collected, and what recourse citizens have, should their personal data collected by public agencies be hacked or misused.

 

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Last updated on 10 Jul 2019