Giving back from the US to Singapore – Tech for Public Good

When the coronavirus pandemic struck earlier this year, an extraordinary volunteering movement started. From 10,000 miles away, SGN’s community in the US stepped up in many ways to help Singapore battle the COVID-19 crisis. For Part 1 of this two-part series, we shine our spotlight on how the tech community leveraged innovation, creativity, user experience, and teamwork to address COVID-19.

2 July 2020 / By SGN

When the coronavirus pandemic struck earlier this year, an extraordinary volunteering movement started. From 10,000 miles away, SGN’s community in the US stepped up in many ways to help Singapore battle the COVID-19 crisis. For Part 1 of this two-part series, we shine our spotlight on how the tech community leveraged innovation, creativity, user experience, and teamwork to address COVID-19.

In May, Singapore’s GovTech organised a Covid-19 Idea Sprint to crowdsource tech solutions globally to battle the pandemic. The campaign received 73 submissions from more than 300 participants, including SGN members in the U.S. with tech and engineering expertise. We had the privilege of speaking with a few GovTech project volunteers, Frank Chen, Foo Ji-Haw and James Yong about their motivations, challenges, and insights from giving back.


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Frank Chen, Senior Software Engineer, Google (Based in Mountain View, CA)

Frank volunteered with GovTech’s FormSG team. He worked on features to allow submission of large attachments with end-to-end encryption. He also worked on allowing drafts to be saved so that users do not need to fill in long forms in one sitting.

1. What motivated you to volunteer for this project?

I work for Google and employees are encouraged to bring their passion and engineering expertise together to help people and society. During the shelter-in-place, I found myself with a more flexible WFH schedule, so I decided to use the time and my skills to give back to Singapore.

2. What was the most challenging part?

At GovTech, the standards required for keeping data secure are different since the platforms are dealing with potentially sensitive data submissions to the government while running on third-party infrastructure. Understanding these requirements and designing acceptable solutions has been challenging but also rewarding.

3. What was your key insight from the project?

I was impressed by the FormSG team. They were always product-focused and user-oriented when developing new features. Today, I am glad to see the stored attachment feature we developed allowing more agencies to use FormSG for high volume forms with large attachments. Previously, they were limited by the size of government email inboxes.


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Foo Ji-Haw, Former Senior Technical Product Manager, StubHub (Based in Dallas, TX)

Ji-Haw teamed up with James Yong, and Singapore-based Jin Wen to create Project Grey, an initiative to help home-bound elderlies with limited mobility get easy access to healthcare and virtual social interaction amid COVID-19. One of the 12 winning teams for GovTech’s Covid-19 Idea Sprint, the trio presented the project to Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, SMS Janil Puthucheary, and other government officials.

1. What motivated you to volunteer for this project?

As a hobby, I explore Maker projects mixing IoT (Internet of Things) with emerging tech (eg. face detection). Chatting with James we share a common empathy for challenges among the elderly, and challenges with current commercial services. This became personal when (returning to Singapore) I became aware of how my mother’s reduced mobility impacted her medical arrangements.

2. What was the most challenging part?

While the broad goal was to address the needs of the elderly with reduced mobility, challenges inherent with this age group are many, including physical (reduced eyesight, hearing), and mental (technology literacy, readiness for change). There may not be a single solution to address all, but a minimum viable solution suitable for the largest elderly population is critical.

3. What was your key insight from the project?

With limited volunteer resources and subject matter experts, we will deliver faster by identifying/ focusing on our product core, complemented by commercial partners with ready APIs (Application Programming Interfaces).


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James Yong, Senior Backend Engineer, Roblox (Based in San Mateo, CA)

James volunteered in the same team with Ji-Haw for Project Grey.

1. What motivated you to volunteer for this project?

Back in April when chatting with the TraceTogether team, it was evident that a hardware contact-tracing solution was required to have a consistent and reliable beaconing property. I wanted to have an opensource reference design for standalone contact-tracing hardware. The goal is to be feature-rich, customizable, and use commodity components to be accessible to others.

2. What was the most challenging part?

Managing a distributed volunteer-driven team is challenging, especially in terms of timezones and varying commitment/skill levels. Identifying competencies, carving out responsibilities, and figuring out how everyone can work together is part of the game.

3. What was your key insight from the project?

Being a multifunctional device, we explored various possible ways in which the reference design could be used. During the presentation, we demonstrated options for the design to be extended or repurposed. We realize the importance of having a well-maintained codebase where custom functionality could be extended and share this vision across the team.


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