In Code-nito Mode: Uncovering the Role of Tech for Public Good in Singapore

Technology has the power to radically enhance our lives. Previously based in the U.S., GovTech Singapore’s Deputy Director, Open Government Products, Li Hongyi and software engineer Janice Tan share their passion about the Tech for Public Good movement and what’s needed to ensure it continues to make a positive impact on life in Singapore.

By SGN | 6 Nov 2020

It was the eve of Lunar New Year in January 2020. Janice had just joined her family for their traditional reunion dinner when she received a text from one of her GovTech group chats with a compelling proposition. Her team was looking for volunteers to explore the concept of using Bluetooth to supplement manual contact tracing efforts.

“It was a time when news of rising numbers of COVID-19 cases was prevalent, and nobody seemed to know how to respond to this incoming crisis. I was intrigued by the idea that technology could play a part in stopping the spread of COVID-19,” Janice shares. 

The urgency of managing the pandemic was compounded by the fact that no one on the team had worked directly with the Bluetooth stack before. To succeed, they needed to somehow bring together policy, operations, technology and design to build a product that would bring about greater public good. 

Janice signed up for the challenge. She became part of the pioneering team and one of the lead iOS engineers who built what would be known as TraceTogether, the world’s first digital contact-tracing solution deployed nation-wide. The app was launched in March 2020 and has since been downloaded by more than 2 million users.

Janice Tan (back row, third from left) with the GovTech TraceTogether Team at the app launch press conference in March 2020

Hybrid of Global Vision and Regional Insights

Janice and Hongyi are two of the many software engineers, developers, product managers and designers at GovTech who are shaking up the way technology is helping to improve the lives of Singaporeans. But like many of their peers, joining the government in the area of technology to boot, was not exactly what they thought they would be doing after graduation.  

Hongyi, for one, had initially thought he would go into economics or join the private sector. 

That changed when he landed a coveted internship at Google while studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology(MIT). He enjoyed working on real-world solutions for Google’s mobile Android operating systems, that would eventually be used by millions. 

After returning to Singapore and completing his scholarship bond with the government, he decided to stay on in GovTech. 

Hongyi explained, “A big part of that decision was because of the potential I saw of technology in government… We were working on some really big problems like getting people jobs or getting them access to healthcare. Yet, a lot of our systems were still quite manual and nowhere near as sophisticated as the systems used to sell advertising [in the private sector]. 

“My thought was that if I could bring just a fraction of the tech that was being used in the private sector onto solving public sector problems, we might be able to do quite a lot of good.”

Janice candidly admitted that a job in consulting would have seemed more prestigious after her graduation from Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). However, she chose to join GovTech because she wanted to not only immerse herself in the tech industry, but also use her skills to “make life just a little bit better for someone out there”.

Driving Real Change in the Lives of Singaporeans

This vision of leveraging tech to solve problems for Singaporeans and enable efficiently, user-friendly government service delivery has driven Hongyi and Janice to lead teams in building impactful products during their time at GovTech. 

These include TraceTogether; app, a digital alternative to paper parking coupons; and OurSG Grants Portal, which makes it easy for Singaporeans to apply for government grants.

Elaborating on, Hongyi said the product is particularly meaningful for him as it was one of the first major apps built by the team. 

“We spent quite a lot of time on the ground figuring out how to do user studies, test prototypes, and introduce the idea of beta tests to public agencies,” he shared, noting that this strong spirit of experimentation and iteration still guides the team’s work today.

Looking back on the TraceTogether journey since that fateful text message in late-January, Janice remains impressed by the team’s gumption to think big and to act fast to meet the urgent needs at hand, despite the hurdles they faced.

She is also heartened by how technology has provided a platform for people to find opportunities and to connect with like-minded people in online communities. “I’ve heard stories of how mums in Jalan Kukoh started their home businesses online during the circuit breaker period, and how that enabled them to supplement their income in a time when the economy was badly affected,” she recalled.

The Role of Technology in Modern Society

As part of the young but thriving technology ecosystem in Singapore, and as the broader integration of Singapore’s Smart Nation plans to become a reality, Janice and Hongyi have often thought about the role of technology in modern society and its potential to transform lives for the better.

For Janice, technology is only as useful as the access granted to those who need it. Digital literacy is also an issue that impacts the effectiveness of technology as a means for positive change and transformation.

She said, “People generally fear what they don’t understand because they don’t know the possibilities and even pitfalls of using that particular thing, and the same goes for technology.” This fear of the unknown, as Janice explained, can translate into misuse or avoidance among the public. 

She also believes that accessibility, inclusivity and empathy for the user are non-negotiable considerations when building products. At GovTech, some designers and developers recently organised an Accessibility (A11y) Awareness Week, and an internal bug bounty focused on accessibility issues. 

Hongyi’s idea of what tech for public good looks like is one where Singapore becomes a model of technology-enabled government. He shared, “[It’s] a place where using government services is as quick and simple as a click of a button, where government operations are efficiently automated, improving reliability while freeing up human focus to tackle cases that slip through the cracks.”

He believes that tech for the public good does not necessitate building new advanced technologies. Instead, it is a matter of adapting solutions we already have and applying them to our most important problems. The current limiting factor in societies today is thus not technology capability, but technological understanding.

He also acknowledged the inevitable cynicism surrounding the adoption of technology. “There’s always going to be a bit of that, but I think the key thing that lets these initiatives be a force for good is an earnest belief in how the future can be better. It is not just about the next big industry. It’s about a fundamentally and dramatically better life that it creates for people,” he noted.

Critical Ingredients for Positive Impact

Technology has played an enabling role in delivering many public sector products and services more quickly and efficiently. While the government has come some way in building up its digital infrastructure, Janice and Hongyi both recognise more can be done. 

This may involve a re-look at public sector norms and behaviours and collaborating with a like-minded community and civic society players. There may also be a role for more systemic changes. 

Said Hongyi, “Modern tech works more piecemeal… We need to scale back our monolithic operations so that we can take advantage of these innovations in a modular fashion.”

To drive these changes, GovTech and the public sector have been enthusiastic in their efforts to attract and retain a world-class, diverse tech talent pool, many of whom are Singaporeans who have returned to Singapore after gaining valuable skills abroad. 

Li Hongyi (back row, fourth from left) with GovTech’s Open Government Products team earlier this year.

For those passionate about pursuing tech for the public good, Janice advocates for two skill multipliers: the first being learning how to learn, or having the learning agility to handle the impact of rapid technological change; and the second is to be an effective and empathetic communicator, who always puts people first. 

She also noted that technology alone cannot solve problems if the people working on it only focus on specific siloes and don’t work together: our next generation of bright minds in technology must learn how to work well in cross-functional teams, so as to push the boundaries of what technology can do and bring about innovation and positive change.

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