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Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan speaks on how data will drive Singapore’s Smart Nation vision

Data Analytics is thought to be a main driver for Smart City initiatives across the world. As we know, data insights are generating novel ideas and innovations, which are catalysts to the development of these initiatives.

In his keynote address at Strata + Hadoop World, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Programme Office, spoke about how data is driving Singapore’s Smart Nation vision. Dr. Balakrishnan also addressed what the Singapore Government is doing to promote open data. He opened up his keynote, telling the audience, “Singapore is a small city-state but we have big data ambitions.”

To describe the hype about big data, Dr. Balakrishnan used the following analogy, “Big Data is like teenage sex... Everyone talks about it but no one knows how to do it. Everyone claims they are doing it because they think everyone else is doing it. This describes a lot of the hoopla about big data.”

Government Attitude on Big Data

As Dr. Balakrishnan described to the audience, government attitude towards big data is informed by a few phenomenon. “We live in a world where sensors are cheap, plentiful, and being installed everywhere. All of us carry a multisensory device, and all of us are leaking data,” he said, “From this, there is a tsunami of data.”

With this vast pool of data, the government is being challenged to pull insights which identify societal issues. Addressing these issues will help improve public sector service delivery and quality of life for citizens. “[It is about] how we use this avalanche of data to glean new insights so Government can be smarter,” exclaimed Dr. Balakrishnan. When you use data in a smart way and for the right purpose, the results will have great impact on society as a whole.

Dr. Balakrishnan brought up the point that cost of processing data is falling at an exponential rate. This is piling on to this wave of data that is coming our way. To this, he added, “The cost of connectivity is trending. In Singapore, we have put 2 fibres into every home and we take broadband as a given. With this comes cheap processing power, cheap connectivity... This is how you know you’re going to deal with a [data] tsunami.”

Open Data, Open Government

From this concept that there is so much data we can draw insights from, the Singapore Government is working towards providing more open data to the public. It is not as simple as it may seem, however.

“It is not a technical question, but it is a political and cultural issue. In Singapore, we have a government that is obsessed with rectitude, integrity, and with trustworthiness,” said Dr. Balakrishnan, “But the champion for open data in Singapore is our Prime Minister. He is badgering every single government agency, and a lot of efforts are being paid towards making this data available through APIs.”

Dr. Balakrishnan pointed out that one of the key features of open data is that it drives the reengineering of government processes. He then provided the example of the NEA myENV app to articulate how open data promotes service efficiency.  

The myENV app allows Singaporeans to post complaints, to which the NEA will direct to the relevant agency. These complaints are made visible to the rest of the public and updated in real-time.

“What this does is put tremendous pressure on the agencies to fix the problem, to resolve it and to resolve real-time, because everyone knows when a problem is detected and when it has been solved or not solved,” stated Dr. Balakrishnan,“The purpose is to make people start thinking upstream, ‘How do I prevent problems from arising in the first place?’ or ‘How do I work smart so I can actually work less?’”

With this, Dr. Balakrishnan insisted the audience refer to https://data.gov.sg/  and track the progression of Singapore’s journey towards sharing data amongst its citizens and with the world. The team behind data.gov.sg is working to put as much data up in real-time, through APIs, and in machine-readable forms. They have also revamped the data site with user-friendly data visualisations in interactive charts and maps.

Dr. Balakrishnan emphasised that Singapore is working to be a global leader for innovation, and in doing so, the country must be open to ideas from all over.

 “Singapore is open and we are looking for your ideas, looking for your solutions, and looking for prototypes... Treat Singapore as a test lab, a living laboratory of the city of the future. If you have an idea... our doors are open,” Dr. Balakrishnan stated at the end of his remarks.

OpenGov caught up with Dr. Balakrishnan following his keynote to discuss some ideas about how government should approach the sphere of open data. As the Minister is very supportive of new ideas, he entertained the conversation and is always looking to learn more from what others are doing with respect to open data initiatives.

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