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A Data-Oriented Journey Leading in Singapore Public Sector

During a global pandemic, mundane public policy decisions can become literally a matter of life and death. Governments and officials looking to protect the public and combat the spread of COVID-19 have discovered that digital technology is one of the essential instruments at their disposal for improving outcomes for citizens.

Slowing — and, ultimately, reversing — COVID’s spread in any population requires massive, coordinated execution of case reporting, contact tracing, and isolation and treatment of infected individuals. The greatest success stories of 2020 have featured governments that quickly implemented large-scale public programs using technology to track and trace cases, then made that data available to researchers and health care professionals. Singapore has been a particular standout, pulling testing data along with anonymized tracking data from a network of apps to successfully identify, isolate, and treat new cases quickly.

Even as they struggle through the global health crisis, public officials must face the looming challenge of post-COVID economic recovery. Most public authorities are basing recovery plans on the same kinds of digital tools they are using to fight the pandemic. The adoption of cloud, big data, and AI technologies will be vital to many countries’ economic success.

Singapore: A study in success

Long before the threat of COVID-19, Singapore’s public sector had invested in technology and digital initiatives. The Smart Nation Office, formed under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2014, served as a nexus for digital transformation. Ministries and local agencies could rely on Smart Nation for the data and tools they needed to be more productive and to better engage their citizens. When the pandemic began, Singapore was already well-positioned to be one of the first countries to develop a successful, nationwide contact tracing app and token program.

As the world moves into the economic recovery phase of the COVID crisis, the tech infrastructure that Singapore built to serve its citizens may do double duty as a framework to support economic traction. Its programs encourage businesses, both local and foreign, to adopt technology. The Government Technology Agency of Singapore, known as GovTech, is functionally CIO for the whole government: GovTech’s digital initiatives, such as the National Digital Identity, the Government QR Payment, the Government Technology Stack, and the Data Science and AI Capability Framework, encourage businesses and business owners to use technology, and data in particular, to gain a competitive advantage.

Singapore, however, is not typical in the region in terms of executing digitalization strategy. Its comparatively small geographical size and political stability enhances its ability to execute its national technology blueprint. Can other ASEAN countries apply lessons from Singapore to achieve similar outcomes?

The data governance challenge

Public authorities generate an incredible volume of data, and their main challenge is finding, analyzing, and using their data. Valuable data stores reside in different departments and ministries, and often use incompatible formats or technologies. Having the ability to share information across agencies, providing access control to different levels and functional roles of stakeholders, while respecting data privacy and fighting bureaucracy, could fundamentally transform the way civil service or government organizations serve the public.

To reach that goal, the first step is to accept the need for more advanced analytics. Raw data in isolation is of no value. It must be cleaned, curated, and analyzed before anyone can use it to make meaningful decisions.

Organizations must build a centralized data hub to provide stakeholders access to this data, along with systems for data governance and data quality. With multiple sources feeding into a shared data center, incomplete, invalid, or otherwise faulty data could impact decision-making throughout the network. Data quality must become an integral part of overall data management, from onboarding new data sources to managing and maintaining data already in the hub.

Governments need the ability to understand data — where it is located, managed, and stored — to ensure their country’s digital sovereignty.

A citizen-centric approach

At the same time, governments need a citizen-centric approach to meet the population’s expectations — and to govern the country. Here, again, Singapore provides an excellent model. For example, they responded to the public desire for a better way to manage changes of address by building a single, central platform that communicates with all the services that need this information: driver licensing, taxes, and so on. Listening to the needs of the people led to an elegant solution.

Imagine what governments could do to enhance innovation and economic growth with the corporate sector. In most countries, a business owner must work with multiple departments or bureaus to register a business, file for incorporation, establish a taxable entity, and on and on. Today, we take for granted these long and tedious procedures. But that need not be the case forever.

Health care and education are two sectors in which advanced adoption of technology illustrates the benefits of focusing on data analytics. All around the world, we are seeing how protecting the population has technology at its core, from the efforts to control the spread of an epidemic to the day-to-day tracking of risk factors and early detection of disease.

A solution is more than a tool

Today, several jurisdictions have publicly funded plans to invest heavily in artificial intelligence infrastructure, such as the European Coordinated Plan on Artificial Intelligence, the China New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan, and the Singapore National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Strategy. But without an instant assessment of data health and accuracy, even the most accurate AI models cannot produce trustworthy results.

Only by measuring the level of trust and clarity of data across the entire organization and putting the citizen first can public service players have the 360° view of their data they need to offer the services that citizens have a right to expect.

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