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News about diagnoses and treatments often take the limelight as governments across the globe grapple with COVID-19. Receiving less attention is the fact that society’s fight against the novel coronavirus is as much a logistical undertaking as it is a healthcare one.

For example, distributing reusable face masks to residents was a priority of the Singapore government as it announced ‘circuit breaker’ measures at the start of April 2020 to curb the uptick of local COVID-19 cases. The Ministry of Trade & Industry (MTI) and People’s Association (PA), tasked with coordinating the nationwide distribution effort, anticipated two main logistical challenges that would affect mission success: Firstly, it needed to manage a flexible pool of volunteers distributing masks at each collection point. Secondly, those volunteers had to be able to keep track of collection quotas—no one should be allowed to collect more than one reusable face mask.

Seeking a technological solution to facilitate both processes, MTI and PA reached out to the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech) for assistance. Mr Steven Koh, Director of Government Digital Services at GovTech, recalls receiving the call from Kuhan, Director of Digitalisation Office at MTI and Andy, Director (IT) at PA on 1 April 2020, 11pm, with the request that the application be up and running by 5 April. His first thought was that it was an April Fools’ joke. It was not.

Hit the ground running

Fortunately, Mr Koh and his colleagues at GovTech were prepared to meet MTI’s and PA’s tight deadline. It certainly helped that they had been working on a similar application beforehand which could be quickly repurposed and refined for this distribution, said Mr Raymond Yeh, a software engineer at GovTech.

After conferring with Minister-in-charge of GovTech, Dr Janil Puthucheary, and officers from MTI and PA to firm up operationalisation details, the GovTech team went into full development mode. The mobile app, named SupplyAlly, was delivered on time on 5 April.

Since SupplyAlly was meant to be used by volunteers at residents’ committees and community centres, the GovTech team paid attention to user-friendliness during app design and development. “We wanted to make sure that volunteers needed minimal training to start using the mobile app,” noted Mr Lim Zui Young, a DevOps and quality engineer at GovTech.

Indeed, after downloading the app, one simply needs to scan a PA-issued QR code to log in. There is no need for volunteers to input their personal particulars or identity card details for authorisation. The camera on the mobile phone is then activated, and volunteers can begin scanning the identity cards of individuals who show up to collect their reusable masks.

“The QR code login method solves a very fundamental design problem in that it doesn’t require PA to register every single volunteer before deploying them,” said Mr Chow Ruijie, a software engineer at GovTech. “If a new volunteer shows up, PA can just pass him or her a barcode to authorise the use of the app. This speeds up the onboarding process and grants PA more flexibility in managing volunteers on the ground.”

Because the QR codes are permanently affiliated with the device that scanned them, they can even be discarded without fear of someone else using them for unauthorised logins, Mr Chow added.

Fast and robust

Residents concerned about data privacy also have nothing to worry about when their identity cards are scanned with SupplyAlly at the mask collection points. No personally-identifiable information is stored by the SupplyAlly app—instead, a timestamped digital signature is generated, indicating that the app has ‘seen’ the identity card barcode before.

“This digital signature serves as a record of who has already collected the mask and who hasn’t, without needing to know exactly who that person is,” explained Mr Yeh. Should the digital signature appear again at another time or place, a rejection message will be displayed on the app, alongside the timestamp of when the digital signature was last ‘seen’.

“There were cases where residents tried to claim reusable masks from multiple collection centres,” said Ms Immanuella Lim, software engineer at GovTech. “SupplyAlly was able to flag that a prior transaction had occurred and display the exact date and time of that transaction. This gave PA’s volunteers greater authority to turn away individuals who attempted to ‘game’ the system to obtain more masks.”

Since its launch, SupplyAlly has allowed PA to manage hundreds of volunteers and distribute 4.2 million reusable masks. Owing to the app’s lightweight build and minimal integrations, it could process transactions extremely rapidly—up to 4,500 transactions per second, with a 50-millisecond response latency, said Mr Sebastian Quek, software engineer at GovTech. As a result, there were no queues at the mask collection points. This was especially important at a time where safe distancing was being strictly enforced to prevent community spread of the coronavirus.

“We’ve received feedback from the volunteers that SupplyAlly was very easy to use. At the same time, we’ve seen posts on Facebook by residents who said that the mask collection was quick and seamless, so our team is happy with the outcome,” said Mr Quek.

An ally in more ways than one

Although mask distribution was the first operation that relied on SupplyAlly, the GovTech team notes that the mobile app is relevant to other situations requiring large-scale coordination of manpower and accounting of resources or supplies. Mr Lim highlighted that Engineering Good, a local non-profit organisation, is tapping SupplyAlly to distribute refurbished laptops to needy students for home-based learning during the ‘circuit breaker’ period.

“Engineering Good is thankful for GovTech’s partnership. With SupplyAlly, we hope to eliminate duplication in our efforts and optimise the efforts of our volunteers and the beneficiary organisations,” said Mr Johann Annuar, executive director of Engineering Good.

By leveraging cloud technologies and working across multiple development environments while adopting an agile approach to software engineering, GovTech stands ready to support other nationwide efforts in this uncertain time of COVID-19.

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