Innovation should solve everyday problems
New app linking systems of government agencies an example of how innovation can help everyday problems
How does one link the systems of over 10 government agencies when each deals with different problems, such as crime, littering, pest control and traffic incidents?
It seemed like an impossible task - creating a new system to rule them all was to take three years and $20 million.
But thinking outside the box, combined with technology, enabled a team of seven developers to come up with a solution in just nine months.
And so the OneService app was born, said government chief information officer Chan Cheow Hoe of the Government Technology Agency of Singapore.
Mr Chan, speaking to The New Paper in an exclusive and wide-ranging interview last week, said: "The old way would have been to take all the systems and put them together, but you know how difficult that is. So we did not touch the system.
"We just made sure there was data exchange among the systems.
"Then, we created an interface, built the app and built the algorithm fast."
Technology and creative thinking are key to innovation today, he said.
But Mr Chan also stressed the need for innovation to solve everyday problems.
When we do something... we do for the whole country. Government chief information officer Chan Cheow Hoe
"Many people see innovation as something bright and shiny. But many of these things (in the market) are solutions looking for a problem to solve," he said.
Instead, innovations - which need not be big and bold - should arise after understanding the needs of an actual problem, he added.
He pointed out that the OneService app was created because many Singaporeans were unsure which government agency they should contact when facing a municipal issue.
The agencies participating in the app include the Singapore Police Force, Land Transport Authority, National Environmental Agency, National Parks Board, People's Association and town councils, among others.
The app automatically routes feedback to the relevant agency based on a back-end algorithm.
"Who were the happiest people when we created OneService? The police. When we spoke to the guys at the police call centre, we found that nearly 60 per cent of calls had nothing to do with police work.
"This app leads to more productivity, allowing them to focus on actual police work," Mr Chan said.
These are subtle yet significant changes in the government sector, which Mr Chan said he hoped would spearhead similar improvements in other industries.
Mr Chan, who started out as a developer and spent about 20 years in the banking sector before joining the civil service about three years ago, said the role of developers has changed.
He said developers today play a key role in creating a proper user experience that makes a product appealing to people who use it.
"About 15 years ago, when you talk about a developer, it was almost like talking about a factory worker.
"Today, a developer is someone who focuses on solution creation and the user journey, rather than just taking orders and going on to code something," he said.
This is a structural change the Info-Communications Technology sector is experiencing, although it is only a matter of time before workers adapt, he said.
Mr Chan also spoke about Singapore's push towards becoming a Smart Nation, where the biggest challenge is the inclusion of every citizen.
"Even today, there are many Singaporeans who find technology quite hard to adopt," he said.
This is where education is important, he added, citing an example of a 94-year-old woman who attended the Digital Inclusion Silver Infocomm programme to learn how to video chat with her great-grandchildren.
"When we do something, we do not just do for only a small group of people, we do for the whole country," he said.
"At the same time, it is not just the Government's job to make a nation smart. It is also about all the (private) companies and start-ups.
"I think everyone is trying."