Many governments in the region have poor data on their citizens, and this is especially true for countries with large rural populations.

But there are easy ways to fix this. Governments have built simple tools that give a better picture of the challenges ordinary residents face every day. These tools are often open source, and available for other governments to use.

GovInsider has pulled together three ways that governments are improving their data.

1. Using social media to map disasters

petabencana In Indonesia, the app PetaBencana (‘Disaster Map’ in Bahasa Indonesia) uses social media mentions of flooding to track problems on an interactive map in real time. People at the street level may upload pictures of flooding that is happening right where they are.

The map gathers, sorts and visualises data from the ‘noise’ of social and digital media. This way, it can build a faster and more accurate snapshot of natural disasters than traditional reporting. Such critical information allows residents, communities and government agencies to react quickly. This approach also removes expensive and time-consuming data processing.

Besides hashtags, the system also picks up other mentions of flooding. Since social media posts are geolocated, it’s possible to tell from tweets or posts where flooding is most intense, and the appropriate emergency services may use insights from the map to put together a quick response.

The Urban Risk Lab at MIT developed this free and transparent platform for emergency response and disaster management for megacities in South and Southeast Asia, and it runs on CogniCity Open Source Software.

2. Drawing insights from existing data

Simple call centres provide an immediate mechanism to understand your population. In Hong Kong, the city reshaped services by digging into the call records of its complaints hotline.

The 1823 hotline allows citizens to complain or give feedback on any government service across 22 departments. However, the call centre data for this service showed that one government mailout in particular was causing a huge number of complaints.

The team called the people who had complained and asked about the problem. What they learned was that the message in the letter was confusing, and a particular sentence was making people worried about their student loans. The mailout was rewritten so that it was clearer and had precise instructions. This cut complaints by a whopping 47% – saving money on the call centre costs and helping improve citizens lives.

3. Using data to predict future problem areas

oneservice In Singapore, the app OneService brings together the best from both the case studies above. The app allows citizens to submit complaints without having to figure out which agency to go to. The government set up a central unit, the Municipal Services Office (MSO), to coordinate response across agencies and use the data to cut future complaints.

One way of using the data is to shape citizens’ behaviour. For example, the data showed that noise complaints are highest during the New Year celebrations, and most of the reports were against neighbours. MSO worked with the Singapore Kindness Movement to spread awareness through a media campaign, asking residents to keep their noise levels down during festivals.

MSO is also using this data to anticipate growing areas of concern and prevent them from ballooning further. The unit found that illegal parking, noise, infrastructure maintenance, cleanliness and pest control are the top concerns. “With such knowledge, we work closely with the relevant agencies to identify possible areas for improvement in service delivery and work processes,” Tay Kim Poh, Deputy Secretary (Services) of Ministry of National Development told GovInsider.

Images by SelkaCC BY 2.0, PetaBencana and MND