What do you do when you have a labour shortage? Hire artificial intelligence instead.

The Singapore Land Authority manages vast estates of unused state land and property, employing inspectors to regularly check on their upkeep. “In our next generation workforce, are there people willing to actually do this job?,” asks Wee Wern Chau, Director of Information Technology at SLA. The likely answer is ‘no’, he believes, adding that “you have to leverage on technology” instead.

GovInsider caught up with Wee to discuss how drones and AI are already managing much of Singapore’s property estate.

Machine learning

SLA has tied up with a local government-accredited startup, AeroLion, to combine the use of drones and machine learning in land inspection. “Instead of sending a human down to survey the state land itself, you will send a drone there,” Wee explains.

The drone comes back with thousands of images of the property, which must be analysed to detect anything that requires attention – ranging from illegal dumping and water ponding to cracks in buildings. “Basically we teach the machine to recognise a crack”, Wee says, by feeding it existing samples of cracks in buildings. This is a particularly novel area for image analytics, he adds. “They can identify humans. But to identify cracks on the wall, ponding or illegal dumping is very new,” he explains.

The agency last year has completed a proof of concept to use these technologies. It “has proven to be quite successful so right now we are trying to determine how we want to move ahead with this,” he says. “We have big plans to grow [it],” he adds.

“We have big plans to grow it.”

The robots take over

One potential for growth is to share findings with other agencies. For instance, if there is an old tree on an SLA-managed property that needs to be taken care of, the information can be shared with the National Parks Board. The images collected by the drones have location data “so we are able to pinpoint where exactly in Singapore this thing happened,” he says.

SLA is also at the early stages of automating some work through sensors, Wee says. It is “exploring how we can use sensors to improve our operational efficiency [and] reduce also the dependency on humans,” he adds.

It plans to start new proof-of-concepts early this year. One area where sensors could be helpful is to prevent trespassing, he says. Potentially, officials could be alerted if movement is detected in a property where public access is not allowed.

Blockchain in the future?

The agency is also overhauling its land registry. It has built a new service called MyProperty, allowing people to login to view their property titles online. In the past, people had to wait two months and pay a fee to replace lost property title deeds. This data is now freely available.

Some digitally advanced nations have gone a step further than digital land registries and are exploring Blockchain to store and manage the records. For instance, Sweden has run trials to record real estate transactions on blockchain. This month it will begin to test the platform with the public.

Is this something that could work for Singapore? “Personally, I don’t think the technology is workable in the Singapore model,” Wee says. Blockchain is a decentralised system, where records are shared across a global network of computers and not managed by a single authority.
Singapore’s model is different, he says: “We are highly centralised and we are a trusted party.” “In a world where there is one authority to say this transaction is correct…. then do we still need some kind of distributed decision on this?,” he questions.

Blockchain’s security is also not without weaknesses. “It has been proven that it can fail,” he says. One of the most prominent examples was a hack into a venture capital fund built on the Blockchain, DAO, in June 2016. The hackers stole around $53 million (or about one-third) of its funds. However, if an expert can “convince me that [blockchain] can change my business totally, and make my system more secure or more advanced – if I’m convinced, I may sell it to the user,” he adds.

Digital transformation

SLA is also using digital to reshape its own organisation. Wee and his team recently built an app for civil servants to submit transport claims. Taxi receipts are easy to lose, and staff also had to manually key in the details. The app uses the OneMap API to automatically record start and end locations of trips, and takes a photo of the matching receipt.

While it was first built for SLA staff, Wee hopes it can be used by all civil servants. “We want to build this as a whole of government app,” he says. It has partnered with the government’s shared services unit, Vital, to promote the app. It is already being used by other agencies including GovTech, National Council of Social Services, Inland Revenue Authority and Intellectual Property Office.

One of the stranger disruptions in government has been in land authorities. Across the world, they are pioneers of GIS data; blockchain; and, in Singapore’s case, artificial intelligence. All the machines miss are the hard hats.

Wee Wern Chau received the Gold award for his work as an ‘Innovation Champion’ in the Singapore Public Service in 2016. GovInsider is writing a series with PS21 on the award winners.