Padang Panjang, a small city in West Sumatra, is facing problems all too familiar to Indonesians – poverty, corruption, and a great number of unbanked people. Its Mayor has come up with a data-driven plan, hoping to chip away at these challenges and provide better livelihoods for citizens.

Across the world, governments are perfecting techniques to use data and AI to solve their most pressing problems; improve their relationship with citizens; or simply to speed up ways of working. Here in Asia, where needs and challenges may vary wildly from country to country, governments are constantly innovating to derive value from data.

Government leaders from Singapore and Thailand joined Mayor Fadly Amran recently to share just how they are doing this.

Introducing transparency in Indonesia

Padang Panjang has a vision to become a smart city, which includes introducing cashless payments, and using tech to reduce poverty and fight corruption. The Mayor spoke about his vision at the AI & Data Innovation session at GovInsider Live 2019.

One focus for the future is to collect data to help reduce poverty. “We are targeting to reduce the poverty rate in the city by 0.5 percent over each year; now it’s 5.6 percent – quite high for a small city,” the mayor said. He pointed out that “it’s quite hard for us because the data is not there, it’s not reliable”. The city hopes to build a system that can analyse data from households that are receiving aid, learn from these, and predict which individuals to target next: “targeting the best person to solve this 0.5 percent each year”.

Another area that is seeing change is citizen engagement. The city has set up an ‘integrity zone’, which is made up of both physical spaces and online campaigns meant to raise citizens’ awareness about how the city budget is used. “No one is left behind. We are transmitting the information to the citizens’ doorstep through social media, websites,” said the mayor, adding that “we also invented the budget festival, we want them to really know what we are doing, what our budget is, so that they know and they keep track.”

“No one is left behind. We are transmitting the information to the citizens’ doorstep through social media, websites.”

He noted how “there must be a strong and smart strategy to counter corruption, and it must start with clear intention”. Part of the city’s strategy is to use data analytics and geospatial data to track the progress of public programmes. “So that like Google Maps, where you can find a store and the ratings, with this data integration, we can see with the push of a button what the government has done to improve the quality of living to each individual or to each household, what programmes have been applied to specific neighborhood or when and how they were applied,” the mayor said.

He went on to share the city’s progress in building a smart economy. The city now has ‘pasar digital’, or digital markets, which allow for cashless transactions to be collected into one central account to be distributed among the vendors later. This is one effort in the city’s bid to build a smart economy, said the mayor.

At the same time, the city is working to equip street vendors with POS systems and solar panels, allowing the local government to “track their progress, give support and make sure they are all paying taxes”. Other smart projects showing promise are ‘educational villages’, where teachers conduct interactive language classes in scenic villages, and smart suraus, Islamic prayer buildings outfitted with tablets. These suraus have become social hubs for youths, the mayor added.

Thailand ponders regulation for blockchain

The Thai government has one main priority: to realise the Thailand 4.0 vision, which encompasses various digital government and smart city targets, according to Dr Sak Segkhoonthod, Advisor (Digital Transformation) for the Electronic Transactions Development Agency. But this brings questions of regulation and personal data protection, he notes.

“If you want to go with blockchain, who’s going to regulate?”
Banks, telcos and the Provincial Electricity Authority of Thailand are all using AI and blockchain for various uses – IoT networks and smart grids among them. However, “we have to make sure we have to balance between things,” Segkhoonthod noted. “If you want to go with blockchain, who’s going to regulate?” What’s more, he continued, too much regulation is not a good thing: “you have to let them self-regulate”.

Raising the ‘digital comfort’ of public servants in Singapore

Wong Hui Yi, Senior Manager in the Engineering Programme Office of the Public Service Division (PSD) of Singapore shared how the government is increasingly using Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to automate high-volume, repetitive, and tedious work. “Under the programme, we worked closely with 18 agencies to study their processes, optimise, redesign and automate them,” she said in her presentation.

The intent of PSD was to “raise the level of digital comfort for our officers” and help them see the value of RPA technology. It is a “low tech” tool, Wong pointed out, which meant that it had a low barrier to entry – “so low that one of the challenges that we faced was to get our IT colleagues to share the same excitement as we did when we came across this technology”, she added.

“We as the public service has to lead the way for our citizens and businesses to embrace technology, and to respond to future changes.”
PSD’s push for Singapore government to use RPA is part of a broader desire to constantly innovate to work better and more efficiently together, said Wong. “We as the public service has to lead the way for our citizens and businesses to embrace technology, and to respond to future changes.”

Data as a top-down priority

Joseph Musolino, Government Fraud & Security Intelligence Strategy Lead for data analytics experts SAS, provided a broader perspective for the government audience at the session. One insight he has from working with regional governments? Data-driven decision-making needs to be top-down, instead of bottom-up as it is right now.

But once the leadership is sorted out, data and AI can have really meaningful impact. AI, coupled with image capture technology, can help animal welfare organisations to examine animal tracks to understand populations and migration patterns, for example. Hospitals can provide physicians with a better way to diagnose liver and brain cancer, by training AI to detect tumours in X-ray images, he added.

In Singapore, the Immigration Checkpoint Authority is screening inbound containers using AI. “If we can bring that data in and apply different analytical technologies such as risk management, scorecard, social network analysis, we can bring in multiple analytical techniques to help them identify and get more insight from the problem,” Musolino said. He added that one county in North Carolina in the US is working with SAS to appraise hundreds of thousands of residential parcels, helping them to approve building permits faster.

Whether the problem lies in tackling corruption; building smart cities; diagnosing cancer; overhauling tedious internal processes; going cashless; or simply reaching out to citizens, data and AI are indispensable today. These are the missing pieces that help governments to create value for the people they serve, create new business models, and redefine the government of the future.

Read the rest of our coverage of GovInsider Live 2019 here.