The future is now, and it’s biometric. Singapore has introduced a smartphone app for consumers to pay their utility bills, log on with their fingerprints and register for accounts.

Chang Sau Sheong, Managing Director (Digital Technology) of utilities provider SP Group, leads a team of engineers that developed the mobile payments app for Singaporeans.

Chang tells GovInsider about how the company has improved service delivery through their new app; how they are dealing with disruption within the power industry; and what he hopes to see government do with their data.

The app

SP Group’s Utilities app, launched on 27 March, is an improved version of the previous SP Services app launched in 2015. The new app allows users to log in with biometrics rather than a username and password. People may register for an account through the app; the previous iteration merely directed users to the SP Group website.

But the “big one” was payments, says Chang. “Previously the app was all informational, and [users] couldn’t pay bills there. They can just view, and that’s it. In this round, we wanted to allow people to actually pay for it.”

Seeing as it was “a new thing” for SP Group to have a payments function on the app, they started small. Currently, just DBS Bank credit cards are accepted, “which cover the majority of end users anyway,” Chang notes.

As for the development of the app, Chang faced challenges with the scale of the app, which grew rapidly within weeks of launching it. “Within a month of rolling it out, we have literally tens of thousands of people downloading and using it.”

Furthermore, there were user expectations to consider. The SP Group is owned by Temasek Holdings, a state-owned company. “Being associated with the government brings a lot of criticism. I think that’s part and parcel,” Chang remarks.

It’s therefore important for governments and state-owned enterprises to “take feedback from consumers in a non-defensive way, and then learn and change rapidly”.

The team

The main motivation for SP Group to create the engineering team in the first place is that there has been “a huge amount” of disruption in the utilities space. Providers need to “move with the times” to stay relevant. “We wanted to create an internal team to build capabilities for ourselves and maintain core competencies, and better develop services and applications to serve our consumers,” Chang says.

The software engineering team is about ten months old, 50-strong, and still growing. It is “startup-ish” in a way, but Chang has plans to scale up slowly, and eventually go into conducting user research.

The fact that most of the team did not have previous experience in utilities has not hindered them, but actually led to more experimentation. “None of us were actually in the power domain. Now that I’ve entered [the industry], there’s a huge shift from what I would think an energy company is,” Chang shares.

Chang moved to the SP Group in June last year to lead this team. He brought with him payments experience from PayPal, where most recently he was the Director of Global Consumer Engineering.

Data matters most

Many government agencies and SOEs are facing similar challenges – and need to keep their citizens on side. Using data to understand them is most valuable for this, he believes.

Agencies should open up their data more and interact within government, Chang says. As an example, SP Group collects water meter information on behalf of the Public Utilities Board, and also works with the Energy Market Authority.

One day, Chang hopes to see an open data portal of sorts, but for within government. “PUB and EMA are just two agencies. If we work with a lot more, what other things can we actually achieve?” This would allow a single view of Singaporeans.

The app is the first step in a bigger vision to digitise Singapore’s energy industry. With a team of 50 plugging away on new projects, there are sure to be sparks.

Image by J. Judisun Photography