Singapore is currently in peak dengue season. The National Environment Agency (NEA) reported that 9,135 cases were reported as of August 2, about 5 times more than the number of cases reported in the same period in 2018, shedding light on the mosquito-borne health threats facing the country.

The government has been undertaking a number of efforts, including the national dengue campaign launched in April to combat this rising epidemic in Singapore. Dengue is just one (but a very important one!) of the many health, environmental and social issues the government needs to address. And to do so, there is undoubtedly a partnership between citizens and the government that’s needed; from creating awareness to aid in prevention and getting citizen’s involvement in tackling issues.

Sharing of information becomes critical for citizens to play an effective role. Data is the not-so-secret weapon in the arsenal. This can be shared with citizens in an easy to consume form, and even be used by government agencies themselves to tackle problems. Success is being achieved in many parts of the world as governments, organisations and citizens unlock the value of data.

Doing more with data

Tackling healthcare issues that become epidemics require allocating finite resources in the best possible manner to stop the spread and ultimately eliminate such issues.

With the right data sets, such as citizen demographics and environmental markers, we can identify the hotspots where diseases are originating and spreading, or are likely to. Armed with this data, relevant authorities can make informed decisions on how and where to allocate their limited resources for maximum impact.

In Africa, malaria has been a leading cause of death in young children. To tackle the disease, the African nation of Zambia, worked with PATH, a global health organisation, and Tableau, an analytics platform, to launch Visualise No Malaria, a campaign focussed on using data to eliminate malaria. The government deployed community health workers to capture data from across the country and log it in to the government systems.

With the help of reliable data to track emerging transmission patterns, the authorities were able to target communities and areas where the malaria parasite was hiding. After four years of the campaign, the government has maintained 85% reductions in reported malaria cases and 92% reductions in malaria-related deaths across Zambia’s Southern Province, and the campaign is being expanded to neighbouring regions and countries.

In Asia, Operation ASHA, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to fighting tuberculosis (TB), has been using data dashboards to deliver treatments in a targeted and systematic manner. While, previously, community health workers would randomly do door-to-door visits to check for people with symptoms, the dashboard provides nearly real-time data on which houses and neighbourhoods have a higher likelihood of TB infection based on certain indicators, so that the organisation can make better decisions about how, when, and where to deploy resources.

These are just some examples of how data can be used for healthcare issues. We now live in an age where data is abundant and easily accessible. By putting data in the hands of grassroot workers and social organisations, we can address a number of other issues such as climate change, poverty and education.

Forging the way forward in Singapore with citizen engagement

As Singapore becomes more digital and works towards its goal of becoming a smart nation, we have more data available than ever before. The government is also undertaking efforts such as opening up one-stop portals like data.gov.sg for citizens to explore publicly-available datasets. There’s no doubt that there is a wealth of diverse data sources. However, citizens and social workers need to be comfortable with data for it to be used as a force of good.

One way to do this is to make data more visual – citizens and social organisations can make use of visual analytics tools to see and understand data with ease, allowing them to become future agents of change.

The power of collaboration

In a world of data ubiquity, relevant data can sit in a number of different places, possibly even across geographies. To make an impact on a large scale, it is essential to foster collaboration between different stakeholders within the ecosystem, such as government authorities, non-government organisations, private sector companies and even the citizens themselves. According to McKinsey estimates, connecting data across institutional and geographic boundaries could create roughly US$ 3 trillion annually in economic value by 2020.

The good news is, as more organisations join the “data for good” movement, we are seeing the emergence of data collaboratives or data commonwealths – platforms for sharing data and collaborating across private companies, research institutions and government organisations, to achieve a common goal. However, the pace of growth of such collaboratives is still being undermined due to various reasons such as regulatory concerns, commercial risk and lack of trust in data sharing, which can only be addressed if all involved parties work together to push for change.

Although more needs to be done in terms of large-scale, collaborative projects, Singapore is well-placed to create transformational social impact with data. By leveraging advancements in technology and fostering collaboration, we can empower our citizens and authorities to tackle some of the most pertinent social issues, not just in Singapore but across the region.