The visual treat of woks tossing fried carrot cake, the dull thuds of a chopper expertly dicing up a chicken, the fragrant lime aroma of grilled sambal stingray. The sensory playgrounds of Singapore’s hawker centres are close to many citizens’ homes and hearts, and have even recently won global recognition by UNESCO.

However, the pandemic has left many hawkers facing slow business. While restaurants and fast food chains have quickly caught on to food delivery services, many elderly hawkers were left behind in the digital race.

28 year-old Singaporean M Thirukkumaran developed an online community map called “Help Our Hawkers” that provides information on digitally-disadvantaged hawkers near users’ locations, such as opening hours and stall information. GovInsider caught up with him to learn how it was built and how governments can support fellow civic hackers.

How governments can help

The pandemic has seen citizens around the world launching their own initiatives, which can be immensely valuable as nations clamber for resources. “In a condition of a pandemic, you work with what you have,” Giulio Quaggiotto, UNDP’s Head of Strategic Innovation, told GovInsider.

Bologna in Italy has a Civic Imagination Office that takes in public suggestions for improving the city. Citizens have repainted walls, repaired benches and developed new models to protect gig economy workers in the pandemic. Volunteers in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum gave out free meals during the national lockdown to make sure poorer households were taken care of.

Besides creating space for civic innovation, governments can step in to give particularly promising projects a boost with their resources and influence, Thiru says.

Most community-led projects need to rely on cloud services such as AWS, which can be expensive for a small team to bear, he explains. Government subsidies or grants may help to ease the cost for digital infrastructure.

In Thiru’s case, the map needed to be rolled out quickly to be useful. He chose to build his tool with Google Maps to speed up the process, as many users are already familiar with it.

Another way that governments can help is through getting more visibility to these community-led projects with their wide reach, Thiru suggests. Community projects commonly face a “cold start” dilemma. This arises where the community tool needs data for it to be useful, but citizens also hesitate to spend time on a tool if it is not useful in the first place.

Thiru jump started his tool by contributing a few stalls on his own. With more publicity with government campaigns, the process could be sped up considerably, he shares.

Lessons learnt

The “Help Our Hawkers” map met with overwhelming success, Thiru shares. It currently lists key information on 380 stalls, and has been used over 180,000 times.

Its success was built upon Thiru’s lessons from previous experiments with building tech for the community. Last year, Thiru had worked on a separate crowdsourcing map called MaskGoHere when the nation was experiencing a tight supply for face masks. The project aimed to tell citizens the nearest shop for purchasing masks, but failed to take off for two main reasons.

First, it used an uncommon platform. MaskGoHere was created as a Telegram bot, but not many citizens use this messaging app, Thiru says. The current hawker map uses Google Maps, which is more familiar to Singaporeans.

Second, MaskGoWhere faced a “zero sum game” problem, he shares. Masks were in high demand and had limited stock. Citizens may fear not having enough masks for themselves and be less willing to contribute to the community map.

“People want hawker culture to succeed,” Thiru says. “Helping hawkers doesn’t detract from themselves, whereas for MaskGoHere, everyone needed [masks]”.

A human touch

A successful tool is one that connects people emotionally, believes Thiru. The hawker visibility map includes backstories of the hawkers, which creates a “strong emotional pull factor” for users, he says.

@wheretodabao” is another successful community-led project which understands the importance of the emotional connection for users. The popular Instagram page with 38,000 followers tells the stories of hawkers in their user-submitted posts.

Thiru himself was motivated by his love for hawker food. His favourite hawker centres, Maxwell Food Centre and Lorong 8 Toa Payoh Hawker Centre, have “fed me for 28 years of my life,” he says. “I saw an opportunity to help, and I went for it because I didn’t want hawker culture to die out.”

A flourishing community is in many ways like a good dish. It needs a combination of ingredients and ideas to bring out the best flavours. Citizens can add spice to the mix, and governments can support them to elevate the palate of society.