Exclusive interview: Innovation chief of Singapore’s transport agency
How the Land Transport Authority will change the way officials use tech.
“I’m going to revolutionise it,” says Rosina Howe-Teo.
The chief innovation officer in Singapore’s Land Transport Authority plans to change the way officials use technology at work. “We are going to be coming up with a programme called ‘Reinventing LTA’,” she says.
The scheme is in response to a government-wide policy restricting internet access on civil servants’ work stations. Howe-Teo, who is Group Director of Innovation and Infocomm Technology at LTA, is using this as an opportunity to rebuild the way LTA’s 6,000 officials work. “We don’t see it as an obstruction to work. We are turning it around,” she says.
The future of work
First, the agency will rewrite policies on how civil servants can use technology. Agencies across Singapore have strict policies on what kind of devices each official is assigned. ‘It’s very, very prescriptive. We are likely to toss that out of the window,” Howe-Teo says.
LTA has asked its younger officials to form teams to help develop the new policies. They will give feedback on the policies and recommend how technology can be used. “This is an opportunity where LTA staff will have a say in how this place should run”, Howe-Teo says. The teams will have to justify the costs and benefits of using new technologies, and will be mentored by senior staff. A technical team will also validate their findings to ensure they are feasible.
[blockquote]“This is an opportunity where LTA staff will have a say in how this place should run.”[/blockquote]
Officials could also be allowed to use their own mobile devices at work. With access to internet on workstations blocked, this second device will allow them to continue using internet at work. “The day has come that we will entertain bring your own device”, she says.
The new internet policy makes using such devices more secure, she believes. The mobile devices will not have access to citizen data and government emails. Thus, “there is no bridge” for attackers to access the data through these devices, she says. Before this policy a move towards bringing your own device would have been “impossible”, she adds.
LTA will also develop simpler approvals and processes to allow people to work from mobile devices. “The way we work would be very different”, she says. “Tedious workflows” will be changed, while managers could approve work through a couple of taps of their smartphones and a yes or no, she adds.
There will be changes across all levels of the organisation. “Everybody will have to make certain changes for this new workplace to take place”, Howe-Teo says.
Key data schemes
Data and digital are also a key part of delivering services to citizens. “Without data, we are almost clueless about how people move,” Howe-Teo says. Three key schemes in which LTA is using data are: future scenario planning, crowd management and predicting bus arrival times.
[blockquote]“Without data, we are almost clueless about how people move."[/blockquote]
The agency uses data to model “what-if” scenarios to prepare for changes in the future. For instance, it can model how the transport network would be affected by a train disruption or a new housing town being built.
This has allowed the agency to build contingencies for transport disruptions. “It’s like a matrix,” Howe-Teo says: if there is an accident or a train breaks down, the system will tell staff what bus service has to be activated and from where. “You don’t have to go to the drawing board and start plotting” at the time of the accident, she says.
LTA is now building a single dashboard to take such analyses a step further. It will bring together data from all modes of transport, both public and private, she says. In the past, these were viewed individual streams of data. The united dashboard “allows us to make even faster decisions in real time”, she says.
A second project is to use data from WiFi routers to reduce crowding on train platforms. Commuters tend to gather in the middle of the platform, while the ends remain less used. LTA conducted an “experiment” to see whether increasing WiFi signals at the ends of the platform could move some people there.
This was trialled at the 33 most crowded stations across the island. The trial found that placement of WiFi routers does indeed influence crowding patterns. LTA now plans to expand WiFi coverage across all stations by 2020.
Third, the agency has placed sensors on every bus to predict their arrival times at bus stops. It has made this data public through its open data platform called DataMall, allowing third-party developers to build apps for commuters like SG Buses. The developers have also added their own algorithms into LTA’s bus predictions to make it more accurate.
Publishing the data has helped LTA cut complaints from residents about the accuracy of information, Howe-Teo says. “The reason is there are a lot more third-party apps” for commuters to get information from.
The data story
LTA’s data analytics team had humble beginnings. “Looking back, we were really a skunk team,” she says. The agency was overwhelmed with the amount of data it was receiving from 11 million trips a day in 2006-08. As a result, it developed a new data storage and analytics platform called Planet in 2010.
A spate of train breakdowns in December 2011 gave the team a jump-start. The agency was caught off-guard by two major disruptions of the North-South train line during peak hours within four days. “It had never happened before in Singapore,” Howe-Teo recalls.
Stranded commuters were diverted to buses, but these had “never taken this kind of load before”. It became obvious that the transport agency needed a better understanding of the supply and demand of buses through data, she says.
The agency began mining travel patterns. Rather than looking at only the existing routes, the agency looks at patterns in people’s journeys - where people from certain neighbourhoods tend to go, when and how.
Data analytics has already transformed the way Singapore’s transport agency serves citizens. Howe-Teo’s next revolution will be to help officials work at the cutting-edge with technology.