How a yearly hackathon promises to change government for the better
By Yogesh Hirdaramani
Interview with Li Hongyi, Director of Open Government Products at Singapore's Government Technology Agency (GovTech).
Every January, officers from Open Government Products, the government’s experimental tech development team, pause their normal work activities. Instead, they hack away at common problems facing public agencies and build digital solutions within the month.
Hack for Public Good has steadily become a part of the country’s digital government efforts. Li Hongyi, Director of Open Government Products at Singapore's Government Technology Agency (GovTech), shares how hackathons offer room for more citizen-centred tools.
Singaporeans may be familiar with the daily Whatsapp updates on Covid-19 that the government began sending out during early 2020. This was run on Postman, a mass messaging tool built during 2020’s Hack for Public Good. With Postman, they were able to reach all subscribers within 30 minutes.
Hack for Public Good focuses on ground-up rather than top-down solutions, shares Li. Instead of relying on a leader to instruct, the hackathon is akin to sending out a hundred people to find a hundred solutions.
This is unlike usual government processes, which tend to be long and bureaucratic, shares Li. There are no meetings or approval requests to clear. Instead, teams go from problem statements to ideas to prototypes in less than a month.
This speed allows teams to quickly react to emerging problems. For example, the WhoThis team developed a website that lets citizens verify official calls when they receive them.
This is a response to the growing number of scam calls and messages that have cheated citizens of their money. These scam calls may reduce trust in the government as citizens may be suspicious of callers that claim to be public servants.
“In the near term, we hope this can help to easily establish trust between public officers and citizens,” shares the WhoThis team.
Hack for Public Good also encourages the team to collaborate with co-hackers from private companies, such as Amazon Web Services, Stripe, and Google. This year, 40 per cent of the participants were private sector officials.
“These are capable people who work on tough problems daily. They look at what the government is doing and say, ‘I can do that better.’ If you think so, then come and do it!” quips Li.
A speaker from PetitionSG discusses their prototype.
Small team sizes have allowed participants to understand on the ground citizen needs and craft tools to address them. This year, a participating team named PetitionSG conducted over 50 interviews with citizens and citizen groups, such as Association of Women for Action and Research, SG Climate Rally, and the Community for Advocacy & Political Education.
The team picked up on two key challenges facing groups who wish to submit petitions. First, there is no way to verify that online petitions on sites like change.org are signed by Singaporeans. Second, there is a climate of fear around speaking out on controversial issues.
PetitionSG sought to build a petition platform that is more secure than the current online websites that ministers could refer to more confidently. They used the sgID authentication system to build a prototype that can verify signatures while protecting identities.
At the hackathon, the team won the “Most Likely to Break the Internet” award for their prototype.
“There are so many interesting ideas and issues on the ground that ministries have yet to learn about. We hope that this can include citizens as part of the problem solving process,” shares Aiden Low, team member of PetitionSG and Product Manager at Open Government Products.
To imagine is to create
“Ultimately, progress boils down to what people collectively believe and imagine can happen,” Li shares. Hack for Public Good is about taking the time to work together and imagine solutions to common problems in society, he explains.
Over 60 to 70 per cent of this year’s products have already gone live in some agencies, notes Li. For instance, Memo is already being tested in some hospitals. Memo is a platform that helps citizens view official communications, such as memos, and helps public officials generate them in bulk.
When they interviewed the Ministry of Health, they found that sending memos was either too slow by mail or hard to verify by email. It is also costly: during the pandemic, the government could have spent millions of dollars on generating memos, shared the team.
As their tool can mass generate verifiable memos within seconds, the team believes that the cost savings could be significant, explained the MemoSG team.
“Hack for Public Good has never been about Open Government Products. It has always been about demonstrating what the government and what the public can do,” Li elaborates. His eventual goal is for Hack for Public Good to bring in more people every year.
“Imagine if every year, the month of January was designated as a time where people were meant to think about how Singapore can be better… We could celebrate the end of January with people presenting about what they want Singapore to be in the next year,” he suggests.
Hack for Public Good has blossomed from only 15 people sharing ideas in an internal office to 90 people sharing grand ideas in an auditorium. As the yearly hackathon continues to draw in more bright minds, we may see more innovative public services become household names.