How GovTech shaped Singapore’s Covid-19 response

By Medha Basu

GovTech Minister Janil Puthucheary’s opening keynote at GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation.

“We could turn to our teams and say, stop everything, order pizzas for the night and get this built”, Singapore’s GovTech Minister Janil Puthucheary said.

Singapore has set up a GovTech agency of 2,800 over the last five years. When Covid-19 hit, these teams began building tech to manage the crisis. Without this in-house capability, “our method of responding to the Covid-19 crisis using technology would have been quite different”, he said.

Opening GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation, Senior Minister of State Puthucheary shared how GovTech talent, open source and trust shaped Singapore’s Covid-19 response.

GovTech talent

From communications to contact tracing, every critical stage of tackling Covid-19 in Singapore has been heavily reliant on technology. In January, it built a tool to send daily updates on WhatsApp, the most popular social media app in the nation.

When masks were in short supply, engineers worked over a weekend to build a website to coordinate distribution in every neighbourhood. By March, it had launched an app to trace the spread of the virus among residents.

“Having that capability, that talent within the public sector meant that when we needed something built in a hurry - and we have had many things we needed built in hurry, including, for example, our interface to WhatsApp, MaskGoWhere, the initial TraceTogether protocol - we could turn to our teams”.

The coding skills in government meant that Singapore didn’t have to go through the bureaucracy to buy new tech.
“I think if we'd had to rely on normal government procurement process - the normal type of time cycle through which government does development in this space - we wouldn't have been able to move as quickly as we did.”

Open source

The GovTech Agency has open sourced some of these tools like TraceTogether, allowing the broader tech community to examine the code and help fix flaws. “We find that open source approach very useful at making our products better,” Puthucheary said.

“People look at your code, and from a fairly unbiased perspective, even a usefully biassed perspective, tell you what's wrong with it and how you can get it better. Secondly, people implement it in ways that you hadn't quite considered as being desirable or necessary. And that is very instructive to us as well.”

Puthucheary believes this “collaborative approach” to building tech will be crucial to the reopening of international travel with an “augmented contact tracing process”. “It requires some thinking through the data sharing protocols, the privacy protection protocols. But if we can get this right, if we can get this internationalisation correct, it will be an important part of resuming cross border exchanges, gradually, but safely”, he said.

Travellers from selected countries are required to apply for a “safetravel pass” online before they can enter Singapore. The service uses “technology to augment the administrative process of getting people in and out, filing applications, tracking Covid-19 results and then subsequently checking in and checking out”.

Trust and security

The greatest challenges have been public trust, data security and inclusivity, he said. Access and inclusivity are vital for the contact tracing tech to work. “That's fundamentally why we didn't say, well, it's just an app and, whoever has the phone can download it, and leave it at that.”

Singapore is distributing bluetooth devices to the elderly and others who don’t use smartphones. The devices do not track location, reveal the user’s identity or retain data, and will only be used to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, a government release said.

The other challenge to tackle has been ensuring security as the teams build the tools at speed. “Some of these products, the risk associated with the end product was not what you had thought of when you first started the crisis response. And so you need a team that's spending quite a lot of time and effort going in and auditing the security of your various platforms and servers. So they have.”

“You might have the development go very fast, but one breach and then you set the whole effort back because not no one can trust this process.”

Catch up on GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation here: