Samantha Wong, Software Engineer, GovTech, Singapore

By Medha Basu

Women in GovTech Special Report 2020.

How do you use technology/policy to improve citizen's lives? tell us about your role or organisation.

At GovTech Singapore, our tagline is "Empowering Citizens Through Technology". We are a government agency that aims to make a difference by identifying areas where technology can improve citizens' lives, and implementing those solutions. The first step - is to dream. My role in the organisation is the latter - making those dreams come true. Sometimes, that includes sizing down large plans. We like to use the metaphor: better to have a skateboard, than four wheels and a generator.

What was the most impactful project you worked on this year?

Due to Covid-19, many projects became related in one way or another to the containment of the virus, or the adjustment to containment policies. The GoBusiness portal I worked on was no different.

We were initially a Licensing portal meant to help young companies apply for (food and beverage-related) licences. Around April 2020, we started to pivot to become an Exemptions portal instead, so that our government could issue the Circuit Breaker announcement and businesses could apply for exemptions in order to carry out critical operations such as the removal of foodstuffs (that would otherwise go bad), the periodic checking of server rooms (to ensure there wasn't any mechanical malfunction) or the collection of long-range port deliveries at previously scheduled times.

The team at the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) had been hard at work sorting out the approval process and sorting through literally tens of thousands of manual application submissions from our businesses. They understood this was not sustainable going forward and engaged us to jointly figure out a way to make this process easier - for them, and for the public. Ultimately, some parts of the approval process still required a human eye - but the portal helped in terms of quicker communications to the public.

The opportunity to make an impact is sometimes what makes the difference. Had MTI not decided to engage our services, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to be part of this project or make such an impact either. So, a big thanks and kudos to them for seeing the gap and plugging it. Not to mention, there were several women at the helm, too.

I would also like to take this opportunity to give a shout-out to the squad. This was by no means a one-man or one-woman project. It took the concerted efforts of a team to get this off the ground.

What is one unexpected learning from 2020?

Keep your hands clean and don't touch your face! Jokes aside, it's inspiring to realise how many folks were eager to get back to work even when they had a good excuse not to. These were SMEs fighting for their survival, and still are. I salute them.

There were also dozens of government officers working very hard during a period of great uncertainty, and still are. I salute them.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2021?

I'm currently fascinated by homomorphic encryption (HE). It's a form of encryption that allows one to perform calculations on encrypted data without first decrypting it. It's easy to see the applications for such a technique, isn't it?

As cloud technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous, we must ask ourselves how is our data being accessed? When I sync my family photos up to iCloud, Google Cloud or even Dropbox, do several servers get copies of those files? (Probably.) I could encrypt those files. (Okay.) What if I wanted to use a free online service to crop or beautify those pictures? I would then have to upload an unencrypted copy of those pictures. (Hmm.)

Homomorphic encryption opens up the prospect of performing operations (for e.g. cropping or beautifying photographs) on data (e.g. jpeg, png formats) without having to give the server performing those operations the unencrypted version of the data.

For the moment, the technology is more about adding and subtracting for operations, but who knows where this might go? I’m curious about HE’s underlying mechanism and looking forward to the future possibilities.

What are your priorities for 2021?

Stay happy, stay healthy, stay productive.

What advice would you give to women looking to start a career in GovTech?

Just do it! GovTech has female engineers, female designers, female managers. Our culture is family-oriented, and you get a chance to have an impact on fellow citizens! So, plenty of reasons to join us!

Write a message to your future self.

This is hard. If I had to say something, I might say something like: "You'd better be sleeping more regularly." Sleeping punctually at 10pm has been a long-standing, but oft unattained goal of mine!