The secret to Singapore’s data-driven government

By Shirley Tay

Quek Su Lynn, Director of the Government Data Office at Singapore’s Smart Nation Digital Government Office, discussed the nation’s data strategy at GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation.

Singapore wants its public service to be “data-driven to the core”, said Quek Su Lynn, Director of the Government Data Office at the Smart Nation Digital Government Office.

Behind those ambitions are steps by Quek’s team to build a robust data blueprint. Singapore launched its government data strategy in June 2018 to break down barriers between agencies and win the trust of citizens. Just a month later, the country was hit by a massive breach of healthcare records, which led to a government-wide review of data security.

At GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation, Quek shared how Singapore is tackling resistance and building trust to share data.

Overcome hesitation and resistance

Agencies did not have “much appetite” to share data initially, said Quek. “Whether it’s a risk or ownership issue, we had to break some of those barriers down.”

The 2018 Public Sector Governance Framework detailed circumstances in which agencies can share data with each other. That helped to reassure concerns some agencies had around the misuse of data. “The act makes clear that accountability of the data will flow with the data,” Quek said.

The framework also criminalises the misuse of data. Unauthorised public officers caught misusing or disclosing data, or reidentifying anonymised data, can face a fine of S$5,000, a jail term of two years, or both.

“I don’t think we were trying to do something in a sort of ‘Big Bang’ approach,” Quek said. She shared that her team took baby steps and gave agencies the space to recognise the benefits of the data strategy.

Demonstrate transparency

“In our engagements with the public, there were a few things which I think we weren't doing so well earlier,” said Quek. “That's in the area of giving more information to the public about what we're doing, or how we're managing data.”

That’s where the Public Sector Data Security Review came in really handy, she added. The review was “precipitated in part by a series of data incidents” Singapore faced, Quek said, such as its 2018 SingHealth breach.

“We were very open with the issues that we faced,” said Quek. The government also “pledged to give more information to the public” on how it would better protect and manage data.

The review committee evaluated the public sector’s data security policies and released five recommendations last year. That showed that “we’re serious about demonstrating transparency and accountability for the actions that we’re taking,” Quek said.

That gave the public a sense of confidence, she added. “So it's not just about … having those structures internally and then just keeping it to ourselves.”

Build the right data infrastructure

Quek’s team also designed the government data architecture, which has a “very lofty aim” of reducing the time taken for agencies to share data.

The process used to take six to 13 months, and her team aims to reduce it to seven days by 2023. “Sometimes it takes people seven days just to be able to reach a person to talk to,” she added.

Her team set out to achieve that aim in two ways. First, they designated single sources of truth that agencies can retrieve data from. These sources are responsible for maintaining the data to a high standard of quality, Quek said.

Different agencies collect very similar types of data such as addresses. “We didn't want this to happen, because there should be a one verified source of what an individual’s address should be,” said Quek.

Managing data sets alone is not enough, Quek said. Her team has also designated four trusted centres to be data intermediaries for individual, business, geospatial, and sensor data.

The centres aggregate the data and distribute it securely to user agencies. “When it comes to policy analysis, we need to fuse data from multiple datasets across different agencies” to analyse it well, she said.

Public officers can only access and analyse de-identified data via central platforms that have been designed with the requisite safeguards, Quek added.

As Singapore accelerates its Smart Nation efforts, data will only become a more precious commodity. Having a robust data strategy in place will help the nation better harness the power of data.

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