“If tech can disrupt dating and human relationships, can tech disrupt racism?” wonders Brigadier General Gaurav Keerthi, founder of the civic tech collective Better.Sg.

Keerthi, a senior government official by day, has decided to try. He formed a group of hackers that work outside of government to test new approaches to social challenges, he told the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Festival of Ideas.

Better.SG is a collective of tech developers, creatives, innovators and volunteers that plan to tackle societal issues through digital tools. It will also grow the entire civic tech ecosystem in Singapore, and “inspire collective action” through code, Keerthi said.

Fixing social issues 101

Through Better.SG, Keerthi hopes to address inequality, racism, classism, injustice, and other social issues that risk harming Singapore’s cohesive social fabric. “I think tech cannot just make social work more effective, it can fundamentally change the nature of human problems as a whole,” Keerthi said.

Should the government tackle this solely by themselves? No, he believes. There is a “limit to what the government can do” – and citizens should also step up to affect change in their communities.

Civic tech allows faster iteration on social issues, particularly more sensitive ones. “If you screw this up, the citizens can be pretty pissed off,” he jokes. The advantage for a civic tech collective is that it can fail quickly and quietly. “If it fails, we are a bunch of young people trying out something and it’s cool. If it succeeds, we will have shifted the needle on social issues.”

Building a collective

Better.SG has already pulled together a gang of volunteers from the public and private sector. Now, it needs to set them to work.

The collective is contacting social groups to see how their tech skills can help. For instance, Keerthi encounters welfare organisations that would like better volunteer management systems, or systems to manage citizen enquiries. Better.SG can help them code this up.

Tools and ideas in Better.SG’s pipeline include a prototype of a hospital bill calculator for the elderly, and an app that broadcasts missing persons reports on social media. Once its developers build a minimum viable product, over a few days or weeks, they “throw it out in the wild” and test it with actual users, according to Keerthi.

Fake news

The most developed tool they have created is Confirm.SG, which Keerthi built to disrupt the problem of fake news. At the time of its inception three years ago, regional governments were approaching the issue by building rebuttal websites.

Keerthi looked at the problem another way – by building a quiz website, similar to the Buzzfeed ones that determine which movie or TV show character you are. One quiz asked, “Which line correctly represents the growth of the Malay population in Singapore?”. The results of 2,000 respondents showed filter bubbles developing around young Malay males that believed the population was shrinking, and old Chinese males that believed it was increasing, Keerthi explained.

“I’m suddenly able to get really granular data about where and how fake news is spreading, who is spreading it, and start to stitch together a narrative about why it’s spreading,” he went on to say. The Confirm.SG website requested only demographic data from its users, such as age, race and type of housing.

Going one step further, these quizzes on sensitive social issues can actually reveal the worldviews of Singaporeans of different demographics, Keerthi continued. “Older, wealthier Chinese males have a certain worldview. Younger, less rich Indian males have a different worldview,” he remarked. “What is that worldview? What is the information that spreads there?”

From racism to insurance policies and missing persons, there is plenty for the movement to do. “I am looking for people with ideas. People who care about social issues. People who care about problems.”

Get in touch with Better.SG here.