Reaching out to your citizens can be as simple as firing off a text. South Africa has created a citizen engagement app, GovChat, that is “right on the backbone of WhatsApp” so that it is free for citizens to use, said Ayanda Dlodlo, Minister of Public Service & Administration.

This single platform allows for “direct interaction” between citizens and the local government, where they can provide feedback and rate public services, Dlodlo said at the recent Innovation Labs World summit hosted by GovInsider.

A panel of international government innovators shared how their respective countries are redesigning services and fostering innovation, aided by data, AI and blockchain.

Boosting digital literacy

From infrastructure maintenance to utilities, South Africans can now rate public services, including hospitals, clinics, and police through the GovChat platform on a localised level. Government officials can use it to disseminate announcements too: “When there are blackouts, people will be able to report information on when that will be coming back on,” Dlodlo continued.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, the government hopes to boost digital literacy for parents in a bid to tamp down behaviours such as cyberbullying. “We are aiming to reach mothers and fathers at houses even after their retirement, and to start teaching them digital skills,” said panellist Dr. Ahmed Altheneyan, Deputy Minister for Technology Industry and Digital Capacities. “It is very important to educate mothers and fathers on how to control their devices of their sons and to make sure that there is constructive use of the internet.”

Another area he is focusing on is the digital economy. He wants to drive a spirit of entrepreneurship in youth, and build a healthy ecosystem of startups, Altheneyan said: “Instead of being a job seeker, being an entrepreneur and starting to employ their colleagues in their startup businesses”. His ministry is launching initiatives to invite startups to create solutions for manufacturing, smart cities, safety, fintech, and enhancing pilgrimage experiences.

In Sri Lanka, the government is speeding up emergency services with the use of data. “Emergency healthcare services is something that people didn’t think was possible in Sri Lanka,” panellist Hon. Harsha de Silva, State Minister for National Policies and Economic Affairs, remarked. “In most countries, you cannot get to a person within 15 to 18 minutes.”

Since piloting the programme, which has helped to train paramedics and provide a fleet of 88 ambulances, it now takes an average of 12 minutes and 50 seconds for emergency services to reach victims, he said. It serves 65% of the population. “We continue to improve the service through a central control totally, absolutely driven by data,” de Silva continued.

AI, blockchain, and our youth

Taiwan, on the other hand, is using Artificial Intelligence in social innovation as a means to foster collaboration, according to panellist Shuyang Lin, Co-founder of the Public Digital Innovation Space. A new social innovation lab launched last October allows people to work together and create new ideas in a ‘sandbox’. There are AI models that people can experiment with, she said, and programmers are on hand to help users implement their ideas. And companies or organisations taking part in the sandbox are “allowed to break some laws in a certain amount of months”, Lin added.

“We have this idea of VR democracy where we have people logging into a virtual world as an avatar, so you can fight against each other without bleeding.”
To make democracy more lighthearted, Taiwan is also turning to virtual reality to encourage discussions around social issues and increase citizen participation. “One of the technologies we use is virtual reality, just for fun, because we know democracy might be very serious,” she said. “We have this idea of VR democracy where we have people logging into a virtual world as an avatar, so you can fight against each other without bleeding.”

Other new technologies are fast changing up citizen engagement. From a private sector perspective, panellist Nimo Naamani, Chief Technology Officer of startup Horizon State, noted how “we have a problem with fake news, we have a problem with stories that are very geared toward emotion”. His company builds community engagement platforms which help to ensure that “the data that the government puts on the platform for the citizens to engage with is indeed factual”.

The platforms that his company builds are powered by blockchain, where decentralisation is “baked into the system”. Part of their function is to display key facts as they are, without bias, so that citizens are empowered to make better decisions, he remarked. “Communities and people can self-organise; they can solve the problem themselves if they have the government rather than the government taking a top down approach and telling them what to do.”

As a final parting thought, panellist de Silva pointed out how it is a “challenge and an opportunity” to keep up with rapidly changing technologies, and see to it that youths today are more discerning of information that they encounter online. “How do you breathe, eat, work sleep, in the real world while you have this virtual world almost around us?”

Dlodlo took a more optimistic view: “The future is what we see in each and every one of our countries, of young people that are innovative, tech savvy, always wanting to see things changing for their own sake and the sake of generations to come after,” she said. “These types of platforms bring out the best in us and also in children.”

Read more coverage of Innovation Labs World 2018 here.