China is making a frantic push to dominate high-tech sectors. Image: iStock

Between August and November 2016, Singapore’s public subway system faced serious disruptions that resulted in multiple delays to its train services. They came on the heels of gargantuan efforts by the Land Transport Authority and train operator SMRT to repair and upgrade the country’s aging rail network.

Not to be discouraged, the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech) spared no time in discovering  the cause of the multiple disruptions and found that trains were stopping when they lost signal communication with base stations.

By visualizing the data of the timing of each train’s stops against distance, represented as stations against traces of trains moving through the system, GovTech found that the train faults tended to occur in sequence, in the same direction, and at the speed of a moving train. This led the GovTech team to the conclusion that the culprit causing trains to lose signal and halt could be a train passing by on the other side of the track, leaving broken-down trains in its wake.

Liu Feng-Yuan, director of GovTech’s Government Digital Services (GDS) Data Science Division shared: “We thought we were looking at the boat, but we were actually looking at the waves caused by the boat.” The rogue train was pulled out of service, and the breakdowns that had plagued the system and continued to affect thousands of commuters for months stopped completely.

In another example of how the country’s public agencies are becoming more apt at harnessing data for public good, Singapore’s lead agency, the Housing and Development Board (HDB), has also put in place strong foundations in data analytics to continually raise the quality of the country’s public housing.

Recounting how HDB uses analytics to better plan apartment blocks, Dr Hee Li Min, director of research at the Centre for Liveable Cities, said: “Parameters such as wind, shading and urban heat effect are modelled and simulated even before the first brick is laid, so that when the buildings are finally constructed, living conditions are more pleasurable.”

Hee added: “Meanwhile, sensors would also help housing estates be more resource-efficient and save on costs. The need for maintenance would also be conveyed through sensors, so you don’t even need to inform town councils about any problems arising.”

Data foundations for the public sector

More stories like these are needed to inspire other public agencies to harness data and emergent technologies for the public good, as they offer compelling insights into how agencies that are serving diverse needs have bucked the conventional ways of working with data.

To hasten the adoption of new capabilities such as self-service visual analytics, GovTech announced last year an initiative to equip officers with data skills for a “Future-Ready Singapore.”

Possessing data that is neither structured for analysis nor placed in the hands of people with the necessary skills and tools to make sense of it is akin to leaving oil in its crude and original state instead of harnessing it as energy

“As part of our digital government transformation, our aim is for more public officers to be able to understand and make use of data. This will help us accelerate Singapore’s progress towards building a Smart Nation.” said Jacqueline Poh, then-Chief Executive for GovTech.

This partnership has also given public agencies access to a bespoke selection of content, learning resources, and subject matter experts, where concepts and best practices in visual analytics are constantly being advanced.

But beyond courses and training in self-service visual analytics, public officers should also actively source and enroll for conferences that are tailored for local public officers to engage experts in government and visual analytics about the best practices in how public sector organizations in Singapore and beyond access, analyze, and share data in open-data environments.

Data as a force for public good

Experts opine that, while we have produced more data in the last three years than our past 5,000 years of human history, only 0.5% of data that we have produced globally are harnessed for productive ends.

Possessing data that is neither structured for analysis nor placed in the hands of people with the necessary skills and tools to make sense of it is akin to leaving oil in its crude and original state instead of harnessing it as energy.

This means that we must double-down on our efforts to empower a broader section of  public officers to be both interested in data and to acquire skill-sets to see and understand data for themselves.

JY Pook, senior vice president of Tableau Software Asia Pacific, explains: “From the permanent secretary to the social service officer, from data creators to explorers and viewers in any government ministry, officers with different needs for data can today simply subscribe to more advanced analytics capabilities for a monthly fee, akin to ‘Spotifying’ one’s data,, in a secure way.”

As Singapore’s largest employer, the public sector must continue to fast-track the country’s transformation into a data economy – the velocity of progress will greatly depend on how quickly its public officers embrace self-service analytics as sine qua non.

Marcus Loh

Marcus is Director, Asia Pacific Communication at Tableau Software (NYSE: DATA), the world's leading visual analytics platform. He is passionate about making brands matter in the data age and takes joy in giving back to the community by serving in various advisory capacities for academia, industry and non-profits. His views on brand strategy, data literacy and public affairs have been published in The Diplomat, Channel NewsAsia, The Straits Times, The Business Times, Singapore Business Review among...