It’s not about big data; it’s about open data

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3 December 2015
Strata + Hadoop World 2015

It is not about big data; it is about open data. Laying out the Singapore government’s attitude towards data at Strata + Hadoop World 2015, Singapore’s Foreign Minister and Minister in charge of the country’s Smart Nation Programme Office Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said it was not so much about technology but about politics and culture.

Having open data demonstrates the government’s “obsession” with integrity, honesty and openness, he said, which explains the strong push to make data from public agencies available, machine-readable and accessible through application programming interfaces.

The second aspect of open data is about driving the reengineering of government processes. He cited the example of OneService, a government app that allows people to give feedback on municipal issues. The feedback is visible to all users of the app, so everyone knows when a problem is detected, and when it is solved or not solved. This is being done not to light fires within the civil service but to encourage public officers to think upstream – “How to prevent problems from happening; how to work smart so that I can work less”.

Dr Balakrishnan also talked about the culture of co-creation, which will allow every citizen and everyone who is interested to become “part of the solution”. “Every complaint is data point,” he said. It shows trends, it shows what people care about, and allows public agencies to respond is a more effective way. By sharing the data, everyone can offer a solution, the solutions can compete and the best can be selected, he said, issuing an invitation to conference participants to treat Singapore as a living laboratory for the city of the future, and to develop prototypes to test their ideas here.

The government has also been working on several ideas as well. One of these is Beeline, an experiment in crowd-sourced express bus services which are optimised such that commuters’ transportation needs are met, the number of stops is reduced, and the services commercially viable.

Beeline is created using analytics tools developed with partners, said Liu Feng Yuan, director, government analytics at the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA). It not only taps on data that is already available to identify viable bus routes, but also lets commuters have a say in what routes they want. Crowd-sourcing features within the app allow users to specify their start point and end point, and these will be clustered to identify viable routes or modify existing ones.

For example, unlike traditional bus routes which tend to remain unchanged for years, using Beeline, it took less than 14 days to introduce an additional bus stop on a route in Punggol based on crowd-sourced data. A new crowd-sourced route was also activated in a matter of weeks, and the service was full on the first day of operation, attesting to the viability of the crowd-sourced approach.

Another area that the Government Digital Services team at IDA is working on is to tap on data to monitor the pulse of the economy and come up with more real-time and granular economic indicators.

Currently, it could take six months to a year to figure out where the economy is heading, said Feng. But by pulling in data such as those related to transportation, job postings, electricity consumption and many others, it would be possible to gauge what the “heartbeat of the city” is like and allow policy makers and private sector organisations to respond to shifts in the economy that may not be immediately evident.

Data daddying versus data empowerment

Sounding a more cautionary note on the use of government data in a separate presentation on “Data ‘daddying’ versus data empowerment”, Tara Hirebet, regional new business director for R/GA, spoke about the risk of governments overstepping their boundaries when it came to the collection and use of data, very much like “over-protective parents”. 

Citing smart city initiatives such as the greenfield project of Songdo in South Korea and those in existing cities such as Rio de Janeiro, she said data that is hidden and put behind green curtains (à la Alice in Wonderland), can be “unnerving”. “Complete optimisation and control, even with the promise of perfect human existence, can get a bit mundane,” she said. “We have to think about the human component of this.”

“Those involved in the big business of big data need to remember that our very human citizens and consumers are walking emotional data points that need factoring into the development of experiences and solutions, if we want them to have truly large scale and long term usage and impact.”

In this, her perspective is not much different from the one put forward by Dr Balakrishnan, where openness and co-creation are an essential part of the Smart Nation agenda.  

Getting from data daddying to data empowerment will first and foremost involve making data visible and understandable, said Hirebet. Data also needs to be made more collaborative and engaging. For this to happen, it has to be open source and hackable to a certain point. The more people are involved in the solution, the higher the success rate, she said.

Finally, data needs to be made motivational. It has to be in the vernacular and understandable to the masses so that people can get involved and engaged. “Make everything personal, relevant and cultural,” she said. “Culture is what draws people to cities and keeps them there.”