Smarter Citizens for a Smart Nation

With data the lifeblood of a Smart Nation, the goal should be to give people here the skills to mine data and to interpret it themselves.

THIS year marks SG51, the first page of the third chapter in the Singapore story — the first chapter being our transition from third world to first, and our second being first world to world hub. After an exhilarating jubilee year, and a miraculous economic transformation that is unlikely to be repeated, one question remains: Are we writing Singapore’s final act?

At the opening of Singapore’s 13th Parliament, President Tony Tan spoke about a stronger partnership between policymakers and the citizenry as crucial to the continuation of Singapore’s success. The President specifically cited this in the context of Singapore’s ambitions to become the world’s first Smart Nation — one that is citizen-driven. The government has rolled out data.gov.sg, Singapore’s open-data portal, which has close to 12,000 data sets available to the public in the form of interactive dashboards, visualisations and blog posts. The Singapore Department of Statistics also has a trove of data on topics ranging from fertility rates to wages. With so much data available, instead of asking for more data from the government, perhaps it is worth asking how much more data is really enough.

Allow me to frame this conundrum in the context of Singapore’s struggle with raising productivity.

Acquiring speed-to-insight

Since the start of the productivity movement here more than three decades ago, Singapore and its workforce have been struggling to attain the desired level of productivity. Nomura Global Markets has put the cause of Singapore’s sluggish productivity momentum down to the failure of firms to implement schemes that the government has put forth to help enterprises make the productivity leap.

Yet despite the available help, there is still a multi-billion dollar opportunity in productivity gains which organisations in the Asia-Pacific have yet to tap. Market research firm IDC found that firms which can “analyse all relevant data and deliver actionable information can achieve an extra US$65 billion in productivity benefits over their less analytically-oriented peers by 2020”.

The same study noted that while data is considered as a strategic asset, what really matters is an organisation’s ability to deliver actionable insights to decision makers quickly. In other words, speed-to-insight — the time taken for businesses to make sense of information from the data deluge — is, and will be, a competitive advantage for businesses and a driver of productivity.

On a national scale, data is the lifeblood of a Smart Nation. And so, instead of asking for more data, perhaps the more important consideration is whether a large-enough segment of workers are sufficiently equipped with the right attitude, skillset and applications to quickly make sense of all these data, by themselves?

Self-service data culture

Translating the vision of being citizen-driven into reality is indeed an ambitious process. It is one that would require close partnership among government agencies, industry, schools and the broader public. The reality is that it will take “many helping hands” to make a self-service data culture a reality.

It is encouraging to see some important stakeholders among these “helping hands” recognise the importance of promoting this self-service culture.

For instance, to better engage students and introduce business analytics in a more lively and relevant manner, Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Business & Accountancy has adopted self-service analytics in its classroom to make data less intimidating, particularly for beginners. It has realised that it is crucial for its students to get a good grasp of data analytics early, as there is a growing demand for talents with data-analytic skills across industries — particularly so in Smart Nation Singapore. The module has been made available to more than 500 students for the 2015 academic year, more than double the number in 2014.

Students found this approach refreshing. They like the fact that such an approach allows them to explore the many ways in which data can be mined, analysed and understood. More importantly, students are able to appreciate that the analytics skills they have acquired will be relevant and useful in their careers in the future. Beyond the classroom, Ngee Ann students have also become contributors of visualisations to data storytelling portals like Tableau Public.

I hope that Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s story serves as an inspiration to other institutions that cater not only to tertiary students, but also mid-career professionals pondering the use of their S$500 SkillsFuture Credit, because the empowerment of self-service analytics at workplaces can indeed transform organisations.

In a recent commentary published in Singapore Business Review, “Making Singapore Asean’s data hub”, JY Pook, vice-president of Tableau Asia-Pacific, cited the example of how Eveready Industries — one of India’s largest battery manufacturers — managed to make faster, more data-informed decisions with self-service analytics. Eveready has since made a considerable jump in sales with returns-on-investment of 526 per cent within six months of making such self-service applications available to employees.

A 2015 Asia-Pacific study from IDC has shown that when business users — likely to be experts in their own domain — get access to data, they are able to ask the right questions, accelerate speed-to-insight, and as a whole, outperform other organisations without such a self-service data culture, by an impact of two-to-one.

The rise of wearable tech

There is also a rising adoption of wearables in Singapore among the broader community as part of a bigger, worldwide development in what is known as the Internet of Things or IOT. It is a phenomenon that is likely to reshape the world as we know it, as devices become capable of interacting with one another with a digital voice and footprint. The increasing use of Jawbone fit bands and other IOT gadgets among everyday consumers have given rise to the Quantified Self, an individual whose actions and lifestyle patterns can be tracked and managed using real-time, easy-to-use data dashboards. Imagine the possibilities of being able to use our personal IOT devices to interact with our Smart Nation through sensors that will blanket the island in the next decade!

The possibilities are immense, but so are the challenges. Till now, the market has been focused on getting smart devices online, rather than on helping us consume the data that the gadgets and machines collect. As a result, these solutions fail to help people see and understand the data they mine — and what good is data you can’t use? Clearly, the merits of citizen-driven Smart Nation can only be realised when citizens themselves are fluent in making sense of all this data that they produce, by themselves.

Keeping Singapore exceptional

At the launch of his book Can Singapore Survive?, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Kishore Mahbubani, said that Singapore’s first 50 years have been truly exceptional; he predicts the country’s return to a state of normalcy, a trend that history tends to confer upon exceptional city-states time and again. He is one of Singapore’s foremost diplomats, and people familiar with his other books and statements can tell that he was probably being deliberately provocative.

Like many of Singapore’s public intellectuals, Prof Mahbubani continues to offer big ideas on defying history by stacking the odds in Singapore’s favour. One of these ideas involves the creation of a more resilient society by nurturing an educated citizenry. Echoing this perspective, businessman and SR Nathan Fellow Ho Kwon Ping has suggested that “a governance culture of participatory democracy can work only if the institutions of civil society can be actively engaged in decision-making”. He suggests one enabler of a more active citizenry is the sharing of information, and the disclosure of data.

But while the call for greater information exchange has never been stronger, data suggests that the onus must be on citizens to embrace the right skill-sets and applications to see and understand all this data for themselves.

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