The recent SingHealth security breach that resulted in 1.5 million patients having their personal data stolen has brought up the issue of Singapore’s Smart Nation goals once again.

In the wake of the cyberattack, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in his speech at the Public Service Engineering Conference that the incident should not “hold us back in building a Smart Nation and a digital government.”

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What is a ‘Smart Nation’ again?

The Smart Nation initiative was launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in November 2014, with the goal of “transforming Singapore through technology”, making us a “leading economy powered by digital innovation”. The initiative boils down to five pillars, called Strategic National Projects, as listed below:

  1. National Digital Identity
  2. e-Payments
  3. Smart Nation Sensor Platform
  4. Smart Urban Mobility
  5. Moments of Life

More about these pillars can be found here.

snp-updated-milestone-infographic-lr
Milestones for Strategic National Projects. Image: Smart Nation

We are almost four years into the initiative and progress has clearly been made on some fronts. For an example, e-Payments can now be made at some hawker centres across the country, although much is still being done to encourage customers to make the switch. The new Moments of Life app, which provides a variety of government services to parents of children below the age of six, launched in late June this year and has generally received positive feedback. Similarly popular is the HealthHub app, that allows users to access their health information and medical appointments in one place as well as to earn points and rewards for staying healthy.

The success of these apps, however, should not blind our smart nation to the fact that many government-related organisations seem to believe that digital innovation in their sector simply equates to making everything available in an app so that information and/or services are available “on-the-go”.

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But some things just don’t need to be done on the go.

From the Singapore Police Force to the Ministry of Home Affairs to the Department of Statistics, each of these organisations has created an app, allowing citizens to do a variety of things on their mobile devices. I mean, who doesn’t want access to statistics about Singapore while on-the-go, right?

Screenshots from the SingStat app
Screenshots from the SingStat app. Image: App Store Preview

Imagine being curious about our country’s population while shoving others out of the way and squeezing yourself onto the MRT during your morning commute. Now imagine not being able to whip out your phone, tap the icon for the SingStat app to find the answer out right away. Or worse, having to access this data from their website, which is perfectly optimised for mobile by the way.

Other things can be done better without an app.

Screenshot from the SGSecure app
Screenshot from the SGSecure app. Image: App Store Preview

Another ingenious idea is the Ministry of Home Affair’s SGSecure app, whose purpose is apparently to help Singaporeans “play a part to prevent and deal with a terrorist attack”. Far from having prevented any terrorist attacks since its inception, the app is known for being a point of contention last year, when it was found that all Mindef and SAF personnel (including national servicemen) had been “made” to download the app.

While app downloads hit the one million mark in September last year, and currently ranks #6 in the News category on the App Store (Singapore), app reviews reflect the unbridled displeasure of those who have been forced to contribute to the numbers.

Had the app been somewhat useful, this might have been seen as a case of disgruntled Singaporeans complaining about the paternalism of authority figures. But the practicality (or lack thereof) of the app is perhaps best summed up by this review left on the App Store by one Yin Se Kio earlier this year.

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Review of SGSecure app by Yin Se Kio
Review of SGSecure app by Yin Se Kio. Image: App Store Preview

Sarcasm aside, the prevention or containment of most terrorist attacks require that responders be contacted as quickly as possible. Taking photos of and typing in a description of the situation will definitely take much more time than calling the police hotline directly and speaking to the relevant personnel.

Another problem with having an app designed for emergency purposes is that such apps must be downloaded in advance (imagine frantically searching for the app and waiting for it to download while tracking that suspicious-looking man in a black baseball cap walking into the MRT with his suspiciously large, black duffel bag). The downloaded app, however, is not used in every day life or with any regularity at all. This means that SGSecure will inevitably be the first to go if users find themselves running out of space or have decided to declutter their phones.

Even if the app does not get deleted, its lack of presence is likely to rival that of the “Tips” app on the iPhone–users access the app once, perhaps twice, and then completely forget that it exists. The app is rendered useless as those who download it cannot possibly use it if they don’t remember its existence, especially in an emergency situation.

Finally, some apps have enough bugs to render them useless.

The Police@SG app, for an example, allows individuals to submit information for non-emergency situations, like police appeals for information. The cautious among us can also keep updated on the latest crime news, while good Samaritans can keep a lookout for missing persons. One can even download Police@SG to submit a single report and delete the app until it is next required.

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 3.26.31 PM
Reviews of Police@SG app. Image: App Store Preview

Unfortunately, the app has received multiple negative reviews for crashing and hanging whenever users attempt to submit reports. These are not teething issues either. According to the version history, the i-Witness module, through which users can submit their eyewitness reports, was first added in April 2016, but users continue to experience problems with the function even in July 2018.

This may be due the app’s incompatibility with the newest operating systems, but the decision to provide users with an app should not be made if plans to consistently update the app have not also been made. After all, the call towards a ‘Smart Nation’ is a call towards “pervasive adoption of digital and smart technologies throughout Singapore”, which is made much more difficult if the user experience of such digital technologies leave so much to be desired.

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Make apps people will actually use (or don’t make them at all).

This may sound obvious, but digitalising our nation does not equate to making apps that no one wants to use. Although mobile usage in the country is certainly on the rise, there is no need for us to create solutions for problems that do not exist. I truly cannot imagine a situation in which anyone would need (or want!) to access Singapore’s economic and demographic data via mobile app.

As for services that can be improved if digitalised, make sure that their digitalised versions actually work effectively. Don’t propose to provide solutions to a problem and then half-ass the solution.

Finally, while apps may be convenient, putting everything in an app is not the only way to encourage Singaporeans to harness and make use of technology. Let us introduce apps only when they truly make Singaporeans’ lives better.


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