Go Big With Data: Providing Data-Driven Public Services

Everyday, tech giants amass vast amounts of personal data for commercial gains. Some, however, have introduced innovative public services that people are finding valuable. What’s needed for the public sector to do the same with the data it has?

In the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, Ms Toshiko Ayano in Tokyo struggled to contact her relatives in badly hit Ofunato City. Relief came a day later from an unlikely source: Google Person Finder, an information-crowdsourcing platform, which showed that her extended family members were safe, as recounted in a Google case study.

More recently, during the March 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels, people turned to Facebook’s “Safety Check” feature to check in on loved ones or mark themselves as safe. The platform can leverage its access to users’ recent locations to alert those in or near affected areas to update their safety status, which is then shared with their Facebook network within hours, even minutes, of news breaking.

Private corporations stepping up as alternative providers of public services is a growing trend as meaningful user data increasingly goes into their caches.

In emergencies, for example, people may turn to such online services first rather than to traditional sources of information and aid, such as local embassies. Soon it would not be surprising for Facebook to be the first to inform you that your relative is safe — before a public agency does.

In transport, ridesharing services such as Uber may overtake citizens’ use of public transport. As for education, massive open online courses or free education sites like Khan Academy are already plugging the gaps, especially for citizens of countries where access to quality education is lacking.

To be sure, governments’ access to citizen data remains significant. After all, governments know when one is born, the number of vaccination shots one has, one’s housing type, tax contributions and more — as citizens interact with their governments at major milestones in their lives, says Mr Jason Bay, Director of Economic Regulation Division at the Ministry of Communications and Information.

But tech corporations with massive reach such as Amazon, Google and Facebook will continue to grow their data collection capabilities with features such as universal sign-in, which allows users to log in to various Internet services using a single user ID and password.

Furthermore, the data collected can be surprisingly accurate. Belgian research organisation CIM studied the traffic of a website with more than 1.5 million monthly visitors. The data (gender, language and even personal interests) obtained from polling the users directly was nearly identical to the demographic information that Google offered to the website owners and their potential advertisers. This means that Google was able to paint a picture of more than 1.5 million with just their login data and browsing patterns.

Privacy paradox

Does it perturb you that Google knows a lot more about you than you realise?

Professor Simon Chesterman, Dean of Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore and a data protection policy specialist, notes that though many people express concern about threats to privacy, “their daily behaviour is often completely inconsistent”. An MIT Sloan School of Management study found that 90% of users shopped at e-commerce sites despite stating that they did not trust those sites to keep their personal data private.

Yet, measures by governments to re-gather, grow or share citizen data will likely be met with more “calls for the public sector to have transparent rules about the collection, use and disclosure of personal data”, Professor Chesterman adds.

Who Has The Data

Mr Liu Feng Yuan, Director, Data Science Division, at the Government Digital Services, believes Singaporeans can accept the use of their data if there is value to them or for the wider public good, as long as the government and corporations take serious measures to address privacy when doing so.

“There are levels of data ‘depth’ that we can be mindful of when extracting useful information,” says Mr Liu. As an example within the healthcare sector, aggregate data, which excludes personally identifying information (e.g., medical history or NRIC numbers) “remains very useful in analysing how the clinic could reduce waiting time, while minimising any compromise to privacy”, he explains.

Using data well

To tap the value of big data in order to improve public service delivery, there needs to be a “stronger technical voice” in governments, says Mr Liu.

“There’s a need for deep technical expertise at all levels of the Public Service, not just junior or entry positions,” he says. For example, someone in the role of a chief technology officer, who is familiar with the latest technology, could have a greater say in decision-making and crafting policies.

Agreeing, Mr Bay points out that, sometimes, policy directions are decided first, before technical teams are asked to implement the policy “within predefined parameters”, which he feels should not be the case.

In February, the government announced its plans to hire 1,000 engineers and programmers by the end of 2016, increasing the pool by more than 13%. As technical skills broaden, it may be that chief officers overseeing the areas of data and cybersecurity will also be needed.

Some 100 engineers and data scientists are already designing apps and other digital ways of delivering public services, based on data collected by various public agencies. Read more about them in This Hive's Got IT.

    May 11, 2016
    Chia Soong Ming
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