The Big Read: Strides made, but some way to go for Government to quench thirst for data

The Big Read: Strides made, but some way to go for Government to quench thirst for data

Many start-ups and academics interviewed said they hoped the Government would engage them to work out ways to collaborate on data.

Strides made, but some way to go for Government to quench thirst for data
Nearly five years after the Government pledged to make more data available to get the private sector to play a big role in turning Singapore into a Smart Nation, business leaders said it could go further.(Image: TODAY/Raymond Limantara)

SINGAPORE: From population and employment figures to white papers, government data was vital in getting business at Caregiver Asia off the ground.

The online platform, launched in 2015, links freelance caregiving professionals to those who need their services. Chief executive officer Yeo Wan Ling said it used population statistics to find out where elderly people live in Singapore, to deploy freelance carers where their services are needed most.

Through white papers and figures from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the labour movement, the firm also found out that many freelancers were not protected by legal agreements or work-injury-compensation insurance. It then set out to develop products to plug these gaps in the market, Ms Yeo said.

Indeed, the availability of public data, coupled with breakneck advances in technology, has made once tortuous tasks - such as finding a freelance nurse, part-time cleaner or even a home - much easier these days.

READ: New framework aims to better enable data sharing, increase trust in Singapore's digital economy

Helpling, an online home-services platform that allows users to hire part-time cleaners, compared government demographic data of the various districts in Singapore against its ideal customer segments, such as busy professionals and millennials.

Mr James Lim, its Asia-Pacific managing director, said: “Districts with demographics that highly resemble our ideal customer profiles would be prioritised as part of our marketing strategy.

“The best insights are derived when we compare our own internal data with government data. It allows us to validate our assumptions, and find out where the gaps and opportunities are.”

At Ohmyhome, a property transaction platform, government data offers insight into past transaction figures and agent transaction records.

“We make use of all these data to make it easy for our clients,” said its co-founder Race Wong.

Mogul.sg, a property portal, launched up to two years ahead of schedule in November last year, after it approached the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) to supply it with the data it needed to map landmarks and facilities sought after by home owners.

Its CEO, Mr Gerald Sim, said the company initially embarked on the effort alone, gathering data and mapping facilities such as electric-vehicle charging points manually, but completed only 40 per cent of the job in one-and-a-half years.

It sought the SLA’s help in June last year and received the rest of the data it needed - such as the location of supermarkets, kindergartens and park connectors - in a matter of weeks.

“We had 50 categories (of data) coming into our database,” Mr Sim said.

In 2017, Cabinet minister Chan Chun Sing described data - the new currency in the digital age - as a valuable economic resource that allows Singapore to overcome its limitations on land, labour and natural resources.

The private and public sectors use data in a myriad of ways.

READ: Singapore plans data portability requirement as part of PDPA update

Telecommunications firms, for instance, feed large amounts of anonymised customer data to firms and government agencies. These include commuting patterns and what people are interested in, based on online searches.

Firms in turn use the data to make business decisions, such as where to set up stores, and government agencies tap the information to improve policies and programmes, as well as services and infrastructure.

The Government also keeps large volumes of data, some of which are still not readily available to businesses.

Nearly five years after it pledged to make more data available to get the private sector to play a big role in turning Singapore into a Smart Nation, business leaders said it could go further.

Elsewhere, academics, researchers and economists are also seeking greater access to data. The lack of data has constrained some in their research. Others have steered clear of doing research on Singapore.

The latest 2016/2017 Global Open Data Index, which benchmarks the openness of data around the world, placed Singapore 17th out of 94 economies, with a score of 60 per cent.

Taiwan (90 per cent) took first place on the index, and Australia and the United Kingdom tied for second spot (79 per cent).

Singapore was fully open when it came to data sets such as the government budget, key national demographic and economic statistics, and procurement. But the city state was not open at all in areas such as government spending, the index found.

It noted that the Government published spending data only for open-tender procurement and “at an aggregated level”.

A passer-by looks at her mobile phone as people take a selfie photo using a smartphone in Singapore
A file photo of Singapore's central business district skyline on May 10, 2019. (File photo: Reuters/Kevin Lam)

The expectation is that governments publish records at a “detailed transactional level”, with data showing expenditure on a continuing basis, including transactions and subsidies.

Singapore was ranked 23rd in the 2015 index, 66th in 2014, and 47th in 2013. The index’s publisher, British non-profit organisation Open Knowledge Foundation, discontinued the annual survey from 2017 owing to a lack of funding.

READ: Want smart Asian countries? Get governments to be digital ready first, says Go-Jek CEO Nadiem Makarim

Companies and academics said they have benefited somewhat from greater data openness in the last few years but noted that there is room for more granular data in areas such as population distribution, the labour market, as well as historical data.

IMPROVING EFFICIENCY WITH MORE DATA

Companies - including Caregiver Asia and Helpling - tap demographic data, such as age and income, to determine the viability of setting up operations in Singapore, as well as how to distribute their services and marketing activities.

But more data would help, business leaders said.

Helpling’s Mr Lim said more data on the distribution of holders of the Employment Pass - which allows foreign professionals to work in Singapore - based on where they live and their country of origin would help the firm’s community marketing efforts. This is because expatriates form about 40 per cent of its customers.

Such a breakdown will allow the firm to offer more “hyperlocal on-demand home services that cater to their unique needs”, he said.

Ms Yeo of Caregiver Asia said the authorities should track and release more data to help start-ups in the care-delivery industry make “real breakthroughs” in service and operational efficiency.

READ: New office for digital industry aims to help create 10,000 tech jobs in Singapore

For instance, how much time does it take for a patient discharged from hospital to get a professional caregiver at home?

While hospitals and the Agency for Integrated Care may track the status of patients who receive social assistance, Ms Yeo said public hospitals could collect data from other patients as well, to make community care more efficient.

“If you release such data, it allows people to come in to try to provide solutions,” she said.

Ms Wong from Ohmyhome noted that parents want to buy or rent homes near the schools they hope to get their children into - Singaporeans living within 1km of a school receive priority admission.

But the authorities, she said, were unwilling to release data to the platform on residential proximity to schools via an application programming interface (API), which allows apps to talk to one another.

Nevertheless, Associate Professor Lawrence Loh of the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School said having data does not mean it has to be released unconditionally.

Data on residential proximity to schools may “hard-code social stratification, especially since it is a known fact that prestigious schools are often close to expensive neighbourhoods”.

“We have to be clear what the rationale and impact of the data release are,” said Assoc Prof Loh, who heads the Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations at the school.

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Away from the business world, Mr Shannon Ang, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Michigan, said that when it comes to surveys carried out or funded by the Government, the usual and biggest challenge is that the agencies involved are not forthcoming about why data collected for the surveys has to be restricted and what needs to be done to lift these restrictions.

“Study teams outside the Government, but are funded by the Government, usually make a vague point about ‘government restrictions or funding’ to deny data requests,” he said.

“Government agencies themselves either reject requests outright or tend to take a long time to get the process of collaboration started, presumably because sharing data with researchers is not a priority for them.”

NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser, who researches social stratification, said he would like access to anonymised income and wealth data from government sources such as the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore and the Central Provident Fund Board, so that he may merge these with data from his own surveys.

These data include total monthly and annual individual and household incomes, as well as those comparing income, education and occupations between generations to gauge the extent of social mobility.

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Assoc Prof Tan said population figures are more reliable than data from surveys, which suffer from less-than-ideal response rates. Survey questions on income also rely on self-reporting.

Access to more valid and reliable data benefits researchers. They are more likely to get an accurate picture of the extent of upward and downward mobility within and across generations, for example, he said.

“Where research findings serve as indicators of government performance, or of how specific categories of residents, by class, race, gender, age and resident status, are doing in terms of, say, education and income, they point us to where the significant gaps and problem areas are, and the social categories that require closer attention,” Assoc Prof Tan added.

MORE SPECIFIC DATA WELCOMED

When it comes to data on the economy and labour market, academics, economists and businesses said the figures provided are up-to-date but may not be sufficiently specific for their needs.

Economist Linda Lim, who has studied Singapore’s economy for more than four decades, said that in the last few years, the Government had stopped publishing data it used to put out.

These include indigenous gross domestic product (GDP) and per-capita indigenous GDP in the national income accounts, as well as racial and nationality breakdowns of manpower variables in the labour force survey.

Indigenous GDP measures the income levels of Singapore residents. As a result, Professor Lim, who is with the University of Michigan, said she could not draw the full longitudinal trend of the share of GDP and labour income that went to Singapore citizens and permanent residents.

Singapore is one of the world's most Internet-savvy societies, offering broadband speeds envied
Office workers in Singapore's Raffles Place financial district. (File photo: AFP)

Workers’ Party Member of Parliament (MP) Chen Show Mao had in 2016 asked why the Government stopped publishing the indigenous GDP in the annual Yearbook of Statistics since 2013.

Responding, the Ministry of Trade and Industry said there was a lack of public interest, with neither online downloads nor public queries about the figures in the years leading up to the decision to stop publication.

Mr Manu Bhaskaran, CEO of Centennial Asia Advisors, which provides economic and political analysis, said that basic information on the budget, including the stock of reserves managed by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC, is unavailable, so “calculating the true fiscal stance of the budget is impossible”.

“For a developed economy with substantial capacity for data collection, Singapore does not do an adequate job,” he said.

The implications could be far-reaching. Without understanding the goings-on in the city-state with comprehensive data on society and the economy, problems cannot be anticipated and issues fully understood, Mr Bhaskaran said.

READ: Singapore to ‘double down’ on artificial intelligence efforts, says Vivian Balakrishnan

“There are no checks and balances, no capacity to question ill-thought-out policies or to tease out under-the-surface trends that could turn risky for the country,” he added.

Economist Song Seng Wun of CIMB Private Banking was concerned about the timeliness of data. He noted that monthly retail sales figures were published with a lag of about two months.

“If we want to talk about being more productive, and how we can use technology to improve workflows, an example would be more timely data releases … The lag can be improved,” Mr Song said.

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Asked to respond to this suggestion, the Department of Statistics said it is committed to improving timeliness, and providing more details such as data on the proportion of online sales as a part of total retail sales.

The department added that it is releasing more statistics, as well as data at more granular levels and at higher frequency on the SingStat website, even as it rolls out safeguards to ensure data confidentiality. These include statistics on household expenditure according to the age groups of heads of households.

As the services sector forms nearly two-thirds of the economy, Dr Chua Hak Bin, an economist with Maybank Kim Eng, said there is a need to improve data on the sector.

For example, there is a dearth of official data that makes it difficult to get a picture of the growth in the information-and-communications sector, which is the fastest-growing industry here, he noted.

As for the labour market, Mr Song noted that the MOM has invested much effort in data provision by releasing preliminary quarterly figures on indicators such as employment growth and unemployment before publishing adjusted figures.   

Still, Dr Chua said the MOM does not provide the foreign component of employment growth every quarter, even though this is important in ascertaining the employment situation for Singaporeans and permanent residents.

In response to queries, a MOM spokesperson said the foreign component of employment growth is excluded from the ministry’s quarterly reports because foreign workers are transient and it is “more meaningful to look at the trends over a longer term”.

The spokesperson added that users may write to the ministry’s manpower research and statistics department to request figures “at a more granular level or of a higher frequency than those published”.

“We will make available the data if it is assessed to be statistically robust and meaningful for the intended use.”

DATA GAPS FROM THE PAST

For academics in particular, looking into what the nation has done in decades past can set Singaporeans on a journey of self-reflection.

But government records, such as internal communications and memoranda, can be hard to come by.

Assoc Prof Chong Ja Ian, deputy head of NUS' department of political science, researches foreign policy and said he would have liked to look into Singapore’s relations with China before formal diplomatic ties were established in 1990.

For instance, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had first visited China in 1976 to meet its then paramount leader Mao Zedong and his successor, Hua Guofeng.

Assoc Prof Chong would have liked to explore how those types of contact came about, the considerations and limitations, and what informed, complicated or limited efforts to co-operate after that initial meeting.

“We have no idea. So, in terms of understanding our own country, this becomes a big limitation,” Assoc Prof Chong said.

Man types on a computer keyboard in front of the displayed cyber code in this illustration picture
A man types on a computer keyboard in front of the displayed cyber code in this illustration picture taken on Mar 1, 2017. (File photo: Reuters/Kacper Pempel)

He noted that documents such as minutes of meeting and internal memoranda are readily available in places such as the United States and Taiwan. But in Singapore, the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) does not make public a detailed catalogue of the resources available, he said.

There is also no systematic process to declassify documents. Today, researchers may approach the NAS for resources, but requests are forwarded to the relevant government ministry, he said.

Each agency may have a different approach to national security, privacy and other considerations, he noted.

The absence of a systematic declassification process is a “big deterrent to doing more research on Singapore”, said Assoc Prof Chong.

“I would rather do work that I can get a clearer sense of what I can do, rather than fish around. I don’t have that much time, resources or energy to (do so),” he added.

The corollary is that there is less research on Singapore on topics that can inform the people about the goings-on of the past. “It prevents a better self-understanding of our society,” said Assoc Prof Chong.

Agreeing, Prof Lim from the University of Michigan said academics do not study what they lack data on. So, research in Singapore on those “missing-data issues lags behind that of other advanced countries and we are not represented in published international research”.

FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE

Asked to respond to the concerns of academics and business owners, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office said that the Government shares data with the public, including businesses and researchers, to facilitate research, develop new applications and improve services.

“This is done in a safe and secure manner, and strong safeguards are applied when sensitive individual-level data is shared,” its spokesperson added.

He added that researchers can continue to request data sets via data.gov.sg - Singapore’s open data portal housing data from 70 public agencies. It launched in 2011.

“The relevant government agency will assess such requests on a case-by-case basis. When there is strong demand and justification for a data set, the relevant government agency will endeavour to make the data set available on data.gov.sg, which will be updated on a monthly, bimonthly or yearly basis depending on the type of data,” the spokesperson said.

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The Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech) added that data.gov.sg - which some academics and businesses had criticised for publishing only broad, aggregate data - was refreshed in 2015 to “actively provide data visualisations and data-driven blog posts, to make government data relevant and understandable to the public”.

A developer’s portal, the agency added, was also introduced in 2016 to provide developers with easy access to real-time data from various government agencies through APIs.

As of June, the one-stop portal gives access to more than 1,600 high-quality data sets and 14 real-time APIs from 70 public agencies, said GovTech.

Ms Tin Pei Ling, deputy chairperson of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Communications and Information, said the Government has made significant and progressive steps to share more data over the years.

This, she noted, was “a far cry from a long time ago”.

Singapore financial centre
A view of the central business district area. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

The MacPherson MP said this was also a signal that the country would face more complex problems in future requiring solutions not only from the Government, but from the private sector and Singaporeans at large.

Asked how the Government can strike a balance between sharing more data and data security, Ms Tin said that some information cannot be released for strategic and security reasons.

As for requests for data from researchers and firms, these are handled “case by case” because there must be “a clear understanding of what value-add will come out of the collaboration”, she added.

Dr Kris Hartley, an assistant professor in the department of Asian and policy studies at the Education University of Hong Kong, said this balance “must be mediated through the political process, and thus, differs across political systems”.

In a 2015 commentary in The Straits Times, Dr Hartley - then a doctoral candidate at the NUS’ Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy - and Professor Asit Biswas, an authority on environmental and water policy, suggested that governments could provide more avenues for information access to maintain legitimacy.

Transparency not only shifts discussions about policy and governance “away from supposition and innuendo, and towards facts”, but invites creative policy solutions from society and enables a country to be compared on a wider variety of metrics internationally, they wrote in the commentary titled “Singapore can afford to be more open in sharing data”.

Dr Hartley said that access to data in most Western liberal democracies is largely seen as an entitlement because freedom-of-information policies abound.

“While Singapore makes some data openly available, it seems uninterested in embracing a wholesale approach to data sharing, particularly on issues related to elections, fiscal spending and other politically sensitive issues that arguably have little to do with national security - outside military budgets,” he said.

NEW APPROACHES NEEDED

Ultimately, even as the Government releases whatever data it can, Ms Yeo from Caregiver Asia said the community, academics and think-tanks need to discuss, share and interpret the data to make breakthroughs in service and product delivery.

The private sector in Singapore, she said, does not do enough of these.

In Singapore, the exchange of data is typically limited to companies in a commercial arrangement.

For instance, e-commerce platform ShopBack provides data insights to several of its online merchants, giving them a glimpse into the volumes of transactions and the amounts that customers spend.

In contrast, big companies in the US, for example, have teams devoted to churning out white papers as part of initiatives for the good of the community, Ms Yeo noted.

Still, she said that some non-governmental organisations, such as philanthropic house Lien Foundation, are an alternative source of data, derived from the studies they commission.

Ms Tin suggested that a single government agency or platform take the lead in acting on data requests from firms and the public, rather than have them approach various departments.

“This one-door approach would be most helpful,” she said.

As for researchers, Assistant Professor Woo Jun Jie, a Singaporean political scientist at the Education University of Hong Kong, suggested that the Government consider setting up a more comprehensive database that academics can use.

“This database could be linked to institutional accounts, such as university libraries,” said Asst Prof Woo, who was formerly from the Nanyang Technological University’s public policy and global affairs programme.

“Caveats can also be put in place for more sensitive information, such as not allowing direct quotation of such data in publications.”

Many start-ups and academics interviewed said they hoped the Government would engage them to work out ways to collaborate on data.

Economist and Nominated MP Walter Theseira, who in February called on the Government to be more transparent in sharing official data, said the authorities ought to start a “systematic conversation on how to make data publicly available”.

For some start-ups, the challenge in obtaining data is akin to the battle between David and Goliath.

Ohmyhome’s Ms Wong said her company hoped to work with the Government to make housing transactions simple and fast for home owners, although its “conversations with the HDB (Housing and Development Board) have been faced with closed doors”.

“Given that we are small and they (the HDB) are massive, it is not easy for us to approach them for a meeting or for a very open-minded conversation.

“An open conversation towards this goal would be appreciated,” she said.  

Source: TODAY/zl

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