Australia’s foray into connected healthcare brings together a smorgasboard of technology platforms to deliver quality care. These include citizens’ access to portals for information-sharing in an on-line environment.
Among the trends, mobile apps, digital information management, and “digital hospitals” are helping deliver quality care. Connected care will drive the healthcare agenda this decade. This network encompasses public and private hospitals, as well as grass-roots patient care.
But this connectivity is not just about high-profile investments in ICT systems and platforms. It involves connecting people with their personal information, and being able to communicate more readily with caregivers and medical practitioners.
This connectivity empowers patients to manage their personal data and medication — while taking advantage of mobile devices, as well as information downloads over dedicated portals and gateways.
Increasingly, bring-your-own-device (BYOD) technology is helping busy clinicians manage and track workloads across dispersed sites.
Digital record-keeping is transforming the way hospitals manage medical records while migrating paper documents to an on-line environment. Across remote and regional areas, high-speed, fast-access broadband is helping deliver tele-health services while reducing pressures on over-stretched hospitals, and tackling long-distance travel time.
More broadly, funding for connected healthcare is a top priority at the federal and state levels. Recent reforms seek to engage patients in the personal management of healthcare, while delivering integrated services, reducing duplication, and managing the cost of running ICT systems.
These reforms are supported by broad-based funding, and their details are given below:
An integrated Personally Controlled Electronic Health Records (PCEHR) offers an ambitious roadmap to e-health services. More than 2,000 healthcare organisations are already registered in the PCEHR system. The tally of PCEHR users peaked at 107,822 during April 2013.
New South Wales
New South Wales will spend nearly AUD 1.5 billion over the next 10 years on modernised healthcare. This investment incorporates mobile apps to track and manage personal information, broadband for telehealth, as well as digital information management, imaging, and voice recognition technology for clinicians.
The state’s 2012–13 budget establishes an e-health and communications technology fund to support service innovation and ICT development. The 2012–13 budget earmarks AUD 100 million over four years for the Victorian Innovation, E-Health and Communications Technology Fund. This fund supports health system innovation and information communication technology projects, including system and software upgrades and installations.
Policy planners are moving to streamline healthcare services. Recently, the administration carried out an audit of health-related services and operations. This review sought to identify potential savings and efficiencies ahead of projected rationalisation of assets and processes.
The government is committing AUD 42.6 million in 2012-13 and AUD 142.6 million over ten years for integrated healthcare projects. These include an enterprise patient administration system, and improvements to electronic record-keeping. South Australia is also rolling out an enterprise system for medical imaging while consolidating imaging services. The state’s e-health initiative also involves setting aside AUD 191.7 million to upgrade and implement IT healthcare systems.
The Department of Health has allocated AUD 5 billion for an ambitious Hospital Building Projects over five years. WA Health is also modernising its network of hospitals and health services. This state department employs 40,000 staff and provides health services to around 2.3 million people in metropolitan, rural and remote areas.
For Tasmania, the federal government has assigned an AUD 37 million e-health funding package as part of an AUD325 million “emergency rescue package” for the state’s health system. This allocation also support a roll-out of the PCEHR across hospitals, while enabling allied health, pathology and diagnostic services to be fully integrated with e-health services.
I recently spoke to Dr SPT Krishnan, Chairman, Infocomm Technologies Advisory Panel,
Singapore Red Cross Society. He and his team were responsible for Donorweb, a web platform for “disseminating critical information on blood requirements and reaching prospective blood donors during normal and emergency time periods.”
It was developed within the Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP (LAMP) framework, all of which is Open Source and is probably the most widely-used software bundle for web development at the moment. Dr Krishnan spoke with clarity and passion about the background behind the project, and one remark he made stood out in particular: “No one company owns or controls an open source project. Even if a particular company withdraws from or is unable to continue with a project, somebody else is able to take up the leadership.”
As someone who has experience within the LAMP ecosystem, I realised that therein lie both the strength and weakness of Open Source software. I’ve had the chance to witness first-hand the diversity of solutions, talent and degrees of success an Open Source environment can bring to web development. I’ve seen projects start off with a tremendous amount of energy and vision, but have those quickly dissipate in a circle of mismanagement, a constantly shifting pool of developers, and IT leadership too dependent on key individuals being accountable to a timeline.
But the developer community is also one of the key strengths of the open source environment, the equivalent of which simply does not exist in the proprietary paradigm.
In my previous life as a web designer, I was once stuck because of lack of pagination on a sitemap for a massive e-commerce site using Joomla and Virtuemart — open source Content Management Systems, free for use out of the box. I had to get it done in 48 hours, and a few relevant forum posts and $100 later, it was done. A developer from Macedonia agreed to take it on, sent the code over in less than two days, and I simply “plugged it in”.
I cannot imagine how long I would have had to wait or the amount it would’ve cost if I had not had access to the code, and had to depend on going through call centres and several levels of service staff.
On the flip-side, of course, had it been for a less popular and developer-rich open source system, the wait could’ve been indefinite. The code is not guaranteed to be optimal, either, and several hands — belonging to different coding practices and skills levels — crafting a single-purpose, business-ready website cannot guarantee resilience.
However, now with platforms like Wordpress, Joomla, and Drupal — the latter pre-customised especially for the public sector — it is possible to build multi-site government portals for just about any conceivable citizen-facing function. PHP coders are ubiquitous, and either hiring a few in-house or outsourcing development is cheap and easy. As Dr Krishnan said, “One of the most important things in choosing LAMP was the assurance that it’s not going to vanish one day.”
The only thing it needs is awareness and initiative.
Open Source development thus needs either a very strong in-house team that will assure an organisation of continuity in its IT systems or third-party customisation services that will take on the job of tweaking and maintaining systems as needed. The difference between this and the proprietary model is that there is no lock-in: an organisation can switch between in-house and third-party teams at will, or scale up or down their service plans as needed.
Talking about avoiding vendor lock-in, Dr Krishnan remarked, “When a company withdraws or stops supporting software, you are left with no choice but to upgrade to the next version, which can be a difficult process because IT may not be your core line of business — your core business is probably something else.”
Open Source thus inadvertently introduced the business model of the cloud decades before the ‘cloud’ as we know it came about. Perhaps this is really the natural evolution of the software provision model as it adapts to and responds to society’s needs. In any case, as government entities become more entrepreneurial and stop thinking in terms of “permanence” of IT contracts (rolling over from version to version ad infinitum), Open Source can become a viable option; IT has percolated so deeply into organisational processes that it’s almost impossible to point to where IT ends and administration begins.
Proprietary software acquisition can present a purity of purpose and a lack of hassle, while Open Source procurement gives great power, but also great responsibility. Openness is being embraced by traditional software powerhouses like Microsoft — at least when it comes to interoperability and open standards — and it’s safe to say the open-proprietary divide is more meaningfully talked about as a continuum instead of a strict dichotomy.
For a self-aware, well-resourced IT department, both have their advantages and disadvantages, their uses and their pain-points, and I’m not fully convinced that one is always better than the other devoid of context.
Analysts and experts examining the field of government technology and innovation identify the emergence of cloud computing to be a major trend in government transformation. However, from the discussions I participated in during FutureGov Forum Singapore 2013, it was clear that the concerns most government departments have about cloud computing have not changed, and remain common across departments and even countries!
Two interactive discussion tables on cloud computing at FutureGov Forum Singapore 2013 gave senior IT decision-makers the chance to share their experiences and concerns, and gain new ideas to respond to the challenges they’re facing in their organisations.
Information security and sovereignty remained by far the most cited concerns, especially given the increasing incidents of cyber ‘hacking’. Organisations dealing with sensitive citizen data, such as ministries of health and government hospitals, added ensuring patient confidentiality to concerns about data security. Concerns about keeping physical data centres within the country, and ensuring the security of data during transmissions were also raised.
Several decision-makers raised questions about the flexibility of cloud contracts. Rapid changes in technology lead to cost fluctuations, but departments that enter into long-term contracts with cloud vendors could become stuck in an expensive deal without the flexibility to pay market prices.
Another point raised was the increased vulnerability of government departments through dependency on vendors’ networks and servers. Even a short downtime of vendor services could have serious consequences for operations.
There are steps that governments can take to encourage and support cloud adoption.
Rosio Alvarez, CIO, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Department of Energy, United States, explained that the United States government set up a list of basic requirements that cloud vendors must meet in terms of security and robustness.
“The federal government ensures that the service provider meets a base-line of requirements”, Alvarez said. “This allows agencies to take advantage of cloud services more readily in lesser time. The provider too doesn’t have go through the evaluation a number of times — they have to do it only once.”
This programme, named the ‘Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program’ (FedRAMP) provides a government-wide, standardised approach to security assessment and authorisation of cloud products and services. FedRAMP aims to accelerate the adoption of secure cloud solutions, and increase the confidence of government departments in these solutions.
Alvarez explained that after rigorous testing and evaluation, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory determined that cloud vendors had significant expertise in the area of cybersecurity. “Our cybersecurity experts went through all our questions and issues with Google, such as where the data resides, who has access to it, and extracting data if we were to change providers,” she said.
While her organisation uses cloud services, some extra-sensitive data is kept out of the cloud. For example, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory possesses data on the nuclear stockpile of the United States, which is kept behind numerous layers of security on the Lab’s own servers.
In September 2009, typhoon Ketsana swept over Metro Manila with record-breaking rains, leaving many parts of the National Capital Region and its neighbouring provinces submerged in waist-deep water. Several roads and private properties were damaged and over 747 fatalities were recorded.
During that time, netizens coordinated their efforts in organising search and relief operations in their very own neighbourhoods via Twitter.
I can recall one government official telling me that netizens actually began clamoring for government front line agencies to open up their own Twitter accounts because that’s where most of the conversations would happen. In addition, there was also a strong demand for real-time information on how the rescue and search operations were progressing.
Twitter has proved to be a popular crisis communication tool for government agencies and a platform to engage citizens in meaningful conversations about issues that matter most to them.
However, as Government agencies ‘tweet’, do they get replies, or re-tweets? Are their tweets favourited? Or do their messages drown in a sea of boring tweets?
Communication is a two-way process. When one person says something to another, with no sort of response, it is still communication — albeit not a very effective one.
While there are some who simply copy and paste headlines of press releases or updates into Twitter and tweet them out, there are notable government agencies that are really going out of their way to leverage the microblogging site’s capability to further amplify their message and genuinely engage citizens through the information they are disseminating.
I met Yves Gonzalez, Traffic Discipline Director at the Metro Manila Development Authority, a couple of months ago and he candidly shared how the agency’s Twitter team would add humour and entertainment to their tweets to better engage citizens.
One of their popular tweets was during Jennifer Lopez’s concert in Manila last year, when the team behind @MMDA reminded its followers: “@JLo concert 2night at SM MOA. Expect traffic buildup at area as many fans have been waiting for tonight to dance again.” (pictured below)
The tweet garnered a lot of attention and followers were quick to respond praising @MMDA for adding life and colour to the usual dull and boring traffic information they receive.
“By adding humour and entertainment to our tweets, the message is amplified; we see it all the time, as humorous messages are retweeted more than the boring ones,” he said, adding that comments from the public and the number of ‘retweets’ and ‘favorites’ are enough to indicate that they’re doing an effective job in engaging citizens.
Another example is Seoul Metropolitan Government Mayor Park Won Son’s use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms to encourage citizens to take part in policy making.
According to official reports, around 50 per cent of the 120,000 suggestions submitted by citizens via Twitter (with a weekly average of 840), have been processed, and Mayor Park Won Son and his dedicated Social Media team has replied to 85.6 per cent of complaints and suggestion.
Furthermore, the city government makes an effort to analyse the feedback it collects from Twitter and various other social media platforms so that it is reflected in the policies, decisions and initiatives that it launches.
The two agencies I’ve mentioned are just some of the many government agencies in the region trying to set a standard on how governments can efficiently use Twitter to perform their organisation’s functions.
According to Gonzalez, if organisations join Twitter — or any other social media platform — merely out of peer pressure, they’re destined to do a poor job in engaging citizens.
Oftentimes, public sector organisations loosely dedicate their Twitter account to ‘public service’ and citizen engagement. However, the word ‘public service’ itself is a very broad term.
Should public sector organisations decide to join any social media platform, it is important that they first concretely identify why they’re doing it. “You have to define what your purpose is, or else you’re just aimlessly posting tweets and status updates that won’t really matter to citizens,” he said.
The value of crowdsourcing presents a door of opportunity for public sector organisations to explore what can be done to turn crowdsourced data into even more actionable information.
I’ve been speaking with a lot of CFOs and government finance experts, and there’s a buzz in Asia-Pacific about the open data movement. The benefits of common open data standards are numerous; perhaps the most underrated is bridging the gap between citizens and government.
The days of dictating to citizens are gone — citizens want to be heard, and they want to contribute. Regionally, citizens are providing government with an outsider’s perspective.
Through the creation of shared public procurement portals (e-procurement systems), data are increasingly being shared by public bodies in open formats. Through this, suppliers can provide competitive pricing based on higher volumes. Governments that have implemented such systems have experienced increased transparency, improved internal efficiency, lowered transactional/administrative costs and increased value generation for suppliers and public bodies.
Dr Kyung Soon Chang, Director General, International Goods Bureau, Korea, confirmed that greater government-citizen transparency has led to significant changes within the e-procurement space. Dr Chang leads all international affairs for Public Procurement Services for the Republic of Korea. Prior to becoming a Director General, Dr Chang led the International Cooperation Division.
During her tenure at the Division, she brought together several countries to set-up a network that enhanced the effectiveness of all procurement aspects. Dr Chang spoke of her achievements at the International Goods Bureau, the largest being “the improvement of transparency and reliability through the use of the e-procurement system”. She will be attending our annual GovCFO Summit later this year, where she will share her experiences around e-procurement strategies and cross-border relationships.
Ever-changing developments in technology are presenting the public sector with better, more advanced ways to serve communities. Electronic payment is yet another growing segment within the public sector that will lead to greater efficiency, transparency and customer service when implemented well.
Last year, the World Bank confirmed that cost-cuts of up to 75 per cent can be achieved by governments that implement such systems. These findings have led to the World Bank to release the “General Guidelines for the Development of Government Payment Programs” document, drafted to help governments modernise their e-payment systems. The report addresses the operational challenges government payment programs face, while promoting best practices and establishing standards for developing and improving government payment programs.
The modernisation of government, moving towards a more open and transparent platform was further outlined by Siggi Brandt Kristoffersen, Deputy Director of Municipality of Copenhagen, Denmark who will also be speaking at the GovCFO Summit. Kristoffersen highlighted Copenhagen Citizen Service’s success by using digitisation that resulted in substantial cost cuts, improved citizen services and engagement with new citizen groups within the community.
GovCFO Summit 2013 (20 - 21 June, Phuket, Thailand) will feature many more interesting perspectives on financial process modernisation within the public sector. I look forward to keeping you posted of technological advancements within the public sector as well as upcoming plans, challenges, experiences and success stories from key thought leaders in government finance.
Federal and state governments – in Australia and New Zealand – are refining their ICT strategies. These road-maps clarify just how the ICT dollar will be spent this decade – while delivering faster, cost-effective and improved services to citizens.
Broadly, the focus is on corporate governance, modernising technology infrastructure, boosting service delivery, and engaging with the industry at the outset.
More recently, South Australia unveiled its ICT strategy, with its ‘South Australia Connected – Ready for the Future’.
South Australia is not immune from pressures worldwide to do more with less with the spending dollar, this strategy notes. The focus is to stay “connected,” and policy planners must innovate to address the needs of information-savvy citizens.
In New South Wales, The NSW Government’s ‘ICT Strategy 2012’ seeks to bring NSW out of the “dark ages and into the 21st century.”
This strategy cautions there are no “easy or quick fixes” to how the ICT dollar is spent. This state aims to use its annual AU$2 billion ICT spending programme more effectively. The goal is to increase competition, manage time and resources, and tackle the costs and risks of embracing new platforms.
In Victoria, The Victorian government’s ‘ICT Strategy 2013’ observes that portfolio management is one panacea to helping agencies avoid unnecessary investment, while freeing up resources.
Where practical, agencies may reuse and share ICT systems and contracts rather than develop new solutions. Plans are under-way to establish a single common register of ICT business systems. This register identifies sharing opportunities as an alternative to developing new systems.
Victoria is exploring a mix of in-house, managed and outsourced service delivery. Planners are focusing on staying cost-effective, responding to changing needs, and leveraging available market expertise and opportunities.
The Queensland Government’s ‘ICT Strategy 2012’ seeks to work more closely with the ICT industry. This collaboration reinforces partnering with the private sector, while identifying new ways to do business. This engagement involves teaming up with solutions providers to support government initiatives.
At the federal levelThe Australian Government’s ‘ICT Strategy 2012-2015’ offers a comprehensive roadmap for reform. This strategy aims to use ICT to simplify and integrate government services, while keeping communications private and secure, especially for citizen data.
The focus is on innovation and a strategic use of ICT, while harnessing the full potential of a digital economy and new technologies, including cloud services.
The federal government wants to engage more openly with citizens and the industry. It aims to create, generate, share, manage, and efficiently use information resources.
Other more broad-based strategies include The Tasmanian Government’s ‘ICT Strategy 2012’
The states of Western Australian, Tasmania, and Northern Territory have ICT strategies as well — however, not as detailed as the Eastern seaboard states.
Across the Tasman, in New Zealand, the government has its own version of a strategy, ‘Government ICT Directions and Priorities’.
The New Zealand strategy is currently under scrutiny. Plans are under-way to refine this roadmap further — while building on what the administration has delivered to date. Cloud computing is under closer investigation — including cost-savings this platform delivers.
Adding to these strategies, the Australian and New Zealand governments have also appointed government chief information officers (GCIOs). These GCIOs add gravitas to how strategies are implemented, while ensuring that technologies-of-choice match agency-wide needs, are cost-effective, and deliver the biggest bang for the buck.
States with GCIOs (or equivalent) include Queensland, NSW, South Australia, and a more recent addition in Victoria. The Federal government, on the other hand, has split the role of GCIO into two under the auspices of the peak agency AGIMO. These roles incorporate the Australian Government Chief Technology Officer, and GCIO — with a sharing of responsibilities.
In a recent conversation with Dennis Ang, Director of Nanyang Polytechnic’s School of IT, we talked about how online courses and in-person learning sit together: sometimes uneasily, sometimes never, but usually as good friends.
He talked about the ubiquity of IT in education, and how it’s unavoidable because of almost every conceivable aspect: reduction of costs, convenience, scalability, and a dozen other benefits. This resonated well with my experience — for the past six months, I have experienced them first hand.
After I graduated from college a year ago, I missed being a student. I missed the promise and potential of each class, and the new knowledge and ideas that I would imbibe every semester.
Then, I discovered Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on Coursera and edX. These online sources not only fulfill my yearning for further study, but also sit well next to full-time employment on the schedule. Now, I get to be both a journalist for FutureGov and a student at Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and Duke.
I have taken on more than ten different courses over the last six months (but completed fewer, unfortunately), in political science, economics, psychology, and social issues. The content available in these courses is unparalleled — not only are many of the lecturers exceptionally qualified and skilled teachers, making the video lectures an invaluable resource, but a sizeable part of the reading material provided is not easily available online.
A large benefit for me was having a guide to topics I have always been interested in. It’s easy to google ‘irrational behaviour’, but chances of getting lost in the vast world of the internet are high. ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behaviour’ on Coursera, however, gives me an organised overview of the field, provides basic learning resources, and acts as a guide for self-learning later.
Online students must, however, identify courses that match their capability to invest time. MIT’s ‘Challenges of Global Poverty’, for example, estimates a requirement of six hours every week, while Stanford’s ‘Introduction to Logic’ requires two. With my full-time job, I am four weeks behind the schedule on ‘Global Poverty’. However, for users like me who aren’t always looking for certification of completion, falling behind is more acceptable - I will finish the course, just not in time to meet deadlines for assessments.
Despite my love for Coursera and edX, taking these courses has shown me that online learning doesn’t yet pose a strong threat to traditional universities. Many of FutureGov’s government and education friends agree - online learning is a hugely powerful tool to be used with face-to-face classes, not as a replacement.
Accurate assessments through online courses, for example, are problematic – how do you control cheating? The flexible schedule could also prove to be more of an obstacle than an advantage, leading to easy procrastination and almost certain delay.
Group work is another critical aspect of education that online learning, as it stands currently, lacks. Students can discuss topics with each other through forums, but working together on projects to apply classroom learning to real-world situations and improve collaboration and presentation skills is hard to achieve online.
Universities should use MOOCs for basic, foundation-level education. I found many courses to be too easy for graduates - freshmen in universities could use them as their foundation courses. With accreditation of five courses on Coursera, this is already starting.
Advanced courses such as ‘Challenges of Global Poverty’ could be used as supplements to similar courses in universities across the world, bringing a different perspective and additional resources to the classroom.
Tools like Coursera and edX are hugely powerful. They allow people of all ages and in all fields to go back to school and enhance their learning. They provide access to exceptionally qualified teachers and resources, access which has traditionally been highly restricted. They increase flexibility for students, and allow them to design their own classrooms and pace of learning. Used together with traditional ways of learning, they have the potential to radically and permanently transform education.
For the first time, I had the experience of filing my personal income tax online when I went home to Bangkok few weeks ago.
Usually, Thai citizens have the option of getting an accounting agency to calculate personal income tax. Whether additional tax needs to be paid or there are returns, the agency will process it on your behalf. If you are an employee, the accounting department of your company will be in charge of this task.
The online service was first aggressively promoted in 2004, and the accounting department at my workplace tried to encourage us to start doing our taxes ourselves. Still, people were not used to the new process.
This year, I struggled a bit at first with data entry, but it was pretty simple and took only few minutes. Some personal data like residential address and personal ID are already in the system.
This is part of the data sharing effort between the Revenue Department (RD) under the Ministry of Finance and the Department of Provincial Administration under the Ministry of Interior over sharing of citizen data. Since last year, I no longer have to carry two separate identity cards for citizenship and taxation.
I submitted my taxes on Friday night before flying back to Singapore on Saturday; by the following Tuesday, I received a call from my father saying that my tax returns cheque had already arrived. I was very impressed!
Other members of my family had filed their income tax in person weeks before me, and had not received any feedback by then.
At that moment, I realised the true power of harnessing technology for government services — I filed my taxes without having to deal with a mountain of paperwork, queuing up in a mile-long line, and spending half a day waiting. Thank you RD!
We have seen similar e-services in many countries across the region, Singapore being a great example of the next level of development for the Thai Government to follow.
Yesterday, Josephine Teo, Singapore’s Minister of State for Finance and Transport gave a speech to the award winners of a mobile app development competition based on open government data. “Technology has transformed our lives, and also the way government works. Ten years ago, a citizen would have to fill out stacks of forms to file his or her personal income tax returns. Today, we have moved on to e-filing, and for some, no filing!” she said.
Singapore’s SingPass portal allows employees to file their income tax online. Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) has enabled income amounts to be auto-filled into your e-form. All that’s left for employees to do — as Teo said — is to “just see and click to submit”.
Data sharing and integrated processes among public agencies are not only inspiring useful new services and making life more convenient, but also reducing government workload.
Prowmatr Huntra, Principal Advisor on ICT from RD said the RD would move forward to create Taxpayer Account to allow users to have an access to their own personal tax data. With this account — scheduled to be done by end of the year — I will be able to view my tax payment record, status of tax refunds, tax arrears, and other transactions.
Her vision reminded me of the plan shared by Dr Sak Segkhoonthod, President and CEO of Electronic Government Agency, Thailand.
Apart from driving a successful G-Cloud, Dr Segkhoonthod sees the potential of offering an all-in-one citizen portal where citizens can access all government e-services using a single logon.
This vision will require all parts of the government to see the importance of data sharing, which in most countries, will take quite some time.
Barely three months into 2013 and the world is roiling from the escapades of hackers attacking government and private sector interests with impunity. The trail may point to the Chinese as likely culprits but there’s no denying hackers everywhere are increasingly foiling even the best defenses.
The concern is not that the Chinese (or whoever the alleged perpetrators are) will launch a sudden catastrophic cyber attack that will destabilize the US government. It’s really about fending off multiple intrusions at once from dozens of countries who have well-funded and resourced cyber-armies. From the Far East, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the perpetrators range from rogue government intelligence units to organised crime rings and bored teenage hackers.
And their methods are as varied as their countries. The East European hacker gangs prefer what is known as a drive-by download. They corrupt popular websites to infect visitors and often include software for recording keystrokes as visitors input financial information on the sites.
Then there are the self-styled vigilantes loosely known as Anonymous. They prefer denial-of-service (DoS) attacks that temporarily block access to websites by overloading url requests to the site. They then unleash automated searches for common vulnerabilities to gain access to corporate information.
The Chinese prefer the low-tech phony email to lure their victims. Often the email appears to be from a trusted colleague but is loaded with malware, viruses, keyloggers, and other malicious software that are activated once the email is opened.
Any way you look at it, the sheer breadth and depth of the attacks and the number of sponsors behind them, point to a vicious cyber Cold War that is dangerously overheating. I don’t ever remember a time when so many corporations and governments have been so vulnerable or so ill prepared.
Can we do anything about this? Many security consultants I speak to tell me they are overwhelmed. Every new security perimeter you put up will be breached. It’s almost a mathematical certainty. Yet there is this niggling feeling that we’ve invested in the wrong defenses.
In the aftermath of the Mandiant report, experts are suggesting that governments look at more sophisticated analytical tools that watch for unusual network behavior. Some security companies want a return to basics such as limiting user privileges and allowing only trusted programs to run. Yet others belief walled-off, virtual machines will keep their data safe.
Ultimately, the best defense might lie in being open about the attacks in the first place. Recently, US President Obama issued an executive order requesting companies to participate voluntarily in an information-sharing effort so the government can help them stop the attacks.
Many observers decried his order as lame but I think with a few tweaks and some political backbone, he might be on to something.
The biggest threat to defending public and private data online is the lack of transparency about the attacks themselves. Many agencies and companies fear spooking stakeholders by disclosing attacks so the incidents go unreported.
But mandated disclosure via legislation (rather than voluntary sharing) could provide governments with the kind of visibility they need to confront the hackers head-on.
If agencies and companies alike are assured the political machinery is eager to help and protect their interests, I think we could see an exciting new front in the battle against cyber hackers. At the very least, it should send chills down the spine of attackers if the government is prepared to fight back.
On the 19th of March, FutureGov conducted a breakfast briefing involving some of Malaysia’s top ICT educators and administrators in education. The discussion was impassioned and urgent, as decision-makers (many of them baby-boomers) sought to analyse and better understand – in the company of their peers – the modus operandi of digital natives.
It was generally acknowledged that the skills and even the ethical considerations of the student growing up in the digital age were very different from those of a generation earlier: information is now widely available, easily accessible, and instructors no longer constitute the exclusive funnel through which ideas and insights are channeled into the student collective.
Several salient points were raised, ideas tossed around and refined, and three issues came to the fore as being the main qualities that the new tech-savvy student would need to be aligned with.
1) An entrepreneurial spirit
The industry demands flexibility: people no longer work at the same job for decades, and career-hopping is hardly abnormal. A slightly quirky CV that demonstrates potential for leadership or diversity of skills is more attractive than the run-of-the-mill profile manufactured out of the collegiate assembly lines.
Today’s students need to have their brains ticking to the pulse of the industry, and create opportunities where possible. The interconnected global economy has shown itself to be diverse and resilient enough to support almost anything.
“For an engineer in the 90s, if you get an engineering degree and you do the same thing every day, you can do well. Today, we need engineers who are entrepreneurs, who are problem solvers, who can deal with changing business scenarios, which requires skills which need to be addressed” – Dr Dzaharudin Mansor, National Technology Officer, Microsoft.
2) A respect for intellectual property
One of the few disturbing aspects of the widespread proliferation of information online is the massive potential for plagiarism. Students are able to copy and paste text from nearly any source and pass it off as their own, with the possibility of being caught dwindling with every terabyte of new information being uploaded onto the internet.
A respect for intellectual property also expresses itself in the drive to create new intellectual property, because that is clearly the currency of the new economy. It is one of the reasons California’s Silicon Valley has enjoyed unparalleled success: sheer innovation sometimes unbridled by economic and practical considerations. If even one out of ten ideas sticks around and blossoms, rewards can be swift and exponential, and the impact global in its breadth.
“A very strong culture needs to be in place of respecting intellectual property, of making the students feel proud of their own work. If it is not, a lot of very creative people will find very creative means of avoiding hard work,” Prof Zamri Bin Mohamed, Dean, Perdana School of STI Policy, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.
3) The capability to be an auto-didact
For the very reason that information is widely available, students need to take the initiative to “teach themselves” – to explore topics that they are passionate about and develop deep expertise in their chosen fields of study or practice. Want to study graduate-level finance? Khan Academy makes it possible. Learn Arabic? YouTube has lessons for beginners, all the way to native-level fluency.
There is no longer any excuse to sit around and wait for the “teacher” to provide guidance – and the instructors know this, and are already remodeling their job profiles to become “facilitators” rather than “teachers”. The information is already on Wikipedia: the classroom will provide context, applicability, and input born of sheer experience.
“I think control is no longer possible [for the educators]. We developed an e-learning strategic plan. The year after it was developed, it was no longer relevant and advances in technology had made it obsolete. I quite like this unstable environment – it makes things very exciting,” Professor Dato’ Dr Jai Mohan, Professor of Health Informatics & Paediatrics, International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur.
The era of passively following the teacher’s instructions is over: the 21st century student must use every available personal and social resource to feel his or her own way around, however tentatively, on the information landscape. And this landscape, as fragmented and messy as it may be, is also inconceivably vast. Ultimately, these are skills that will separate the leaders of tomorrow from Employee Version 1.0.
Libraries have always been a centre of knowledge in communities. For many, they provided the only access to developments and news from around the world.
The digital age, however, has fundamentally transformed how people access information. To survive the challenge posed by the proliferation of game-changing resources such as the internet and electronic books, libraries must understand what people today need from them, and expand their services accordingly.
First, libraries must expand their digital resources. The most useful part of my university’s library, for example, was the free access it provided to resources such as digital versions of publications like the Economist and the Financial Times, massive databases of statistics and reports, and innumerable journals from around the world. Public libraries too can offer members access to such resources.
Electronic books are another area into which libraries could venture.
As a devotee of print, raised on a diet of paperbacks, I fought the popularity of e-books for a long time. Yet now, with my e-book reader, my way of reading has completely changed. I now buy books within seconds with a quick search and one click. I can carry around fifty books on a small device in my purse. Public libraries must adapt to this revolution in reading—one significant step towards this goal would be through offering e-books on their websites.
Another service which libraries can provide is personalised recommendations based on past reading habits—just as a number of online booksellers show recommendations based on past purchases. Your personal page on the public library’s portal could contain your history of library use, and display suggestions based on your previous activity. In the US, a study by the Pew Research Centre found that 65 per cent of respondents were at least “somewhat likely” to use this service.
Public libraries across the world are waking up to this need and increasingly using technology to remain relevant. The Singapore library system, for example, is adding 820,000 e-books to its collection, raising the total collection to above 3 million e-books. In a recent meeting, the CIO of the National Library Board told me about his efforts to enhance their website’s search capabilities to give users personalised results.
Libraries in Edinburgh, Scotland, too have recognised this need to expand digitally, and have moved far beyond their traditional book-lending role.
In a conversation I had with the Head of Library and Information Services of Edinburgh, I learned that libraries in Edinburgh have taken up the role of supporting the digitally excluded by offering free computer classes and Wifi. In addition, they provide access to a wide range of electronic resources such as e-books, magazines and online learning material, and have developed a mobile app allowing patrons to search the library catalogue, manage their personal accounts, and find out about library events.
As a result, libraries in Edinburgh are thriving. Despite closures of libraries throughout the United Kingdom, Edinburgh actually opened two new libraries last year.
Libraries are my favourite places in every city I have lived in – a centre of unlimited adventure, mystery, imagination and knowledge. Add in digital resources, and free internet and computers, and I may never leave the library at all!
Mobile learning is fast becoming a critical game changer in Thailand’s education system. Offering a new pedagogy and learning methodology, mobile learning tools are empowering teachers and students with greater control over curriculum content, especially in remote and rural communities.
The origins of this change can be traced to the ‘One Tablet Per Child’ programme launched by the Thai government last year. Armed with tablets connecting first-year elementary school kids to high speed internet access countrywide, local teachers had a unique opportunity to expand the curriculum and go beyond the limits of government-issued textbooks. Without intending to, education reform was being decentralised with mobile learning technologies after a century of central planning.
Until recently, the goal of education in the kingdom was to produce a skilled workforce to serve the labour demands of the industrial and business sectors. Through standardised textbooks and a national curriculum, many children from largely rural communities have been introduced to city life and the capitalist concept of achievement. Inevitably, they flock to the city for higher education and employment, losing their connection to their communities and with it, local practices and indigenous skills.
The result is that many remote provinces in Thailand have been deserted in favour of jobs in the city. Without the labour to develop the land and with little prospect for future growth, many old villages have been abandoned and left nearly unproductive. The main source of income for many of these families comes from money sent by young people working in the cities.
But what would happen when the cities fail to provide sufficient employment? Can we retrain this workforce and give them jobs in their local communities? How will they acquire relevant local skills and knowledge? Or will their ‘city’ skills be wasted back home?
IT has come to play a key role in balancing these downsides, but the challenge is how to leverage it to reflect local priorities.
What has been missing in the provincial school system today is a vocational model customised to serve local communities. For example, if province A is well known for its lime orchards, how can they leverage IT, computer literacy, and mobile learning to realise this potential?
With access to broader and more flexible content, the hope is schools can co-opt such ‘specialised subjects’ to help improve local productivity and to sustain growth in the community economy.
However, funding and skills training remain key challenges in initiating such educational reform and innovation. It is a well known fact that provincial public schools have little access to budgets, technology and knowledge unless authorised by the government.
When budgets are thin, innovation is unlikely to occur. However, incentivising teachers via policies could spur creative use of technology to benefit the community. For example, the use of mobile learning tools to preserve and propagate local farming skills and techniques can be viewed as part of the federal government’s mandate to increase local farm produce.
Another way to make worthwhile budget expenditures is to work through public private partnerships to co-fund education reform projects. Working in partnership with local NGOs, such partnerships will help stretch the value of smaller budgets, and encourage the transfer of vocational knowledge and skills to community members.
A good example of using IT to benefit local context and engage the entire community is “The Bamboo School” initiated by Mechai Viravaidy, Founder of the Population and Community Development Association, and ‘Chicken Farm’ programme by the Charoen Pokphand Group—Thai conglomerate in agribusiness and food.
Located in a remote province of Thailand, the skills taught at the Bamboo School are based on the social and economic growth of the community, and engage not only students but their parents and the communities. It acts as an IT Hub for many communities and other schools nearby. Lessons involve agriculture, e-commerce for rural products, small business skills or whatever subjects students want to learn. Moreover, the school’s micro-credit fund platform encourages students and their families to start up a small business using skills obtained from the courses.
The CP’s Chicken Farm programme teaches young kids how to take care and run chicken farms as well as how to cook egg menus. The programme has been run by skilled professionals sent from the company’s provincial offices to monitor the programme’s progress in various schools in the provinces.
With the help of mobile learning, I believe we will see similar programmes run by public schools directly to make the most out of the technology, and benefit from the broader and more flexible e-content.
Decentralised education is said to be more efficient, better reflect local priorities, encourage participation, and improve coverage and quality of education. These advantages need to be encouraged in a smarter way for a sustainable growth and ensure local communities flourish and thrive.
A few weeks ago, Immigration New Zealand included ‘other spatial scientist’ as a new job classification in the country’s Long-Term Skills Shortage List (LTSSL). The new job is a short-term solution to an impending skills shortage at a time when the industry is experiencing increasing demand for geospatial information and services.
What the new classification represents is an opportunity for qualified immigrants since the local market lacks the skill sets the economy requires. Immigrants with a degree in geography or computer science and a minimum of two years’ relevant experience in GIS applications will find it easier to qualify for a work or residence visa.
A senior GIS expert in New Zealand described the current staffing capabilities as ‘not keeping up’, and describes the situation as ‘increasingly getting dire’.
“The challenge is in building up the capability,” he noted adding that there is need to embed geoliteracy in the school curriculum so students can consider spatial sciences as a career track once they graduate from school and enter the University.
While the new job classification aims to fill gaps to meet current industry demands, it has garnered mixed reactions from stakeholders. Some believe more needs to be done to promote awareness of GIS and various geospatial disciplines, and to make the market more competitive.
In contrast to the New Zealand situation, mapping agencies among developing countries are struggling to retain existing skilled personnel from moving to the private sector or working for other governments for better compensation.
I remember a Chief Administrator of a mapping and surveying agency bemoaning the loss of technical staff in their mapping department after having been presented with opportunities from the private sector and overseas.
“In mapping agencies, human resource policies are almost as crucial as the technologies we use. Unlike other offices, we rely on very specific technical skills so the job compensation and benefits package on offer must be at par with the private sector,” she adds.
What this situation calls for is a more supportive policy framework to help agencies with specific technical skill requirements. There is a need to establish a good foundation because losing even one technical specialist in such agencies is akin to being temporarily handicapped.
So what can governments do to ensure they can supply talent on demand? Is there really a shortage or does the talent pool simply lack the experience the industry needs?
The answer to these questions require a collaborative effort from the public and private sector to rethink policy approaches in supporting skills and manpower development in the GIS industry. Ultimately, the best solution is to strengthen and align the education curriculum with what the industry needs to create a spatially enabled society.
Over the last few months I have had the opportunity to visit some of FutureGov’s longstanding friends in Singapore’s public sector - visiting IT departments to get a grip on what is keeping them busy, and uncover (mostly off the record) their priorities for the year ahead. These insights have helped me put the finishing touches on our 9th annual FutureGov Forum Singapore.
Common areas of focus of my conversations have been the urgency of making more sense of the meaning of the ever-growing volumes of data being collected, in order to support more effective decision making. This is something my colleagues covering other countries in Asia Pacific have noted, and points to a realisation among the region’s civil servants that they potentially hold an ‘information advantage’. Much of the discussions at FutureGov Forum Singapore will revolve around how best to put this information advantage to best use.
According to Dr Cheah Horn Mun, Director, Education Technology, Ministry Of Education, learning analytics is a priority this year. We discussed the role of analytics in developing 21st century learning skills, and whether automation can play a greater role. For example, how can we use analytics to assess whether a student has mastered collaboration?
The Singapore Prison Service is looking to analytics to improve security. CIO Ser Leng Kuai said that video and audio analytics can potentially detect aggressive behaviour to alert officers of potential fights, and perhaps even recognise behaviour of prisoners who might inflict harm on themselves. Our conversation brought back memories of FutureGov’s visit to Cluster A in 2010, when I experienced first-hand the state-of-the-art technology deployed in their facility, which includes the network of surveillance cameras.
Beng Huay Yeo, CIO, Singapore Customs is also exploring business analytics this year to improve services to both businesses and customers. Besides innovation, transformation and efficiency, Yeo shared that ‘Customer Centricity’ is also one of the key focus for her team.
The Housing Development Board’s (HDB) latest Branch Office in Punggol, a northeastern suburb, is another good example of improving citizen experience with an integrated approach, new technologies and processes. Launched in December 2012, the Branch Office is thoughtfully designed to suit the needs of the residents, which is made up of more young families who tend to be technologically savvy, mentioned Chin Yew Leong, HDB’s CIO. Wireless technology, mobile devices, self-service kiosks have all been worked into the design of this office - and there is scope for this to be rolled-out more widely depending on the feedback from citizen-users.
I have a few more meetings in the coming weeks and am sure there will be other interesting perspectives from one of the world’s most advanced e-governments. If you are keen to learn about the plans and challenges of Singapore government, join us at the upcoming FutureGov Forum Singapore, 23 April, ParkRoyal on Pickering, where we will discuss the role of ‘sense making’ and ‘Big Data’ against the backdrop of our three key themes of transformation, efficiency and innovation.
A common refrain from almost every government CIO I’ve interviewed is how excited they are about Big Data and analytics. Sieving through large, messy data stores to find little nuggets of useful information to help in public policy is what is driving the passion around the technology. But when you ask for a progress report, quiet reflection replaces bright enthusiastic smiles as CIOs ponder daunting human resource challenges.
You see, Big Data as a technology phenomenon is really maturing fast. There are many tools, both open source and proprietary, to address almost any problem government can throw at it. And yes, there are amazing analytic tools to generate impressive charts and dashboards. So what’s the problem? Finding people who can glean the insights from the analysis.
To be sure, this is not a problem unique to the public sector. Private enterprise has grappled with this since business intelligence and analytics gained prominence the past decade. But where the private sector has established entire departments devoted to analysis, the public sector has had no such luxury, resources, or some would say, will to resolve this.
Anecdotally, many in public sector view big data analytics as content, not insight. This is a mistake. Great charts and dashboards are a great source of fresh content in and of themselves, but they don’t help in policy making unless someone knows how to interpret the analysis. Changing the mindset and recognising the primacy of analysis as a tool for policy making will require personnel who can ‘read between the data lines’. The public sector needs employees with additional skills to thrive in a data-driven governance model to benefit from Big Data analysis. So what skills are critical?
Going beyond the numbers
Being numerate and comfortable with reams of data is increasingly a critical skill in the public sector. Just look at how many statistical reports governments are routinely generating and you understand that extent of the problem. You don’t have to hire statisticians in your department but public sector managers who have to deal with the reports must be adept at interpreting data, metrics and results.
The private sector’s response to this problem has been to create jobs for data scientists. These are individuals who ask the right questions because they understand the unique requirements of their companies. I see a future for such jobs in the public sector very soon.
Increasingly, I see the public sector adopting and embedding a spirit of experimentation in their job scope for their employees. If Big Data analytics is in your department’s future, you need to train your staff in the principles of data analysis and then let them experiment. This will facilitate a real-world understanding of testing and design, sampling selection, etc., and how to construct intelligent hypotheses. If this is done right, staff will feel empowered to test their hypothesis by setting up random testing models so the agency can evaluate the validity of the data analysis. The more experimentation, the better the veracity of policy decisions because you know the data has been validated.
Deploying Big Data analytics is about fostering a culture of analysis and focus on data as it is about adopting new technology. The future of governance demands that we build a public sector workforce that has data analysis and interpretation in their DNA. An experiment-focused, numerate, data-literate workforce serving the public is the way forward. What do you think?
With all the buzz around cloud computing, it’s easy to ignore the more mundane aspects of auditing and cost allocation when investing in the cloud.
In a recent conversation with Philippine CIOs during a breakfast meeting in Manila, the question of government auditing and budgeting guidelines for cloud services spurred a spirited exchange. They readily admitted to grappling with how to set accounting guidelines for cloud services even as the Philippines sets aggressive targets to move public services to the cloud. The issue is one of governance and control; if you can’t see what you’re buying, how would you know what you’re actually spending on?
The problem, it seems, is that the public sector is not quite sure what to make of the ‘utility or pay-as-you-go model’ of cloud computing. While there are provisions for subscription-based resourcing for commodities such as energy supplies, there is precious little literature preparing the government sector for subscription-based cloud computing. The same applies to annual contracts for Infrastructure- or Platform-as-a-Service solutions.
I believe the problem is that it is difficult to make honest comparisons between cloud computing and internal IT. It’s not as simple as buying four times the memory for your server upgrades or doubling the CPU clock speed. That kind of hard comparison doesn’t always work with cloud computing.
So when a government agency puts up a proposal for a cloud-based IT solution, hard-nosed finance folks are going to baulk. They really have no reference or benchmark in the public sector to verify your claims of cost savings and productivity gains. In fact, many of the benefits of cloud computing evaporate when the utility pricing model creates unpredictable costs month-to-month. In a typical cloud computing setup, the per user costs can scale from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand dollars per month. Worse still, you pay even when the resources are idle making the real costs more painful.
As I see it, there are several steps government agencies can take to make this process less stressful:
Just-in-time Cloud Computing
If your agency is looking to move to the cloud, I would recommend designing application services for a fixed set of users. So instead of one large instance of your ERP application for the entire 10,000-user base in your department, focus on the most critical 100 users for a start. Having multiple smaller instances in the cloud offers you a predictable cost structure and means you can shrink and grow the user base as appropriate or ‘just-in-time’.
Terminate unused resources
If you’ve ever left the refrigerator door open the whole night, you can appreciate the sinkhole your budget goes through if cloud resources are not optimally used. In the pay-as-you-go world, you need to tie financial or budget tracking with operational logs. That way, you have a gauge on usage levels and can resource projects or departments cost-effectively and eliminate the waste.
Work the Deal
Cloud computing is one of the few areas of technology where a little bargaining can reap real gains in budget control and flexibility. If you’ve closed the tender and selected the provider, it’s okay to haggle over volume prices. Remember, the user base is likely to grow so setting a good price and revisiting quote will give you the best value as your department’s cloud usage grows. Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and negotiate best deal.
Establish a Cost Allocation Monitoring Committee
Cloud computing is not a straightforward proposition for any IT department. A team of internal auditors or finance representatives working alongside system administrators will drive deeper understanding of the pay-as-you-go model as an operational mode, and change mindsets. Subscriptions are recurring expenditure; you need to think operational (OPEX) not capital (CAPEX) expenditure.
If there’s one takeaway from all of this, it’s that IT is now a service model and governments have to contend with a cultural change as much as a technological shift. A little preparation and lots of co-operation can make a world of difference to your budget.
Both government and business are gradually embracing social media as a way to connect with stakeholders and clients. Whether it be by Twitter, Facebook or Google+, there are obvious benefits towards increasing the level of engagement and communication, most famously demonstrated in President Obama’s election campaigns. However a danger exists with the use of social media in that should the wrong message be put out, it has the power to irrevocably damage the reputation of an organisation and individual. Cases such as these are appearing in the media frequently, thus demonstrating a common problem, with no existing solution. Whilst I do not suggest a magic bullet to entirely prevent these occurrences, I have the idea for a solution to stimulate discussion, and which will potentially make someone rich, providing they reach the patent office before I do.
Social media is still a young and flourishing method of communication, through which the forms of best practice are not yet common sense. In the way that no sensible person would shout offensive statements in a crowded area, this taboo is more easily forgotten when using social media, often leading to scandal and reprimand.
Case in point, recently in Singapore an employee of National Trades Union Congress posted questionable statements on her personal Facebook account. This led to public backlash and prominent media coverage eventually leading to her being fired from the organisation. Following the incident and all too late, she tweeted “After this episode, I have realised how one generic post can create so many hurtful and cruel posts from strangers”.
More recently in the UK, there was a case in which a British Lord was wrongly linked to abuse at a care home in Wales, which was later found to be erroneous. The initial public outcry through social media erupting from this accusation served to repeat defamatory statements and led the victim to threaten legal action against twenty of the tweeters with large numbers of followers.
British social commentator, Charlie Brooker, sums up this brave new world of social media by likening it to the introduction of motorcars, as being a great benefit, but also a great hazard if used improperly. He explains that over time, as people grew better at driving and became more aware of the risks involved, the highway code was developed to teach and warn users. Brooker suggests, “Maybe it’s time to start compiling a friendly “highway code” for social media to alert future generations to potential dangers.” Indeed, Brooker’s suggestion is a good one and such efforts are already underway, but are by no means universal.
As employees are often seen as representatives of an organisation, it is becoming increasingly common for training to be given for how to behave online. The most simple get out clause being that a caveat be added to personal social media accounts, stating that all opinions voiced are personal rather than representative of their associated organisation. This action may help damage control after an incident, but does not serve to prevent an incident in the first place. Whilst it is difficult to fully defend against the human fallibility, I suggest that the technology exists for a better solution to be developed.
My idea is that of a “social media behavioural advisory programme”, (I admit that I will need to think of snappier title). This could analyse the text entered into a social media platform and check it for offensive language or sensitive subjects. In the case that this type of language was found, a warning could appear on screen, giving the user the choice to continue, in the same way as when people visit untrustworthy websites.
The application could have settings to adjust the level of scrutiny applied to the text as well as a complete block upon certain activity, in a similar way to a parental control of web browsing for adolescents.
More than just spell checking to spot offensive language, the combination of the textual analysis technology used in Turing Test type bots, such as Cleverbot, could better help identify the tone of a message. Although the responses from such bots remain imperfect, they are often able to surprise a human user by recognising when they are teased or mocked.
The technology for this exists and as the problem exists, there could also be demand for such a product. Training and advice may only go so far, so why not add another layer of behavioural advice with the aim of helping avoid insult, embarrassment, scandal or disaster. It could be company policy to have this programme running on all computers, perhaps even on company mobile devices, as so many people access social media through smart phones. Free antivirus apps are available for smartphones so it is not unimaginable to be able develop a similar kind of app to advise on social media behaviour. This type of programme could also be of use to the individual, or in other places where the internet is accessed, perhaps in internet cafes, schools or libraries for example.
To help justify this concept, allow me to give the example of anti-virus software. The need for the product created a multi-million dollar industry, with hoards of software engineers working around the clock to identify and protect clients against malware. As with anti-virus software, updates could be given to advise users on recent developments, as in with the case of the incorrect accusation about the British Lord. Again, in such a case, it could advise users of the developing situation and then leave it to them to decide. This type of live advice could better help prevent incident and embarrassment for an individual or organisation.
Whilst such a programme may not be able to identify and advise upon all the nuances and connotations of language, it could act as a sieve or a barrier to obvious errors in judgement - akin to a reminder from your email client when you write the word “attached” in the email body and forget to actually attach a file. This particular function has saved me many times and whilst I do not mean to suggest that I express profanity over social media with similar frequency, I feel that for the few times it has saved me from making a mistake, it’s existence is justified. In the case of a mistake over social media, the repercussions are potentially huge and thus by extension there could some value in this idea, making it a solution waiting to be developed to improve the use of social media by individuals, government and business.
Your comments on this blog post will be much appreciated. Please leave your comments below and let’s flesh this idea out further.
Over the last few years, national identity card programmes have been launched in many countries around the world. Getting a national identity card with a unique number is compulsory in more than 100 countries, including Thailand, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam.
In a world of growing security problems leading to frequent requests for proof of identity, and increasing interactions with government, the need for these national ID programmes is becoming clearer.
The two main arguments for national ID numbers or cards are increased efficiency in disbursements (through identity verification of beneficiaries and increased transparency in the transfer process) and enhanced national security (through accurate population databases and identity verification using biometrics).
While these reasons by themselves are hugely advantageous, I want to highlight the importance of transforming national ID programmes from traditional identity verification to integrated provision of different services, increasing convenience and efficiency for citizens through modern, integrated ID cards.
India’s Case: Eliminating Redundancy
As an Indian, I have an ID card for tax and banking purposes, an ID that allows me to vote in elections, a driver’s license, a passport and an ID card to access government fair-price shops.
Different organisations require different forms of identification, both in the public and private sector, making it necessary to apply for several different identity cards. This is a problem especially for non-adults.
When I applied for my driver’s license on turning 18, the only acceptable proof of identity I possessed was a passport. For the large majority of Indians who don’t have passports, proving their identity to get their first government-issued ID card on entering adulthood is difficult.
In fact, lack of adequate identification is a major reason why a large proportion of the Indian population does not qualify for bank accounts and thus has almost no access to basic financial services.
Now, however, under Aadhaar, the government’s new Unique Identity Programme, all residents (of any age) will get a single form of identification which will soon be accepted for all government services such as tax payment, passport or driver’s license applications, healthcare provision, etc. As private organisations such as airlines, educational institutions or property agencies come on board, the need for several different forms of identification will be eliminated, considerably increasing convenience for residents.
Added Services in Cards
To be truly effective, however, it is crucial that the national ID programme integrate different services into one card. Malaysia has already achieved this – MyKad, the national ID card, is not only used for accessing government services, but also functions as a driver’s license, ATM card, contactless payment card, frequent traveller card, and health document containing basic medical information.
The incorporation of biometrics can also play a major role in enabling the use of such multifunctional ID cards. In developing nations where a many segments of the population are unable to read or write, identity verification through fingerprint scans can replace traditional signature or PIN verification.
In India, a new scheme enables every resident with an Aadhaar number to receive a prepaid card to receive government payments without complicated documentation. The card can be used to make payments or withdraw cash through biometric verification – essential in a country with 287 million illiterate adults.
However, there are several things governments must consider before expanding the scope of identity cards.
Essential infrastructure must be in place for the cards to be truly useful. If the card is to be used for electronic payments, the government must ensure that merchants across the country – including in remote and rural areas – have the devices needed to accept electronic payments. And, of course, sufficient measures need to be in place to ensure the security and privacy of citizens’ data.
If challenges like these are kept in mind, implementation of a modern integrated identity programme can increase convenience and hold benefits for all citizens, across economic and rural/urban lines.
The ‘Fixed-broadband sub-basket’ measures the general affordability of broadband internet services. It is part of The International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU’s) ICT Price Basket which measures the aggregate affordability of three ‘sub-baskets’ – fixed telephone, mobile cellular and fixed broadband Internet services, and is then computed as a percentage of average Gross National Income (GNI) per capita.
According to ITU’s 2012 report:”Measuring the Information Society” (refer to page 86), the countries with the most ‘affordable fixed broadband sub-basket’ are all high-income economies, including Macao (China), Singapore, Switzerland, United Kingdom, South Korea and Japan.
Fixed-broadband sub-basket — essentially, the cost in acquiring broadband for individuals — in those countries is very low, and hovers around 0.3 per cent of the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita in Macao (China). Meanwhile, the list of countries with prohibitively expensive fixed-broadband services is dominated by low-income developing countries like Gambia, where the price ranges to about 747.4 per cent of GNI per capita.
The statistics derived from this are used as a comprehensive benchmarking tool to measure how accessible telephone, mobile cellular and broadband internet services are in different countries.
Broadband in itself is a platform for the benefit of the people. It is made more meaningful if it is affordable and isn’t an expensive necessity, and it is made more empowering when people are able to create ideas through it and innovate.
The Community e-Centres
While making sure that every citizen is “connected” cannot be done overnight, I would like to highlight a growing initiative that is reaping tangible benefits in bridging the digital divide - this project is called Telecentre or Community e-Centre.
Community e-Centres (CeCs) are public sites often situated in remote rural areas that enable people to gather information, create, learn, and communicate with others by using the ICT tools provided.
CeCs offer the community with access to ICT based equipment and services such as computers with internet access, printers, e-mail and other collaborative applications. They feature a broad range of services and applications aimed at catering to the needs of the community at very affordable prices.
Examples of such services are capacity building, information awareness campaigns for health and other pressing issues, telemedicine, applications and placement for employment, conduit for government services, public e-library and even Business Process Outsourcing for CeCs to be self-sustaining.
CeCs are able to overcome issues in affordability as majority of their services are either subsidised or available for a minimal fee. In addition, they also allow the unserved and underserved communities in remote rural areas to not only access the internet but also build up their capabilities and skills necessary to improve their daily lives and communities.
Several countries now have their respective National Telecentre initiatives, examples of which are the Philippines’ Community e-Center network, Malaysia’s eBario and Sri Lanka’s Nenasala project.
CeC Project in Laos
In the aspect of telemedicine, a company I worked with previously was engaged with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on a CeC project in Lao PDR . The project entailed the implementation of e-health training for village workers in rural areas, and while there are healthcare centres in place, villagers from far flung rural areas had to travel hours on foot to seek medical attention, and it is even more difficult to travel during unfavourable weather conditions because some roads are impassable.
With this project, medical training is provided virtually to village health workers and health staff through ICT mediums available in CeCs.
After the project monitoring and evaluation was done by ADB, it was found that health in rural communities improved, based on the reduced child mortality numbers in surrounding communities.
I remember our consultant telling me about a Laotian woman who had to travel four hours on foot with a sick baby on her back to get to the nearest health centre. He told me how the woman was so happy now that she would no longer have to make such long journeys just to get medical attention or even to get information on how to improve both her and the baby’s health, since it’s now mostly available in CeCs.
The ‘meaning’ of connectivity
It is because of stories like these that we become witnesses to the transformational benefits of being “connected”. Meaningful e-inclusion pertains not only to bridging the digital divide and connecting the unconnected: it should also make sure that people with disabilities – whether blind, deaf and mobility impaired — are not excluded from the transformational benefits of innovation and are not left behind.
In addition, public sector organisations and NGOs should work together to spur the creation of local content online. It should reflect the culture, values and heritage of communities to make e-services and other such activities more relevant to citizens and more responsive to their needs and interests.
ICT initiatives which aim to engage citizens online may fall short unless attention is given to local interests and content. This applies not just to “inclusion” initiatives which seek to engage the marginalised or indigenous sectors but to all kinds of services launched by the government, from CeCs to mobile apps and information portals - your message is effectively sent across if citizens are able to relate to it.
Each day, governments face thousands of citizens approaching them for a multitude of reasons. In the past decade, one of the remarkable aspects of public sector transformation has been the way governments service citizens.
The change in approach from ‘government to you’ to ‘government with you’ that James Kang, Assistant Chief Executive, GCIO of IDA, Singapore mentioned during the FutureGov Summit held in Thailand last October revealed the shifts in government service and how the public sector interacts with people in this era.
With this citizen-centric approach, today’s government services rely on efficient delivery and effective service interactions. With an increase in the use of technology for service delivery, the relationship model between citizens and governments has changed, on the one hand improving government service levels, but also inevitably creating increasingly demanding citizens.
When receiving public services, citizens no longer want to be treated as constituents, but as customers — their enquiries need to be resolved while their voices need to be heard. Especially in Asia, where constituents are less demanding and know not to expect instant feedback, governments are less concerned with adopting a customer-friendly focus.
So, what kind of tools need to be deployed to cope with these challenges, when people’s expectations are growing, but the daily life of the public sector official needs to be kept simple?
From my opinion, several channels have been put in place, ranging from the conventional — queues of visitors to the government offices, call centres — to interactive chats with citizens via social media or other more sophisticated channels available today.
Giving general information to the public is mostly done by automatic answering machines and through the website, and non-confidential enquiries are attended to via a public website and facebook — online channels help reduce confrontations, and give officers more time to come up with answers and solutions to the problems.
Mobile texting has also been used efficiently by the Singapore government, from police information to government directory data. Citizens can simply send a text with search keyword, and the answer will be promptly given.
However, some personal and confidential enquiries do need assistance from real officers — emailing or sending sms and waiting for a reply are not timely enough.
Some governments like in the USA offer live chat services as an alternative way of managing the multitude of requests and reducing cost like in private enterprises. Live chat is efficient and instant — it saves time and travel cost of citizens, it can filter topics, and dispatch requests to the relevant officers, and thus multiple requests can be handled by each officer.
Are these tools and technologies effective enough to handle the high demands of the public?
Normally, the challenge for government is not about having a technology in place, but optimising it.
“Our core problem is training staff to handle the phone calls, and once they leave the organisation, we always face the challenge of knowledge transfer to newcomers,” admitted Tipaporn Wachirapakorn, Director of Finance and Accounting Division, Department of Royal Irrigation under Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Thailand.
On top of the service channels mentioned above, a call centre is still in need and is the most essential tool for maintaining relationships with citizens, especially in Southeast Asian countries where the digital divide is still significant.
Even though public sector realises that a well-trained call handler with telephone skills and knowledge of the organisation is still an important element in running a successful operation; most governments in practice still give this role to just about anyone, well-suited to the role or otherwise.
Peter Walker, Assistant Commissioner, Service Improvement, Customer Service & Solutions, Australian Taxation Office from Australia agreed with this practice, but only within the environment of a well-organised information repository, step-by-step instructions clearly spelled out, and a clear manual to follow.
While agreeing with Walker, I could not help but recall Kang’s speech and the story he shared about trying to contact relevant agencies to get rid of the birds that always dirtied his car. He agreed with the basic concept of government-to-citizen engagement, but said that before governments can engage with citizens, citizens needs to know who in government is responsible for what.
Before government Introduces instruction manuals for interacting with citizens via different channels, it needs to first understand its roles and services, and ensuring that the citizens know the same.