How an annual hackathon promises to change government for the better
The hackathons spawned the Carousell online marketplace and the iconic Facebook Like button. Good ideas often come when people have the space to reflect on common struggles, collaborate, and be creative. A unit in the Singapore government believes that this approach could be useful in creating digital public services.
Every January, officers from Open Government Products, the government’s experimental technology development team, suspend their normal work activities. Instead, they tackle common problems faced by public bodies and build digital solutions in a month.
Hacking for the public good has gradually become part of the country’s digital government efforts. Li Hongyi, director of open government products at Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech), explains how hackathons provide room for more citizen-centric tools.
Singaporeans may be familiar with the daily Whatsapp Covid-19 updates that the government started sending out in early 2020. This was run on Postman, a mass messaging tool built during the Hack for Public Good of 2020. With Postman, they were able to reach all subscribers in 30 minutes.
Hack for Public Good focuses on bottom-up rather than top-down solutions, Li shares. Instead of relying on a leader to instruct, the hackathon is like sending out a hundred people to come up with a hundred solutions.
This is different from typical government processes, which tend to be long and bureaucratic, Li shares. There are no meetings or approval requests to clear. Instead, teams go from problem statements to ideas to prototypes in less than a month.
This speed allows teams to react quickly to emerging issues. For example, the WhoThis team has developed a website that allows citizens to verify official appeals when they receive them.
This is a response to the growing number of scam calls and messages that have defrauded citizens of their money. These fraudulent calls can reduce trust in government, as citizens may be suspicious of callers claiming to be government officials.
“In the short term, we hope this can help easily build trust between officials and citizens,” the WhoThis team shares.
Hack for Public Good also encourages the team to collaborate with co-hackers from private companies, such as Amazon Web Services, Stripe and Google. This year, 40% of participants were civil servants from the private sector.
“These are competent people who work on difficult problems on a daily basis. They look at what the government is doing and say, “I can do better.” If you think so, then come do it! Li quips.
A speaker from PetitionSG discusses their prototype.
The small size of the teams allowed participants to understand the needs of citizens on the ground and create tools to meet them. This year, a participating team named PetitionSG conducted more than 50 interviews with citizens and citizen groups, such as the Women’s Association for Action and Research, SG Climate Rally, and the Community for Advocacy and political education.
The team identified two key challenges faced by groups wishing to submit petitions. First, there is no way to verify that online petitions on sites like change.org are signed by Singaporeans. Second, there is a climate of fear around speaking out on controversial issues.
PetitionSG sought to create a more secure petition platform than the current online websites that ministers could refer to with more confidence. They used the sgID authentication system to create a prototype capable of verifying signatures while protecting identities.
At the hackathon, the team won the “Most Likely to Break the Internet” award for their prototype.
“There are so many interesting ideas and issues on the ground that departments still need to be aware of. We hope this can include citizens in the problem-solving process,” shares Aiden Low, PetitionSG Team Member and Product Manager at Open Government Products.
To imagine is to create
“Ultimately, progress comes down to what people collectively believe and imagine can happen,” Li shares. society, he explains.
More than 60-70% of this year’s products have already gone live in some agencies, Li notes. For example, Memo is already being tested in some hospitals. Memo is a platform that helps citizens view official communications, such as memos, and helps public officials generate them in bulk.
When they questioned the Department of Health, they found that sending memos was either too slow by mail or difficult to verify by email. It’s also costly: During the pandemic, the government could have spent millions of dollars generating memos, the team shared.
Since their tool can mass-generate verifiable memos in seconds, the team believes the cost savings could be significant, the MemoSG team explained.
“Piracy for the public good has never been about open government products. It’s always been about demonstrating what government and what the public can do,” says Li. His ultimate goal is for Hack for Public Good to attract more people every year.
“Imagine if every year January was designated as a time when people were supposed to reflect on how Singapore can be better… We could celebrate the end of January with people showcasing what they want Singapore to be. next year,” he suggests.
Hack for Public Good has grown from just 15 people sharing ideas in an internal office to 90 people sharing big ideas in an auditorium. As the annual hackathon continues to attract brighter minds, we may see more innovative utilities become household names.