Highlights from Open Government Products’ Hack for Public Good 2023
By Rachel Teng
From technology tuned to the needs of elders to a ChatGPT-equivalent designed just for government use, Open Government Products’ annual hackathon is back with a vengeance to Hack For Public Good.
Image: Open Government Products
Author of the classic science fiction novel 2001: A Space Odyssey Arthur C. Clarke once said that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.
“And yet, you and I know only too well that our own experiences with technology are often far from magical,” said Singapore’s Minister for Communications and Information, Josephine Teo, at the Hack for Public Good Demo Day last Thursday, 9 February.
The hackathon is organised annually by Open Government Products (OGP), a subsidiary of Singapore’s Government Technology Agency that is reknown for developing whole-of-society tech solutions rapidly. The experimental team sets aside the entire month of January every year to seek out public sector inefficacies to address.
“After all Singapore has gone through, it is very tempting to become cynical, and think that the problems we have left are unavoidable, and all the aspirations we have left are unachievable. But year after year, we come back and we keep finding new problems to solve, and new solutions to the problems that we previously thought were impossible,” said Li Hongyi, Director of OGP during the hackathon’s opening.
This year’s iteration of Hack for Public Good saw OGP working more closely with other government agencies than ever before, Li told GovInsider. This was possible because the team invited agencies at the beginning of the hackathon to work alongside OGP’s product managers as the solutions are being designed. These agencies range from the Singapore Civil Defence Force to the National Heritage Board.
“Working for public good is not something that you get a chance to do with many employers out there. In the private sector, it often comes down to the dollars and cents of a project. But OGP allows us to represent and serve underserved communities and not have to think about how much money our solutions will make,” shared Sonjia Yan, Senior Product Manager at OGP.
Pair: ChatGPT, but make it for government
Why did the public officer not use the groundbreaking natural language AI chatbot, ChatGPT? The answer: it is not secure enough for governments who may deal with classified information.
Yet, Moses Soh, Senior Product Manager at OGP noticed that public officers still spend a significant amount of their time scouring reference documents and preparing first drafts of policies that are sharp, clear, and consistent for citizens.
Soh and team went on to build a game-changing natural language AI writing assistant designed by the government, for the government. The product, built off the same underlying models as ChatGPT and integrated directly into Microsoft Office, bagged the most awards at the 2023 hackathon.
The idea came about even before ChatGPT was launched, but the key challenge was data security, Soh shares. “We are spending a lot of time to set ourselves properly within the government commercial cloud, and making sure that our language model provider, Azure Open AI, was enterprise-ready and came with data confidentiality guarantees,” he says. This includes turning off user logging so that government officials can use the tool without fear of data breaches.
According to Soh, the tool is christened Pair, because it will always require the human to work alongside the AI. “You will still need to know how to do your job well, but Pair will just help you get there faster. We're learning how to use these new technologies to give superpowers to good officers,” he says.
ElderTech: No one left behind
How can technology help rather than hinder seniors? Yan and team noticed that a lot of technology today actually makes life more difficult for elderly, rather than easing their lives. A clear demographic of Singapore’s ageing population will get left behind by digital transformation if this continues to be unaddressed at the systemic level.
“After interviewing a lot of senior citizens and social workers, we found that many seniors – being digital immigrants – are not familiar with digital design patterns,” Yan told GovInsider.
For example, they would not intuitively know that three lines represent a dropdown menu, how to swipe from screen to screen, or even what a search bar is.
Almost all existing solutions today involve one-to-one assistance, are manpower heavy, and are not scalable. Often, seniors might also find it difficult to remember what was taught to them previously.
By creating videos that are optimised for seniors, Yan and team sought to create a platform that empowers seniors to take charge of their own learning. These video tutorials are slowed down, captioned with large texts, and translated to popular dialects and mother tongues. They will have circles drawing attention to key icons and steps, and be easily replayable for seniors to revise what they have learned.
Looking into the future, the ElderTech team envisions a fully developed product that operates on voice commands by default. “This way, seniors can just say their intent is – such as booking a polyclinic appointment – rather than be forced to navigate an interface that requires so much context for them,” says Yan.
OfficeSG: Government in the metaverse
In December 2022, only six people turned up for an “online rave” held in the metaverse that the European Union spent €387,000 (USD$415,000) to develop and promote, raising questions about the interactivity of virtual events.
Imagine a virtual event or office space that could actually match all in-person elements of a physical event. Dat Le Thanh, software engineer at OGP and his team sought to do exactly this, and realise the full potential of a virtual event space.
“Virtual events can cater to a lot of people online, so we tried to create a meaningful experience for people joining remotely,” says Thanh.
To simulate the “wow” factor to keep people engaged in the virtual world, Thanh’s team designed virtual spaces to be replicas of physical spaces. They included collaborative functions like pop-up whiteboards, quick meeting functions, and even silent zones – many of which are offered only at physical iterations of an event or work-from-office setting.
This year, the hackathon used OfficeSG to engage with virtual participants using forms, polls, and contact opportunities for virtual attendees to feel equally present.
Moving forward, the team is exploring collaborations with the National Library Board and Ministry of Education to create virtual libraries and virtual online classrooms that people would actually want to “hang around” in, says Thanh.