Singapore wraps up 2014 with 'smart' ambitions, missteps

Government has invested significant resources to build a "smart nation" supported by big data analytics, but it also needs to dedicate sufficient effort in addressing data security and privacy concerns.

Another year is about to wrap up and for Singapore's IT industry, 2014 will probably be marked as the year where much data was harvested, as well as leaked.

The government in June unveiled its ambitious plan to transform the country into a "smart nation", rolling out several initiatives to "tap the potential of infocomm and media" to improve living standards for citizens.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam had said: "We will make Singapore a smart nation: enabling safer, cleaner and greener urban living, more transport options, better care for the elderly at home; more responsive public services and more opportunities for citizen engagement."

Key to these goals is gaining intelligence through the collection and analysis of data, and the government hopes to do this with the help of Internet of Things technology, big data analytics, and of course, cloud computing.

In October, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) announced plans to conduct a data-as-a-service pilot aimed at making datasets more accessible to industry players. It also added "near real-time" analytics to its Cloud Service Provider Registry to provide information on the performance and availability of cloud vendors.

Several trials are already running at Jurong Lake District (JLD), a residential-business estate located in the western part of the island that has been earmarked as a testbed for the country's smart nation technologies and services.

More than 20 startups and companies as well as various government agencies including the Housing Development Board, National Environment Agency, and Land Transport Authority, are involved in the ongoing trials. These include the rollout of more than 1,000 sensors to trial various applications around urban mobility, sustainability, and improving sensing and situational awareness.

Data security, privacy key obstacles

It's a grand plan and one that has great potential to indeed improve the lives of Singaporeans. However, with the tremendous volume of data that can and will likely be collected, data security should take centerstage--so too should data privacy.

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With the government's exclusion from the country's data protection bill, there remain questions about how all that data--which cuts across government agencies and private entities--will be stored and managed.

IDA had admitted it didn't have all the answers, but it needs to sort out these issues before even thinking about rolling out its smart nation beyond JLD and across the island. More importantly, it should demonstrate data privacy will not be compromised at the expense of its grand "smart" plans.

For now at least, I'm glad I'm not a resident of JLD.

Security episodes over the past year also indicate a whole lot more needs to be done to adequately protect user data. In September, two security incidents overnight put customer data at risk due to a careless coding error and database breach.

With the multitude of data types collected cutting across healthcare and traffic, I shudder to imagine what could happen if some hackers decide to muck around with the traffic lights or hospital records.

Ultimately, the goal of Singapore's smart nation masterplan also shouldn't simply be about catching errant litterbugs and illegal parkers. It should strive to truly transform our lives and improve the living standards of everyone on this island.

I, for one, will be keen to see how the various trials will play out in the new year. And hopefully, more discussions will be focused on data protection and privacy.

Until then, here's wishing one and all a merry new year!

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