#Singtech

I recently visited family in Singapore – I’ve been lucky enough to visit several times now and always enjoy spending time there. The benefit of staying with family is that you get to see the place through local eyes – there’s a lot to notice as you walk to the local hawker centre for lunch.

I’m really interested in Singapore’s civic infrastructure and seem to notice new things every time I visit; there’s normally some technology involved.

I sometimes find myself asking “How come we don’t just have something like this here?” as if it is just that simple. In reality Singapore has an interesting setup (in many ways) which allows it to make things work that might not back here in the UK. I certainly don’t claim to deeply understand these differences, but I’m interested enough to keep learning about it.

For my own interest I decided that this time I would note a few things down; I get excited about some of these things but they are not necessarily as ground-breaking as they feel – this is as much for personal reference in the future as I maybe follow their developments. 

Whilst I was writing this blog post, I noticed this article published on the WSJ which talks about Singapore’s plans to “take the ‘Smart City’ to the next Whole New Level”  –  this is intriguing and exciting having seen first hand the efficient way in which Singapore provides some of its civic services to citizens.

Driving in Singapore

From what I understand, Singapore is an incredibly expensive place to drive. For example: on initial registration of a car in Singapore there is a registration fee (tax) of 150% the market value of the car – a car worth $40,000 will cost you an additional $60,000 to register. This is before you even get started – you still have standard running costs / road taxes etc. to keep it running. Once a car is 10 years old, there are additional licences you have to get in order to keep it running – consequently the large majority of cars on the roads in Singapore are less than 10 years old.

Singapore has one way to pay driving-related charges – payments are facilitated by In-vehicle Units (IU). Any car wishing to use ‘priced roads’ in Singapore must be fitted with an IU (I don’t think I’ve seen a car that doesn’t have one in the windscreen yet…).

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The IU takes a payment card against which it makes charges – generally this uses the EZ-Link stored value card although the more recent units also support NETS (a Singapore cashless payments company which offers more favourable arrangements for Singapore businesses and residents than the international players such as MasterCard / Visa).

The IU contains a radio transceiver which is activated by all sorts of things. When a device is charged, it simply beeps and the fee is automatically deducted from the payment card.

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Almost every car park around the city uses the IU for parking charges – the IU is read on the way in, and then as you pass through the exit barrier your device is automatically charged (surprisingly parking charges are actually very reasonable).

As you drive around the city, you notice Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) gantries projecting a bright white line of light onto the road surface – driving through this white line means you will be charged a toll charge, which changes depending on the time of day and level of congestion.

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Driving into your apartment block, your IU device bleeps as the barrier identifies your car and lets you through – no need for a separate remote control or access card.

We have achieved similar things to this in the UK using Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras – and I’m sure that as ANPR technology becomes more available and cheaper to deploy, we will see it used much more frequently for payment in local car parks, for instance. However IU devices are ubiquitous in Singapore, and one of the things that makes the system so efficient is that ubiquity – it’s the fact that a single ‘standard’ has almost 100% penetration across the whole system that I find interesting.

Feedback, feedback, feedback, data!

I’ve always enjoyed giving feedback at passport control in Changi Airport. Two reasons for this:

  • it is run pretty efficiently and rarely takes a long time
  • the officers do this really cool emphatic ‘dance of the stamp’ as they adorn your passport.

I’ve always tapped the ‘very smiley face’ on the ‘feedback terminal’.

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This time though, it struck me just how many ‘feedback terminals’ there are dotted around the airport…

Just a few opportunities for giving feedback that I noticed were:

  • After you’ve been through passport control
  • After you’ve used the toilets (feedback is assigned to the operative on duty)
  • After you’ve taken a walk around the Cactus Garden
  • After you’ve purchased something from duty free
  • After you’ve visited the Butterfly Garden
  • After you’ve taken a photo in front of the Photo Garden(?)
  • After you’ve bought refreshments from the Tip Top food stand (curry puffs and kopi are a must)

Take your time…

Whilst waiting at a pelican crossing, I noticed these boxes fitted for the crossing control. At first glance I thought it was some kind of payment terminal (I was prepared for the fact that there may be some charging associated with using the crossing – anything is possible), however my sister explained that these Land Transport Authority (LTA) crossing controls are fitted with tech which allows people to request more time to cross the road.

Those who are eligible are issued with an RFID card that they present to the crossing control when activating it triggering it to remain green for longer.

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I thought this was an ace idea but I did wonder whether this sort of thing would even really work in the UK – we certainly lack the same level of compliance when it comes to crossing roads.

AXS to services

We decided we wanted to have a BBQ at the East Coast Beach one evening – for this you have to book a BBQ pitch. As we were walking through a mall, we passed what looked like a cash machine. “Oh, hold on, I’ll just book our BBQ pitch.” Turns out it was an ‘AXS terminal’.

It seems you can do a whole host of ‘everyday things’ via an AXS terminal, and they are placed all over the city. You can pay fines, pay bills,  buy tickets, access government services, top things up, book BBQs…

It’s not a completely novel concept – you can, I understand, top up your PAYG phone from some ATM machines in the UK.

But you can find an AXS machine in most shopping centres, and each machine provides a whole range of services (over 150 apparently) – they are almost as ubiquitous as ATM machines. The system is consistent, it’s providing a standardised platform for providers of services to make transactions available to citizens, and citizens know how to use it to interact with the city.

Open Flood Data…

We managed to get caught in the first downpour Singapore had seen for several weeks – and this rainstorm came with conviction. We actually spent over an hour stranded in a cave surround by the “The Ten Courts Of Hell” at Haw Par Villa whilst we waited for the storm to subside.

Whilst sitting there watching the sky empty itself, my sister said “It hasn’t rained like this for weeks – I wonder if the drains are coping”. She loaded her WeatherLah app and showed me a map of all the storm drains / channels around Singapore, and how full they were. The geek in me loved that I could see the status of the entire drainage network, in a single view, on a smartphone, from inside a cave.

Again, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking about water level data being made available – we have this in the UK already via the Environment Agency’s real-time flood monitoring API; but for some reason it felt like I was looking at a ‘system’, as opposed to lots of monitoring stations dotted independently around the place. My mental model of Singapore was that of a single machine and in subsequently reading about the Smart City plans this kind of makes sense.

Incidentally I asked my sister why she was interested in the status of the drainage system around Singapore and she said “Oh, I’m not”. WeatherLah advertises that Singapore is known to flood sometimes and the app will alert you to this in advance – so I would assume this is proven to be useful data for citizens.

Data, data, data

Singapore has bold aspirations when it comes to using technology and data to really make the state work for its citizens. Just this week they have announced their new ‘open data portal’ – data.gov.sg (it’s not dissimilar to the work the Office of National Statistics have been doing around access to and visualisation of data). The Singapore open data portal appears to be targeting developers as a primary consumer of the data and their blog uses the strap line “Understanding Singapore by exploring and visualising open data”. Again there is a focus on the idea of ‘Singapore as a system’ – I think it’s going to be really interesting and I’m certainly going to be watching with keen interest to see where it goes over the next couple of years.