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I had an uncomfortable gut feeling when I read this CNA article about biometric payments being available to schools here in 2018.

I had to dig deep for why I was uncomfortable. After all, I am all for technology making lives better. And therein lay the problem: In doing good, there was also the potential for harm.

The good is the sheer convenience of going cashless while being able to track spending. This might be the start of basic financial literacy.

According to the news article, the system has safety measures:

Fingerprint information will not be stored on the device. Instead, the prints will be encrypted and stored securely in a cloud database.

Anti-spoofing technology will also be put in place to ensure that the fingerprints are real and that the person making the payment is present.

This is the trifecta of data accuracy (reading), data security (keeping), and data integrity (reliably identifying). If just one to fails, the system’s users are harmed. Take the recent Instagram hack, for example.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the three data concepts are sound in practice. What is the harm then?

To answer this question, we need to ask at least one other question: What else can vendors do with the data that is accurate, “stored securely”, and reliable?

The short answer is lots. One needs only look at what Facebook and Google did (and continue to do) with our data. They offer their services for “free” to us because our data serves up advertisements which make these companies money. Lots of it.

One needs only to casually search for data breaches and infringements involving these two companies. For example:

The last item was not so much about the privacy of data as about the use and manipulation of data. That is my point: Assuring stakeholders that data is accurate, authentic, and safe is not enough; it is the lack of transparency and foresight about what can be done with that data.

Students are particularly vulnerable because adults make decisions about their data and the kids have no say in the biometric scheme. By this I am referring to the scheme being employed as a Smart Nation initiative, not the choice of whether to join the scheme.

The issue is so serious that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has tips for teachers about student privacy. These include:

  • Making digital literacy part of the curriculum
  • Advocating for better training for teachers
  • Getting parental consent
  • Selecting technology tools carefully
  • Building community of like-minded privacy advocates

A Smart Nation needs people to make smart choices. To do that, people need good information. Where is the information about how the data might be used both intentionally and peripherally? What promises and standards of practice can service vendors and providers be held to? Where is the public debate on the data privacy of the especially vulnerable?

I read two recent news articles [1] [2] about a local bank providing 6,000 kids with watches that manage their spending in and outside school. I wondered if there was an unseen opportunity for learning.
 

 
Might the provision of watches be combined with coding and making so the kids try some hacking? This is something that happened in programmes like Negroponte’s OLPCs and Mitra’s hole-in-the-wall computers.

While such actions might be viewed negatively, they are not only an opportunity to learn by tinkering, they are also ripe for learning about ethical practices and responsible behaviour.

Not every hack is bad. Buyers of IKEA products have been hacking them for a long time. The results can be creative and even better than the original.

A Smart Nation is not just about “smart” devices. It is more about smart people making smart choices. One of the best ways to get to that state is learning by doing and learning from mistakes.

What is our next smart move?

My rant today began with the first world problem of setting up a GIRO link (automatic deduction) from my bank account to my son’s new ez-link (public transport) card.

Why establish this payment link? It is the smart thing to do: I do not have to remember when to top up the card’s cash value because the process is automated.

The instructions on how to do this are critical because a) they probably change over time (they did), and b) a user cannot be expected to remember what to do (it is a few years between needing to do this).

When I tried following the instructions at the ez-link website to set up a GIRO-linked travel card, I discovered that the instructions were outdated.

The main steps were to first get an authorisation number from an AXS machine and then look for a general ticketing machine to activate the travel card with the authorisation number.

The AXS instructions were not only inaccurate, the reader refused to read the card and reported that the card was faulty. I moved to another AXS machine and got the same message. The card worked just fine when I was at a customer service counter to deactivate the old card and activate the new one.

This begs the question of why everything — deactivation of old card, activation of new card, GIRO application — could not be performed at the customer service counter. It is as if some agency wanted people to walk from a counter to a machine to yet another machine so I got some exercise. The only thing I exercised was my patience.

The overall process is one main step too many. The authorities realised this and removed the AXS steps. However, the instructions persist online.

How are we to be a Smart Nation if we have dumb processes (the irrelevant instructions) that persist?

I do not blame the technology. I blame people.

The technology evolved to be more secure so that the AXS authorisation process was no longer a necessity. There is now one less step to play in this administrative scavenger hunt. But people in charge did not update the instructions and the links to them.

You could attribute this to laziness, oversight, or carelessness. Whatever the root cause, it would be stupid to push for a Smart Nation while retaining dumb habits.

The push is a sociotechnical system and efforts that forget the human element are doomed to fail. The failures do not have to be the headlining sort. They are the simple things that are supposed to make everyday life more convenient and seamless, like automating the payment of a travel card. If you cannot succeed with the little things, do not expect to do well with the big ones.

Singapore has put into action plans to create a Smart Nation. Most of the experiments will centre around the Jurong Lake District.

Citizens have been writing in to the newspaper forum and an editor has written about smartness not being just about the technology.

I can relate. After all, what good is being technologically connected if we are not socially connected or if there is no social good?


Video source

Videos like the one above help people see what the Smart Nation might look like and what the future might bring. They are wonderful ideas, but they focus on how meaningfully integrated technologies help us.

How about helping others or helping those who cannot help themselves? Consider this scheme in the USA to help kids on the wrong side of the divide get Internet access.

There is surely room and provision in the Smart Nation Plan for such initiatives. A news article hinted at how the plan might help the elderly. But I am also referring to the poor, needy, infirm, disabled, or otherwise disadvantaged.

There is no point being smart without being kind first. That is like placing a premium on IQ and ignoring EQ. That is not a very smart thing to do in the long term.

I was excited to read about Singapore’s plans to trial a Smart Nation Platform (SNP) in the Jurong Lake District. This was reported in CNA and STonline.

Examples of what such a system could do was highlighted in the latter as:

Using your smartphone to sense the bumpiness of a bus ride and sending the data back to the local authorities will soon be a click away. Similarly, drivers will not be able to get away with illegal parking when advanced cameras that automate the work of enforcement officers are turned on. These cameras can also detect people smoking in prohibited zones.

I am not going to make a statement about us being police state version 2 because that is not all the system does.

The trial is slated to begin in “the third quarter of this year in Singapore’s push to be a smart nation to improve citizens’ quality of life.” A system that deters inconsiderate behaviour like indiscriminate parking or smoking is great.

Instead of the bumpiness of a bus ride, I would rather the system detect the jerkiness of one. Bumpiness reflects the condition of the road. Having a system that detects road defects is good. Having a system that provides evidence of errant bus drivers is better.

If you take public transport as often as I do here, you know that bus drivers only behave when inspectors or supervisors are on board. Otherwise they pretend to be Grand Prix drivers on quiet roads, roll over speed bumps like they were not there, speed up just before pulling into bus bays only to test their brakes, and provide their best simulation of a horizontal roller coaster.

I hope we have systems that improve human behaviours. That would make the quality of life better here.

If the SNP includes roads, I suggest this idea.


Video source

We have an abundance of sunlight and we could use a system of roads and surfaces that are easy to repair and configure, take away our torrential rain, and generate electricity to boot. It is a system that minimizes our carbon footprint, encourages the use of recycled materials, and creates jobs.

I do not think I am being a jerk to suggest that we be humble enough to accept that someone else had a better idea and to work with them to scale it up in small country like ours. I think it is a bump in the right direction.


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