The story of how a small government unit developed a simple, clear messaging system — and helped Singapore’s citizens better understand the COVID-19 outbreak.
It’s not just a pandemic — also an infodemic
There are many things we still don’t know about the disease, the virus, and the best course of action. But if there’s one thing we do know for sure it’s that accurate, reliable information is crucial — and communicating it is equally crucial.
We’ve seen in recent times that misinformation can spread like wildfire. As the novel coronavirus pandemic was taking shape, so too was an infodemic. Information was spreading faster than the virus itself, and not all of it was accurate.
Singapore is one of the countries that managed the COVID-19 situation best, at least so far. They quickly understood the power of important communication, and they also understood the importance of using the right channels for this communication.
See, having ministers or presidents hold daily briefings is an excellent start — it’s absolutely crucial in a time of crisis. But it’s not enough.
It can take hours for the information to spread from the politicians to the media, and for the public to finally absorb the information. So instead, the government took to social media.
Of course, using social media in an official fashion is always challenging, so the government asked Open Government Products, its GovTech agency to design a clear and simple solution.
WhatsApp has the highest penetration among social messaging apps in the nation, and it is also the platform that hosts the most misinformation so that’s where the efforts were focused.
Singapore has been using WhatsApp for government updates since October 2019, but the system had never truly been tested, and needed to be tweaked for the purpose.
“While the Ministry of Communications and Information had an existing citizen notification system, it was for a very different use case and not built for this kind of scale and time sensitivity,” says Sarah Espaldon, Operations Marketing Manager from Singapore’s Open Government Products.
Singapore has the added difficulty of having four official languages: Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil. The government used an AI tool to rapidly translate the material from English so that every community can access the information with ease.
The AI was quickly trained with medical terms and other specific phrasings that the government might use in its communication. The channel was also extremely easy to sign up for.
The channel sent out regular updates. Under the initial settings, it took several hours to reach the entire subscriber list (which quickly surpassed 500,000 people). But the issue was quickly addressed so that the entire list could receive the updates within 30 minutes.
It’s a simple tool, but having access to a reliable source of information on a channel that people are familiar with should not be underestimated, particularly in challenging times.
This isn’t the first remarkable innovation accomplished by Singapore’s programmers. A month ago, Singapore health tech agency adapted a commercial scanning device into an AI tool to scan crowds of people and see if anyone has high temperature — and they did it within 2 weeks.
It’s important to keep in mind that such solutions need to be culturally appropriate. For instance, the same team has built two other tools to help agencies ensure compliance with the quarantine policies.
“The tool sends out SMSes at randomised timings throughout the day, and participants click on a unique link provided in the SMS which then reports their current location through a web app,” says Li Wei Loh, Product Manager.
It’s hard to see something like this applied in Europe or the US, but an official messaging platform, be it on WhatsApp or something else, can definitely help keep the people informed quickly.