Data protection: how digital tech shielded citizens during the pandemic

By on 23/06/2021 | Updated on 16/08/2021
Shelter from the storm: in many countries, civil servants have used data and digital services to inform, support and protect their populations through the pandemic. Illustration by Katy Smith

In many countries, the inventive use of digital technologies has helped to support economies and protect citizens. At the Government Digital Summit, digital leaders from 15 countries compared their experiences – and learned how tech proved central to Singapore’s and South Korea’s successful COVID strategies. Adam Branson reports

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every nation in the world – but its impacts have varied dramatically. The UK, USA, Italy and Spain, for example, have lost 1650-2000 lives to the virus per million residents; but other countries – including some of those closest to its origins in China – have successfully kept a lid on the pandemic. In South Korea, just 36 people have died per million; in Singapore, that figure is a tiny five per million.

So when senior civil servants from these latter two countries explained their role in tackling coronavirus at GGF’s Digital Summit, the participants were all ears. Bringing together 23 national and departmental digital leaders from 15 countries on four continents, plus representatives of the event’s knowledge partners Mastercard and Dell Technologies, the Summit represented an opportunity for digital specialists to compare their experiences of what had been a tumultuous 14 months – sharing ideas, discussing challenges, and considering the pandemic’s implications for the future of digital in government.

By the middle of January 2020, recalled Jason Bay – Senior Director for Government Digital Services at Singapore’s Government Technology Agency – it “was clear to us that the pace at which this outbreak was proceeding in China far outstripped even SARS. In one month, the number of cases in China exceeded the global number of cases for SARS in the entire year that we experienced in 2003.”

Jason Bay
Senior Director – Government Digital Services, GovTech, Singapore

Reaching everyone

One early priority, Bay explained, was to get messages out to the city-state’s population – using a wide range of social media platforms and websites. “We rely on WhatsApp channels; we rely on Telegram channels. We’ve got chatbots, and we stood up multiple websites that create a really simple, one-stop portal for people looking for information about where they can collect masks, on the state of the pandemic, or on their nearest pandemic screening facilities,” he said. “Providing simple and easy-to-locate information has proven to be a key boost to maintaining public trust and confidence.”

Even in tech-savvy Singapore, though, not everyone has easy access to digital communications – with the elderly and those on low incomes most likely to miss online messages. “Resources had to be allocated to make sure that those segments of society are equipped with the tools to cope,” said Bay. “We’ve enlisted the help of a lot of what we call ‘digital ambassadors’ to go out into the community and help people to adopt some of these technologies. Some of the results that we’ve seen, in terms of the adoption of e-payments, digital identities and things like that, have been impressive.”  

South Korea’s population is equally technophile – but Seong Ju Park, Deputy Director for Digital Government Cooperation at the country’s Ministry of Interior and Safety, also stressed the need to reach out beyond the digitally-connected. “There are still vulnerable groups that do not know how to use the technology that’s available,” she said. “We are working with students and volunteers, and have them give lessons to the elderly or vulnerable groups on how to use smartphones and how to access digital government services.” 

Seong Ju PARK Deputy Director, Digital Government Cooperation, Ministry of Interior and Safety, South Korea

Digital investments show their value

Digital tools were equally crucial to Singapore’s pandemic-related public services, such as its contact-tracing and isolation operations – which involved an app as well as an extensive telephone-based service. Civil servants integrated healthcare and public health response data, giving contact-tracing teams rapid access to a wide range of key information.

“That has helped us to bring the response time to isolate an individual from something like four days at the beginning of last year to less than one and a half days,” said Bay. “Through the use of thermal scanning technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) and visual and video analytics, we’ve also rolled out temperature scanners. That has helped to perform temperature screening at many public venues in Singapore.” 

A similar story is to be found in Singapore’s vaccination programme, which again relies heavily on a digital solution. “We’ve rolled out a simple vaccination booking system that consolidates and manages the supply and demand of vaccines, especially those that have to be kept under very cold storage conditions,” said Bay. “We are able to keep people moving through the system in an efficient manner without them having to wait too long.” 

The investments made over recent years in government’s digital infrastructure and skills, said Bay, proved their value during the pandemic – providing foundational services, data assets and staff capabilities that enabled Singapore to build new systems very rapidly. “We moved to greater adoption of commercial Cloud technologies a couple of years ago, and I think we’re seeing some of the dividends coming back in terms of our ability to spin up systems really quickly,” he said. “We’ve made investments in our data architecture since 2017-18. We have trusted centres that have responsibility to bring together information from disparate sources and clean it up. That has accelerated the pace of data-sharing within government, and also helped us to respond more effectively across government.” 

Planning pays off

As well as digital infrastructure, it’s important to prepare the right legislative framework to support an effective pandemic response. By the time the pandemic arrived, said Seong Ju Park, “we had our legislation in place in case we find infectious diseases here in Korea. That allowed us to quickly develop contact-tracing services and have guidelines in place when COVID-19 broke in Korea. We already had a policy in place, so we just looked for areas where digital could help lessen the workload of government officials.”  

That digital capability proved essential as case numbers exceeded the capacity of human contact-tracing teams. Early on, Park explained, officials were able to visit everyone who’d been exposed to the virus – explaining their need to self-isolate, checking compliance and providing support. As case numbers grew, digital staff rolled out an app that took on much of this work: “The app was for people under self-quarantine to report their symptoms, and then to make sure that they were following the guidelines,” said Park. 

So Singapore and South Korea’s pandemic responses leant heavily on preparations and investments made over a number of years. And that’s also true of the United Arab Emirates, commented H.E. Mr Younus Al Nasser, Assistant Director General of the Smart Dubai Department and CEO of the Dubai Data Establishment: flexible working tools and policies “put in place a decade ago,” he said, enabled public sector staff to move to remote working and home-learning rapidly when the pandemic struck. “We were leveraging many collaboration platforms, and I’m very proud to say that over here during the lockdown we were serving more than 120,000 government employees,” he said.

H.E. Younus Al Nasser
Assistant Director General – Smart Dubai and CEO – Dubai Data Establishment, UAE


Even those countries which had long been preparing for a pandemic, however, had to quickly change the way they operated in response to the specific threats and demands of COVID-19. “I think what was really helpful was that government procurement in the early days of the pandemic was given a shot in the arm, because we relaxed our procurement rules,” said Bay. “That has allowed us to procure products and services from the private sector much faster.” 

The same dynamic could be seen in Europe, commented one senior official from the continent. “Everyone understood that we had to move at pace” on procurement, they said. “And so we were able to get through those governance structures much faster, because everyone was working to the imperative; to the vision of what we needed.” 

Similarly, they added, rules on communication security were relaxed – stripping out unnecessary precautions – to ensure that government’s work could continue with large numbers of senior staff working from home. “There was a real and fierce focus on actually reassessing those security paradigms and taking a more pragmatic approach, to allow essential communications to go on at a very senior level across government,” they commented.  

UK leaders’ decision to put aside many of the usual procurement rules has clearly led to some money being badly spent. But it also gave departments the space to have open conversations with suppliers, commented Tariq Hussain, a Senior Director for UK Public Sector at knowledge partner Dell Technologies – and those discussion often improved their buying decisions. 

Tariq Hussain
Senior Director, UK Public Sector, Dell Technologies

In March 2020, he recalled, one UK department began buying laptops from distributors. Civil servants “came out very quickly to procure, but because they went through some government procurement routes, they weren’t talking to us as manufacturers – so we didn’t know about the sheer scale of what was required, and we were held very much at arm’s length,” he said.

Soon, though, “that dialogue changed, and the department started to talk to us as well as other manufacturers, and we started to understand what they were trying to achieve. What that allowed us as a manufacturer to do is open up supply chains, and we delivered on time. We were also quick to set up work with the NHS to deliver the Nightingale [emergency hospital] project, because they engaged with us directly. It’s really about leaning in more to manufacturers such as us.” 

Easing the intersection with business

Indeed, governments’ relationships with private businesses often helped decide the speed and quality of their response. “Government can’t provide all of the services as fast as the private sector can, and nor should it,” said one participant. Their country operates a digital cooperation framework with the private sector to support effective collaboration and procurement in the digital field, they noted – and this proved invaluable last year.

“With some things, it’s perfectly fine to outsource to the private sector,” they said. “This framework enables the private sector to contribute without excessive bureaucracy. They can approach the government and say: ‘Hey, we have this great solution, and it seems that your government might have a need for it!’” 

Government then works closely with businesses to develop new systems. “If a solution fits our needs, we can do it as a co-creation project,” they explained. “Later on, we can make the source code available… which means that other government institutions can also use the same bit of solution. And then, of course, the private company can use the government as a reference and promote their project. It’s a kind of win-win.” 

Dr Carlos Santiso
Director – Governance Practice, Digital Innovation in Government, Development Bank of Latin America, Colombia

So both existing and new digital services have played a key role in governments’ work to protect their populations – leading to fast-rising use of online services. And much of this demand is likely to remain in the digital world after the pandemic – aiding governments’ attempts to support ‘channel shift’ from traditional to digital services, but creating a new challenge for digital professionals around the world. 

“What will be challenging for digital agencies is that the demand from within governments and public institutions has risen,” said Dr Carlos Santiso, Director of the Development Bank of Latin America’s Digital Innovation in Government practice. With civil service leaders and the public sold on the value of digital, governments will have to expand their digital teams in order to satisfy people’s expectations: “Maybe five years ago, getting a budget to do a project may have been a challenge,” he concluded. “Now what we’ve seen is the difficulty for the digital agencies or the tech specialists in ministries in coping with the demand.” 

Although the Government Digital Summit is a private event, GGF produces reports to share as much of the discussion as possible with our readers – checking before publication that participants are happy to be quoted. This is our first of three reports on the Summit. The second examined how countries can realise the potential of their vast data reserves; and the final report covered how civil services can best make use of AI technologies. See the Summit website for more information.

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