Singapore’s TraceTogether story for COVID-19 contact tracing


With the launch of the TraceTogether (TT) mobile app on March 20, 2020, Singapore became the first country to roll out a nationwide digital contact tracing tool as the world battled the SARS-CoV-2 virus. who rages. Chan Cheow Hoe, director of digital technology for the government of Singapore and deputy chief executive of the country’s government agency for technology (GovTech), the agency that built the TT app, explained that there were three ” secret sauces” that had enabled the rapid deployment of the app: “a bimodal organization structure, cloud infrastructure and the Singapore government’s technology stack”.

In Singapore, contact tracing, the process of identifying people who have been exposed to a COVID-19 patient, began on January 23, 2020, the same day the city-state detected the first imported case of COVID-19. 19. With a population density of over 7,000 people per square kilometer, Singapore was among the 10 most densely populated countries in the world, making the city-state highly susceptible to the transmission of infectious diseases.

Contact tracing had been a key part of the Department of Health’s national strategy to tackle previous outbreaks. As the manual contact tracing process was labor intensive and time consuming, it could not be scaled up quickly. It was therefore recognized that a digital solution that could expedite contact tracing would meet the pressing needs of the nation to curb the spread of COVID-19. With the Bluetooth-enabled TT app, Singapore could augment its Ministry of Health’s national contact tracing efforts by reducing local transmission.

Chan, in his dual role as Deputy Managing Director of GovTech and Director of Government Digital Technology, oversaw the product management, development and delivery of digital government services in partnership with government departments and agencies. It was a challenge to manage a bimodal organization, which Chan likened to managing two diverse groups such as classical pianists and rock and roll musicians. “Bringing them together to lead a cohesive organization is a challenge, and it remains a challenge to this day,” Chan acknowledged.

Bimodal is the practice of managing two distinct but consistent working styles: one focused on predictability; the other on exploration (Gartner, 2020). According to Gartner’s definition, Mode 1 is optimized for areas that are more predictable and better understood, while Mode 2 is exploratory, experimenting to solve new problems, and optimized for areas of uncertainty.

Chan observed that due to the nature of their work, people operating in Mode 1 had very good domain knowledge and an understanding of user needs. In contrast, Mode 2 teams did not have a similar experience. Chan was able to find ways to channel the knowledge of Mode 1 teams into the problem-solving process that contributed to Mode 2 application development efforts (which were to demonstrate new ways of using computing and associated digital technology). The initial small team of seven software developers Chan assembled to form Mode 2 quickly grew to around 20 by the end of 2014.

In 2015, a central, shared pool of more than 100 software engineering talents, including the initial team, was formed to meet the IT needs of government agencies. This team eventually became the division called Government Digital Services (GDS). GDS’ mission was to provide the public with innovative digital services on websites and mobile applications. Digital service delivery was supported by cloud computing and technology stack infrastructure.

After the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Singapore on January 23, 2020, the GovTech GDS team, led by GovTech Senior Director Jason Bay, raced against time to build the TT app, starting the same day work. Joel Kek, one of the first GDS employees to respond to Bay’s call for volunteers, created a proof of concept by having two cell phones exchange Bluetooth signals. This initial success then led to the next stages of experimenting with multiple handsets and message encryption.

Leveraging Bay’s extensive network to enlist the help of public and private sector experts, the team overcame numerous hurdles to roll out the app to iOS and Android devices on March 20, 2020. Despite the challenges of bringing all these various parties, Bay was able to pull together much-needed resources for a tightly packed project schedule through his extensive professional networks and personal connections.

“We had to put all the different pieces of the puzzle together to build TT. I think people saw COVID-19 as an unprecedented crisis and they immediately recognized the need to come together to work on this bold goal to try to build the TT as soon as possible,” Bay said.

After the launch of the TT app, the team continued to pivot, experiment and further refine the functionality of the app. Version 2.0 of the TT app was released three months later, followed by the distribution of the TT token, a portable device that had similar functions to the app but did not require a mobile phone. After the initial release, a steady stream of version updates were released to improve its functionality. Subsequently, TT was also integrated into SafeEntry (SE), the national digital registration system.

As of June 2020, 1.8 million people, or around 25% of Singapore’s population, have downloaded the TT app. But the adoption rate was still below the 75% target the government had set for the TT to be deemed effective. TT tokens were seen as a plug that could help fill this gap. By the end of this month, the first batch of the Bluetooth-enabled wearable device had been distributed to 10,000 vulnerable elderly people. Subsequent distribution cycles to the general public continued in September 2020. Adoption of the tokens accelerated soon after the government announced on October 20, 2020 that it would be mandatory to use the app or the TT token to enter high-traffic public places by the end. of the year. In December 2020, Gartner named TT the Asia-Pacific winner of its 2020 Government Eye on Innovation Award, which recognizes “outstanding public sector initiatives that advance digital government.”

In May 2021, Singapore was swept by a new wave of COVID-19 infections caused by the Delta variant. The country has moved to a phase 2 (enhanced alert), with stricter measures to minimize community transmission. Safe management measures, along with contact tracing, testing and the vaccination program, continued to play a vital role. “Along with our use of digital tools, such as the TraceTogether program and SafeEntry, these measures will allow us to quickly identify and draw wide circles around cases and their close contacts,” the Ministry of Health said. Singapore.

In August 2021, Singapore’s Multi-Ministerial Task Force declared that the country was preparing to become a COVID-19 resilient nation, moving towards “COVID-19 resilience”. Two months later, in response to the requirement to check COVID-19 test status and vaccination status, the TT app was updated to show green and white passes; the green pass would indicate vaccination and testing status to facilitate the registration process, while the white pass would indicate non-vaccination or unclear testing status.

Prior to COVID-19, GovTech would not have anticipated the urgent need to support the nation’s efforts in combating an unprecedented pandemic. They also couldn’t have planned to deliver apps and systems (such as TT, SE and others), yet they responded quickly and nimblely.

Reflecting on the situation, Chan said, “We are ready to meet the challenges as we move forward. GovTech has shown time and time again that we will be able to overcome challenges thanks to the foundations we have built over the past few years. We already had a Mode Two team in place. We also have a cloud and technology stack. These three elements allowed the TT to develop very quickly. We were very fortunate to be able to develop these capabilities and the supporting infrastructure before the onset of COVID-19. »

This case study, authored by Wong Yuet Nan, SMU Adjunct Professor; Steven Miller, SMU Emeritus Professor of Information Systems; and Dr. Cheah Sin Mei, Deputy Director of the Center for Management Practice (CMP) at SMU, examine the use of the bimodal organization concept to create a Mode 2 organization for exploratory software development, as well as the application of a transformational leadership style for large organizations in times of uncertainty.

To read the case in full, please visit the CMP website by clicking here.


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