Code Artisans

From Blogskins To 'Google Forms' For Gov't, This S'porean Coded His Way To Forbes 30 Under 30

In this year’s edition of the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, a Singaporean public servant made the list.

“I thought it was fake news. My friends and family thought so too. Thankful it wasn’t.”

Leonard Loo, a Product Manager at the Open Government Products (OGP) division of GovTech (Government Technology Agency), made the list because of his contributions in the public service.

Together with his team, he is best known for developing the ‘Google Forms for the government’ FormSG, which has digitised over 12,000 forms that have been submitted over 2.5 million times.

Beyond that, his team also developed Digital MC mc.gov.sg, which digitises medical certificates, and go.gov.sg, a ‘bit.ly for government websites’.

As impressive as his current portfolio is, his headstart in coding has less intimidating origins.

Like many millennials, Leonard owned a blog in the early 2000s, when he was a Secondary 2 student.

Beyond just expressing his thoughts via blog posts, he also expressed his creativity and personalised his blogskin by tweaking the HTML and Javascript.

“I eventually started doing templates for others,” he shared in an interview with Vulcan Post.

Leonard Loo

“It felt odd at the beginning because I was creating pink and glittery blogskin templates for a largely female community – females used blogskins more than males at that time – but I got better at it over time.”

At the height of his ‘career’, he created over 50 blogskin templates that accumulated over 55,000 downloads.

Apart from the blogskins, however, he didn’t code much until he went to university, where he graduated with a double degree in Computer Science and Business and master’s degree in Data Science from Wharton, University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University respectively.

Having interned at tech startup Nextdoor during his college days in San Francisco, I wondered why Leonard chose to return to Singapore post-graduation as compared to staying put in the tech mecca.

“It can be tempting to remain there, with great mentors you can learn from and also good compensation schemes,” he admitted.

“But I came back to Singapore because I wanted to give back to the place that first built me.”

While working at [places like] Google can give me the mental satisfaction of deploying at planet scale, it does not translate to the warm fuzzy feeling you get when you build something useful that deeply impacts your family, your neighbour, and your friends.

Leonard Loo

But “warm fuzzy feelings” aside, the less romantic reason is the fact that he is under a 6-year GovTech scholarship bond.

“Whether I continue staying in the public sector after 6 years is an open question – my heart lies with solving for public good, but that can happen within or outside the public sector.”

Reinventing The Public Service, One Line Of Code At A Time

Leonard shared that the concept of FormSG stemmed from Director, Open Government Products Li Hongyi’s idea of sending form responses through email.

Screenshot from FormSG

“I [then] came up with the idea of a script to aggregate emails back into an Excel (sheet),” said Leonard.

He recalled working on the first version of FormSG (which wasn’t even a form builder) when he first joined the Open Government Products team.

“It was just me hardcoding a html form for a few users,” he said.

FormSG’s current iteration only came about after initial users from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Municipal Services Office (MSO), and Singapore Medical Council (SMC), satisfied with the product, shared it with other offices via word-of-mouth that the team built a form builder so that public officers could use it whenever the need arose.

The need [for something like FormSG] was painfully obvious as there are still many paper forms around. Just walk into any government offices and you’ll see stacks of them in folders.

Leonard Loo

He explained that a key reason why many of these forms still remained not digitised is due to cost.

Screenshot from FormSG

“Before FormSG, it took at least thousands of dollars to digitise forms that collect classified and sensitive data, because each digitisation will require secure hosting and storage of this data.”

With FormSG, however, digitising forms now have “almost zero marginal cost” because it leverages on existing infrastructure, i.e. government emails to collect responses.

Within 2 years, FormSG has been used by over 15,000 public officers across over 90 agencies.

FormSG also led to the creation of another of Leonard’s products – go.gov.sg, the government link shortener version of bit.ly and tinyurl.

Screenshot from Go.gov.sg

Leonard explained that a product like that won’t just mitigate phishing risks, it would also improve email deliverability as many link shorteners available out there have been blacklisted for spam.

He initially imagined this form shortener as a feature of FormSG, “because form links are typically long, so why not shorten them or even generate QR codes to facilitate sharing”, but eventually deduced that it had more potential as a standalone product.

“Today, at least 60% of go.gov.sg links are non-form links,” he shared. “They can be Youtube videos that introduce government programmes, an LTA advert on the MRTs, and so on.”

“In just 8 months, Go.gov.sg has been used by over 3,000 public officers across 70 agencies, creating 14,000 links that have been clicked almost 2 million times,” he beamed.

Digitising MCs Across All SingHealth Institutions

Earlier this month, GovTech announced that there are plans to replace existing paper medical certificates (MCs) with digital ones across all SingHealth institutions by early 2020.

This is part of a new system called DigiMC, and it has already been piloted at the Singapore General Hospital and the National Heart Centre Singapore.

Screenshot from Digital MC

To prevent unauthorised access, digital MCs will also be locked with the patient’s date of birth, but GovTech is still looking to add more security features.

“Digital MC was an idea that SNDGO (Smart Nation and Digital Government Group) was pushing for,” said Leonard.

“Our team, which does annual internal hackathons, worked on it in early 2018,” he revealed.

“We built the initial version and partnered with SingHealth to trial it. The pilot that was launched at SAF Clinic@National Heart Centre was announced publicly by Senior Minister of State Dr Janil Puthucheary in COS 2018.”

Example of a digital MC

“Less than 10,000 digital MCs were created as part of our pilot [but] we’ll expand this to the entire SingHealth cluster by early 2020, and at that scale it will be more than 1 million MCs a year.”

A Startup-Like Government Agency

Located within WeWork at Funan mall, you would easily mistake the OGP’s office for one that belongs to your regular tech startup.

But beyond the superficial, Open Government Products purposefully adopts a very startup-like approach to the way they work.

Image Credit: Open Government Products

“We think big, start small, and learn from failing fast,” it says in its culture and values page.

Leonard shared that for the OGP team, much of the development and solutioning process is also done in an ‘agile-like’ way.

“There are many flavours of ‘agile’,” he explained. “Kanban, Scrum, Extreme Programming […] we don’t really adhere strictly to any of them, mainly because our project teams are fairly small. [For example,] FormSG is worked on by about 4 people, and about 2 each for go.gov.sg and Digital MC.”

With such small teams, there’s less need for alignment and coordination, so there’s no need to introduce so many processes. It’s all about efficiency.

Leonard Loo

He gives an example of how daily standups were scrapped because as great as they sounded in theory, these morning meetings were redundant.

“We sit next to each other and talk to each other often about the same things we share at standups anyway, so why have them?”

Products are only as meaningful as how much they’re being used, so a large portion of Leonard’s time (around 40%) is also spent on marketing and onboarding public officers.

“[But] I am not just doing this on my own – I’m building a community of agency reps that help us spread the word to users to use the product. “

“If your product is good, it’s a lot easier for word-of-mouth to be the main marketing channel.”

Image Credit: Open Government Products

Rounding up the interview, I asked Leonard about one thing he wants fellow Singaporeans to know about GovTech.

“Let me zoom in to my immediate team, OGP,” he quipped.

“We focus on solving real problems, building for the user, and pushing for change. We’re hiring software engineers now, so please consider us, especially if you’re interested in solving important public sector problems.”

  • If you’re interested in building products for your fellow Singaporeans, join Leonard and the Open Government Products team here.

 

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