Geek

A Mask For Each S'porean: How GovTech Built An App In 4 Days To Fairly Distribute 4.2M Masks

News about diagnoses and treatments often take the limelight as governments across the globe grapple with COVID-19. Receiving less attention is the fact that society’s fight against the novel coronavirus is as much a logistical undertaking as it is a healthcare one.

For example, distributing reusable face masks to residents was a priority of the Singapore government as it announced ‘circuit breaker’ measures at the start of April 2020 to curb the uptick of local COVID-19 cases.

The Ministry of Trade & Industry (MTI) and People’s Association (PA), tasked with coordinating the nationwide distribution effort, anticipated two main logistical challenges that would affect mission success.

Firstly, it needed to manage a flexible pool of volunteers distributing masks at each collection point. Secondly, those volunteers had to be able to keep track of collection quotas — no one should be allowed to collect more than one reusable face mask.

MTI and PA needed a technological solution to facilitate both processes, and reached out to the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech) to tap on their expertise.

They Had About 4 Days To Develop The App

Steven Koh, director of Government Digital Services at GovTech, recalls receiving a call from them at 11pm on April 1.

They wanted the app to be up and running by April 5, and his first thought was: this is an April Fool’s joke. Well, it wasn’t.

Fortunately, Steven and his colleagues at GovTech were prepared to meet MTI’s and PA’s tight deadline.

govtech supplyally team
GovTech team behind the SupplyAlly app / Image Credit: GovTech

It certainly helped that they had been working on a similar application beforehand which could be quickly repurposed and refined for this distribution, said Raymond Yeh, a software engineer at GovTech.

After conferring with Minister-in-charge of GovTech, Dr Janil Puthucheary, and officers from MTI and PA to firm up operationalisation details, the GovTech team went into full development mode and the mobile app was timely delivered on April 5.

Called SupplyAlly, the app was meant to be used by volunteers at residents’ committees and community centres so the GovTech team paid special attention to user-friendliness during app design and development.

“We wanted to make sure that volunteers needed minimal training to start using the app,” said Lim Zui Young, DevOps and quality engineer at GovTech.

To log in, the user simply needs to scan a PA-issued QR code. There is no need for volunteers to input their personal particulars or identity card details for authorisation.

The QR code login method solves a very fundamental design problem in that it doesn’t require PA to register every single volunteer before deploying them.

If a new volunteer shows up, PA can just pass him or her a barcode to authorise the use of the app. This speeds up the on-boarding process and grants PA more flexibility in managing volunteers on the ground.

– Chow Ruijie, software engineer at GovTech

Since the QR codes are permanently affiliated with the device that scanned them, they can even be discarded without fear of someone else using them for unauthorised logins, he added.

Helped To Distribute 4.2 Million Masks

reusable face mask singapore
Reusable face mask / Image Credit: Zheng Zhangxin via Mothership

With the app, volunteers can also use their phone camera to scan the identity cards of individuals who show up to collect their reusable masks.

GovTech assures that there is no need for data privacy concerns as no personally-identifiable information is stored within the app. A timestamped digital signature is generated instead, indicating that the app has ‘seen’ the identity card.

This digital signature serves as a record of who has already collected the mask and who hasn’t, without needing to know exactly who that person is.

Should the digital signature appear again at another time or place, a rejection message will be displayed on the app, alongside the timestamp of when the digital signature was last ‘seen’.

– Raymond Yeh, software engineer at GovTech

Another GovTech software engineer Immanuella Lim shared that there were cases where residents tried to claim reusable masks from multiple collection centres.

SupplyAlly was able to flag that a prior transaction had occured and displayed the exact date and time of that transaction. This gave PA’s volunteers greater authority to turn away individuals who attempted to ‘game’ the system to obtain more masks.

– Immanuella Lim, software engineer at GovTech

Since its launch, SupplyAlly has allowed PA to manage hundreds of volunteers and distribute 4.2 million reusable masks.

Owing to the app’s lightweight build and minimal integrations, it could process transactions very rapidly — up to 4,500 transactions per second, with a 50-millisecond response latency, said Sebastian Quek, software engineer at GovTech.

Being fast and robust means that there were no queues at the mask collection points, and this is especially important at a time where safe distancing was being strictly enforced to prevent community spread of the coronavirus.

“We’ve received feedback from the volunteers that SupplyAlly was very easy to use. At the same time, we’ve seen posts on Facebook by residents who said that the mask collection was quick and seamless, so our team is happy with the outcome,” said Sebastian.

An Ally In More Ways Than One

Although mask distribution was the first operation that relied on SupplyAlly, the GovTech team notes that the mobile app is relevant to other situations requiring large-scale coordination of manpower and accounting of resources or supplies.

home-based learning laptop singapore
Image Credit: Tzu Chi’s care beneficiary

Zui Young shared that local non-profit organisation Engineering Good is tapping SupplyAlly to distribute refurbished laptops to needy students for home-based learning during the ‘circuit breaker’ period.

By leveraging cloud technologies and working across multiple development environments while adopting an agile approach to software engineering, GovTech stands ready to support other nationwide efforts in this uncertain time of COVID-19.


This article first appeared on GovTech. You can also get byte-sized (geddit?) tech stories by GovTech here.


Featured Image Credit: Giving.sg / GovTech

 

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