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Is data Singapore's next big bet?

It seems that there is no such thing as too much information. The amount of data circulating worldwide will balloon to a phenomenal 44 zettabytes by 2020, according to research company International Data Corp. A zettabyte is equivalent to about 250 billion DVDs.

To what extent can data - a completely virtual asset - deliver tangible economic opportunities to Singapore?

The Committee on the Future Economy has identified data and its associated digital opportunities as a source of growth for the country. Indeed, given Singapore's relative strength in market access and connectivity, human capital, infrastructure, strong intellectual property and data security regulations, there is a huge opportunity to monetise data assets for economic gain.

After all, Singapore is characterised by a highly connected national ecosystem, with mobile phone penetration of over 100 per cent and nationwide high-speed Internet coverage.

From a domestic governance standpoint, the use of data can help the public service make smarter decisions to run the country better.

For instance, public healthcare institutions can use analytics to understand and predict high-risk diabetes populations and design appropriate intervention programmes.

The maritime authorities can use data from smart cranes at ports to predict failures and downtime and design preventative maintenance programmes for improved port efficiency.

Beyond domestic application, what is more exciting is the potential to be an exporter of data and analytics products and services, opening up entirely new trade revenue streams.

Already, the country has proven its credentials in exporting expertise in many arenas, such as public infra- structure management. Singapore's best bet would be to develop intel- lectual property locally and license it in the international market, or deliver data-related services here for global consumption.

From a competitive strength and market demand perspective, there are several potential priority sectors in which Singapore could test the use of data and analytics solutions and then commercialise them internationally.

With the rise of urban cities, the pressure on transportation infrastructure is often one of the greatest challenges faced by governments.

How do they optimise the transport network and operations to improve commuters' experience, while reducing costs and emissions?

Analytics solutions developed in Singapore for smart maintenance and operations, as well as demand-supply synchronisation, could be commercialised around the world.

In the healthcare sector, given the implementation of the National Electronic Health Record system, which affords access to individuals' digitised medical records, there is a real opportunity to build further analytics capabilities for bio-surveillance, population health management or cutting readmission. Thiswould be of great interest to many countries.

And with the rising threat of terrorism, analytics capabilities can contribute to enabling security and law-enforcement agencies to detect and fight crime.

Could Singapore bank on its reputation as a safe city to help develop video analytics-driven command centres for police forces around the world? These virtual command centres can be built in the cloud by Singapore, but managed and run by the respective countries.

In view of Singapore's reputation as a secure, transparent and compliant financial services hub, there is an opportunity to develop a Singapore-branded set of tools and capabilities that targets money laundering.

The country's position as a supply chain and logistics hub also opens up possibilities to be a leading adviser in this area and in the operation and management of smart ports. To unlock this potential, Singapore will need to develop and attract the best analytics talent and companies.

It will also need to transform its DNA such that data and the digital are intuitive in every aspect of people's lives, from individual citizens to businesses, and across public and private sectors.

Yet active digital citizenry hardly happens organically. For one thing, the right balance needs to be struck in the constant struggle between maintaining privacy and advocating data sharing for public good.

While Singapore has incorporated strong data-privacy frameworks, such that citizens are educatedon their rights, more needs to be done.

This involves preparing citizens for a future where the boundaries between personal and private data are eroded, and educating them on their responsibility to contribute personal data for public good.

This must go hand in hand with the growth of the data industry. Training and educational institutions play a key role in ensuring a pipeline of analytics professionals.

Singapore is fast building up its talent by embedding analytics curricula in schools and universities, but the local analytics talent pool is likely to remain constrained.

This limited pool may be best utilised by focusing on creating software products and services that can generate recurring revenue streams, as opposed to a services-based business model where revenue is driven by the professionals available.

It is also important to develop both data scientists and management scientists. The former group manages and analyses huge volumes of data, but it is the latter that will ask the right questions to generate insights that will increasingly be in demand.

To attract world-class talent, Singapore should also embrace Silicon Valley features, which sustain a vibrant ecosystem that thrives on public-private partnerships, pro-innovation policies, intellectual property and research-and-development best practices, funding and mentorship.

Successful transformation to truly reap the economic value of data can only be achieved with the full participation of government, business and people.

Central to this is the fundamental issue of trust. Until active digital citizenry is achieved and people are more open to sharing personal information and data securely without fear or suspicion of Big Brother surveillance, the benefits of using data in solutions to better improve the quality of life and economic growth will not be fully achieved.

• The writer is Ernst & Young's Asean analytics leader.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2017, with the headline 'Is data S'pore's next big bet?'. Print Edition | Subscribe