Science Talk

An experiment to learn what big data can do for us

At the National Research Foundation (NRF)'s Global Young Scientists Summit in Singapore in January last year, Nobel laureate Martin Chalfie highlighted the idea of a national science experiment for Singapore.

There have been many such experiments, of different scales and objectives. For example, 128,330 students from around the world participated in a global science experiment to explore the chemistry of water and the role of water in society and the environment during the International Year of Chemistry in 2011.

When we conceptualised the idea of Singapore's National Science Experiment (NSE), we decided not to just copy what others have done, but to capitalise on the country's unique strengths: our extensive use of technology, and our pervasive Internet connectivity. We aimed to also exploit our successful urbanisation efforts and excellent infrastructure to design the experiment.

And what better way to inspire and educate than to get hundreds of thousands of the nation's young people to explore a wide spectrum of data which they would collect on their own through their everyday activities? By wearing an intelligent sensor that can track anything from ambient temperature to light and sound levels, they will form an army of citizen scientists who can then use the data for any experiment - whether it is where to place solar panels or how to prevent traffic snarls. Their imagination is the only limit.


This grand plan is also a great way to showcase Singapore's recently launched Smart Nation initiative - where technologies will not only improve the convenience and comfort of daily lives, but also help people develop their potential.

  • About the writers

  • Mr George Loh, 50, is the programmes director at the National Research Foundation and manages the development of research and development strategies and programmes. He works closely with stakeholders in government agencies, academia and the industry to develop R&D talent and capabilities.

    He graduated from Ohio State University in the United States with a Bachelor in Computer Engineering in 1986, and was awarded the Defence Technology Training Award in 1993 to pursue a Master of Science in Industrial Systems Engineering at the University of Southern California.

    He has spent more than 20 years in the defence community in various appointments, including as deputy head at the Defence Technology Office (United States) at the Singapore Embassy in Washington DC. He was responsible for the acquisition and development of large-scale defence systems such as the submarine programme, as well as for the formulation of defence R&D strategy and management of defence R&D programmes and capabilities.

    Assistant Professor Erik Wilhelm, 34, is from the Singapore University of Technology and Design's (SUTD) engineering and product development faculty.

    He received his Bachelor (Honours) and Master of Applied Science degrees from Canada's University of Waterloo in 2005 and 2007, and a Doctor of Science from ETH Zurich - the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology - in Zurich, Switzerland, in 2011.

    In 2011, he was a post-doctoral fellow at the mechanical engineering department's field intelligence lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he co-founded a consortium that promotes open vehicle telematics. He joined SUTD in 2013.

    His research interests include power-train design, energy storage and conversion, optimal and robust control, transportation systems and pervasive sensing.

    Prof Wilhelm, a recipient of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Graduate Scholarship and Postgraduate Scholarship in 2005, was a member of the winning team in the Global Young Scientists Summit Singapore Challenge in 2013.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong remarked at the opening of Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)'s East Coast Campus in May: "For the last 50 years, Singapore's development has been built on a strong foundation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem)…

"For the next 50 years, we need strong Stem capabilities to be what we should be - a vibrant, exciting, advanced society."

It is, therefore, apt that NRF and the Ministry of Education partnered with the SUTD to develop our national experiment, "Step Out for Science", to instill a passion for Stem in young Singaporeans.

As Singapore moves forward in its drive to be the world's first smart nation - a nation where people live meaningful and fulfilling lives empowered by technology - we need to develop a strong science and engineering foundation.

We need our young Singaporeans to take part actively in Stem learning and cultivate computational thinking, so that they grow up familiar with big data and the "Internet of Things" - where everyday objects can send and receive data - and are able to exploit technologies to make sense of the massive amount of information rapidly becoming available to us.

The central lesson that students must learn is how to move from solving classroom problems with one correct answer to addressing questions where many possibilities exist. And the challenge for our teachers is to prepare our students for the real world, where most of the problems they face will have no textbook answer.

The NSE is designed to inspire, excite and imbue students with the "spirit of what if".

This pioneering and inquisitive spirit in students will be increasingly important in our digital and networked society.

A novel device was designed by the SUTD and its partners from the industry, as well as the Science Centre Singapore, for our big experiment. We named this unique device "SENSg" (pronounced "Sense S-G"). It is, in effect, a laboratory on a lanyard. It can measure temperature, pressure, relative humidity, light, sound level and movement all in one easy-to-wear device, and securely transmits all the data to a central server.

More than 250,000 students from Primary 3 to junior-college level will embark on a learning journey over three years as they go about their daily routines.

These students can log on to an innovative Web portal with easy-to-use engineering tools to find out how big data technologies can be used to provide information about their lifestyles and to help them make informed choices.

The beauty of the experiment is that it requires no effort to collect the environmental data, which can then be used in a myriad of ways to enhance individual learning and the nation's knowledge base.

In a world where data is becoming the driving force behind business decisions, young Singaporeans must learn about big data early and thoroughly.

For example, an online map site may suggest quicker travelling routes, but students can test different ways of getting to school and understand the impact of adopting different travel choices via the analytics provided by the sensor.

Having a personal experience with the data and learning how to process it are important.

In this way, students are afforded a more fine-grained understanding of the world, instead of blindly trusting the recommendations and statistics calculated by others. Getting students involved is just part one of the equation.

Researchers, planners and even policymakers are keen to get their hands on the NSE data or to get other groups to use the SENSg devices. They can analyse the data to, for instance, map the travel patterns of the students to schools in the morning, the travel distances and times, which can help to identify any traffic choke points. The researchers can even do deeper data-mining to identify the places where many students gather in the morning.

Planners and policymakers can also consider deploying the SENSg devices in public housing estates to better capture data for longitudinal study of the urban environment. As part of the Housing Board's Smart Town framework, HDB is open to exploring such research studies with the institutes of higher learning to see how to better enhance sustainability and liveability in its towns and estates.

The SENSg devices can also be used by healthcare agencies or providers to monitor the movement of elderly residents.

The NSE has been piloted in three schools, and the response from both students and teachers has been positive. Some students said they found the experiment intriguing and fun as they tried to gauge the activity levels of their schoolmates based on the data recorded.

This has taught them that with data, one can infer and form conclusions. Their feedback is an encouraging reward for the months of hard work that we have put into this national project.

We are preparing for large-scale deployment next month, and are refining the learning goals so that the experience can be as meaningful as possible for our nation's future scientists and engineers.

Students who would like to join us in this exciting experience can register for the experiment by Sept 1. More details are available at

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2015, with the headline 'An experiment to learn what big data can do for us ScienceTalk'. Print Edition | Subscribe