STACK-X Webinar – Tech for Public Good: Supporting the Community (Part 1)
The following article was adapted from a STACK-X Webinar conducted by Patricia Zhao, Lead UX Designer, GovTech.
This first part of a two-part series focuses on the development journey of SupplyAlly.
How SupplyAlly was born
SupplyAlly, or Sally for short, is a mobile app that facilitates the process of logistics distribution, especially in times of need during COVID-19 and the post-COVID era. While STACK-X Meetup participants might know of it, and even make use of Sally in their own distribution campaigns, not many know of the circumstances behind Sally’s development.
It started with a phone call on April 1st.
Steven Koh, Director of Government Digital Services at GovTech, received a call from the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) and the People’s Association (PA). They wanted to know if GovTech could develop an app that would digitalise the nationwide reusable mask distribution exercise.
When was the distribution exercise going to start? April 5th, came the reply.
In the span of four days, our engineers repurposed and refined an existing application into SupplyAlly, a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) for mask distribution. When we were notified of this request, we only knew that SupplyAlly was meant for a nationwide distribution campaign, and that masks were to be issued. With just this information, we had to develop an app that was designed with a low barrier to entry for users without much tech knowledge and training. As we did not know how many people were involved in distributing masks, we had to develop a form of authorisation and authentication that was scalable with the size of the volunteer efforts. A core feature of Sally was to allow campaign operators to learn how to use the app with basic guidance; for collection, Sally had to recognise identifiers such as the barcodes on individuals’ physical NRIC in case they lacked digital forms of identities.
Given the time constraints, speed was a major consideration – what are the essential steps for using this app, and what is the most basic way of verifying identities? These were key concerns for the team as we worked round the clock to meet the deadline.
A helping hand for the community
Once we set Sally up, it helped MTI and the PA to distribute reusable masks across Singapore through the various Community Centres. To date, 4.2 million masks have been issued through this campaign.
Moving ahead, we also saw great potential for Sally to support charitable efforts in Singapore. During the Circuit Breaker period, home-based learning was implemented but some children could not participate as they lacked access to internet laptops. That’s why we decided to partner Engineering Good to distribute refurbished laptops to underprivileged students for home-based learning.
From June onwards, we worked with the Community Development Council (CDC) and PA to distribute voucher booklets to families in need. Currently, our partners have used Sally to distribute vouchers to more than 250,000 households out of 400,000 eligible households. Sally also directly contributes to the national contact tracing effort against COVID-19. In partnership with our parent organisation, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG) and the Agency for Integrated Care’s (AIC)’s Silver Generation Office, more than 10,000 TraceTogether Tokens were issued to the elderly who do not own smartphones and other digitally-excluded members of the population. Most recently, we engaged Food from the Heart, a charitable organisation, to give out hot meals to the elderly and other service users around the Mountbatten area. Sally vastly simplified the process of tracking and recording items distributed, ensuring equitable distribution of essentials for individuals and households.
SupplyAlly and Cloud
The campaigns that we’ve supported since May are actively running and supporting the community. Yet, when you visit Google Play or the iOS App Store, you don’t see multiple versions of Sally for each individual campaign. How do we support multiple distribution campaigns within a single app?
The answer lies with the use of Cloud technologies that allow Sally to run multiple development campaigns concurrently. Individuals can then access their specific campaigns by logging in with a unique QR code provided for them.
The cost of using public Cloud services was a consideration from the start of Sally’s development. Since campaigns run for an extended period of time, we needed to calculate and determine how much memory was used against the costs charged by the provider. Using serverless solutions (where one only pays for the computing power they use) also helped us scale rapidly when needed, since we saved costs by consuming less resources when certain campaigns were not activated.
Is it safe to use public cloud services, considering the government’s need for security?
On our Government Commercial Cloud (GCC), we follow leading data management practices and further protect data by using secure services. Sally also does not store any personal identifiable information such as service users’ NRIC information. Instead, the app merely takes a fingerprint of the information in accordance with data management guidelines.
Developing one app for multiple partners
The next question that arose during Sally’s development was: can we cater for our partners’ varying needs and wants, even as their campaigns are running under one app?
Recognising that both present and future partners are going to differ on this aspect, our team stayed true to our DNA and focused on establishing consistent fundamentals.
Three things remain the same throughout all the distribution campaigns:
Our partner organisations or agencies will tell us how to identify legitimate beneficiaries and Sally will use the criteria accordingly. NRIC scanning is enabled, as is QR code scanning, which Food from the Heart uses.
Service users’ collections are recorded within a given time period. For example, if an individual is eligible for one ice cream weekly, the collection count for this person will be reset every week. Depending on the campaign’s requirements, the time period can be adjusted accordingly – some use cases include determining how long an individual is assigned an item or how many times an item can be distributed to the individual.
The operator of the app is also notified on individuals’ eligibility and past transactions.
The customer journey for different stakeholders
As a service user, I know that the Government is giving me some resources that I’m entitled to. What do I do next?
You only need to bring your means of identification as specified by the distribution campaign. For some partner agencies, it could be your NRIC, or even a QR code (as with Food from the Heart’s campaign).
I’m a distribution agent. What is the process like when using Sally?
Firstly, you need to scan the barcode on the physical NRIC of the service user. If the person is eligible to collect, the next screen will display the assigned quota and inform you that Sally will be capturing the details of the item being given out. When you proceed, the item will be redeemed, recorded and tracked within the system.
If the entitlement is exceeded, there will be an error notification that indicates when the person last collected the item.
What’s next for Sally, and what have we learnt throughout the journey?
When we reach out to our many partners of varying digital literacy levels, we seek to learn about their experiences with Sally. Has it been working for them? How difficult is it to use?
From our development journey and the feedback we’ve received, we’ve identified some new features that Sally can benefit from.
Empowering users to allow appeals when individuals’ entitlement limits are reached. We want to give campaign distributors the option to allow individuals to collect again, and have these extra collections tracked in the system. We’re also pleased to announce that this feature has been developed and tested – it will be ready for release in September.
Some of the error messages and feedback displayed to app users are not intuitive. Since the messages are more technically-driven than user-driven, they can be a little hard to understand sometimes. That’s why we revamped these messages to help users overcome simple issues while using Sally. These changes will also be released in September.
Improving the login process for Sally. The login code is key for allowing people to log into various environments so that multiple campaigns can be run concurrently. But the code can be lost, and the administrative side of the campaign has the heavy responsibility of managing thousands of QR login codes for the distributors. That’s why we’re exploring ways to improve this login process through rethinking and redesigning the status quo.
Displaying statistics on the app. Users from PA and other partner organisations have asked us about this option, and it’s something we’re looking into implementing down the road.
Including non-English users of Sally. Another consideration that the team is working toward is the inclusion of Chinese translations to Sally, for a start. We believe that this would aid users even more, increasing Sally’s user-friendliness.
Developing Sally feels like rock climbing. There’s always one more step to take, and sometimes it gets really difficult depending on the terrain you’re on. While passion has led us here, there’s still much more work ahead. But more work also means more opportunities, and it’s a sign that the team needs to work harder to take advantage of them.
By Patricia Zhao, Lim Zui Young, Immanuella Lim and Shawn Teo
Published on 17 September 2020.
Read about SupportGoWhere’s development journey in Part 2 here.
Last updated 21 February 2022
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