By Ted Aravinthan & Mohamed Irshad
It was the last week of March 2020 and the spread of Covid-19 was beginning to get serious in Singapore. The implementation of “Circuit Breaker” was just around the corner when Nominated Member of Parliament Mr Mohamed Irshad decided to develop an initiative to feed the needy and frontline workers during the upcoming Islamic month of Ramadan. This is the time when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. It is also a tradition in the month where many open their fasting at mosques.
As the proposed scale of the project was aimed at a national level, the best strategy was to leverage technology to facilitate the logistics and operations. This brought Irshad and Ted Aravinthan from WyzeUp together to brainstorm. The #SGUnited BukaPuasa initiative was thus born with the involvement of government ministries, statutory boards, foundations, grassroots organisations, chamber of commerce and private enterprises hailing from various sectors. The goal: raising 3 million dollars to feed up to 20,000 people daily for 30 days in approximately 30 locations — all while adhering to the protocols of the Circuit Breaker!
BRINGING THE EXPERTS TOGETHER
While this was a ground-up movement, Irshad recognised the need to work closely with a host of SG government agencies and organisations to coordinate a seamless implementation. The BukaPuasa initiative was jointly organised by Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), Rahmatan lil ‘Alamin Foundation (RLAF), Roses of Peace (ROP), Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SMCCI), People’s Association (PA), Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), Yayasan Mendaki, Open Government Products (GovTech), VersaFleet and Wyzeup and Collyer Law.
This project was supported by a large number of corporate sponsors. Many political office holders, including PM Lee Hsien Loong and President Halimah Yacob, highlighted the initiative in their social media posts, which helped the project garner traction.
Triumphing over challenges
We already had an existing tech platform created by Wyzeup that could be quickly re-designed to fit the requirements of this social community development initiative. Using an existing platform allowed us to reduce the lead time for development, testing and deployment.
The BukaPuasa.sg website was the main portal that served as the front-end platform for both volunteers and beneficiaries to register themselves. Parameters were established to ensure that we did not accept more registrations than what could be handled. We also designed the website such that donations could be funnelled directly to the Giving.sg platform, which was the main hub for accepting donations for this initiative.
Identifying and recording the beneficiaries who claimed the food
We needed to have a record of the beneficiaries who came to collect their food. Working closely with the excellent team at GovTech, we took a leaf out of Singapore’s nationwide mask distribution process and used NRIC (National Registration Identity Card) numbers for identification. Leveraging a point-of-collection system that was already in place, we were able to put together a seamless handover of data. This enabled the People’s Association volunteers to scan the NRIC of the recipients and quickly distribute the food.
Facilitating the food distribution process during COVID-19 Circuit Breaker
How does one facilitate the actual distribution of the food at more than 20 community centres across Singapore during the period of Circuit Breaker? Each venue encountered its own issues and limitations concerning food distribution. One of the common problems was having to comply with social distancing rules while efficiently handing out the food to prevent overcrowding. What this meant was that we could not have crowds gathering. It was critical to expedite the validation of registrants and food handover etc — and technology was key to achieving this.
Data privacy and protection
A primary concern for tech platforms is data protection and security. In our case, we had to get clarification and guidance on the collection and storage of NRIC and personal details. The SG government had released a guideline specifically for the COVID-19 situation. A quick conversation with the Ministry and we were able to refer to the guideline to implement the necessary safeguards. Furthermore, as the WyzeUp platform was already on a local Singapore instance on AWS, it helped us maintain data sovereignty and privacy implementations, keeping the data secure and within Singapore’s borders.
1. Ground-up campaigns can become big and complex, only if you allow it!
Many ground-up projects are often managed by volunteers, who can tend to be vocal and open to sharing valid opinions and valuable feedback. However, firm decisions have to be made on what to implement and what to prioritize to ensure the project does not become out of control.
2. Allow technology to work for you and not the other way round
It is imperative to keep an eye on the problem you are trying to solve before being carried away by the available technology. This way, we use technology to support problem-solving instead of creating additional work. Sometimes a manual workaround would be worth it, in terms of time, money and effort.
3. Being lean and agile allows you to act fast when it matters.
We implemented a chat feature to help people who needed assistance in registering their needs and also to answer any logistical questions. Once the initiative was rolled out, we quickly realised that this feature was used very heavily. We acted fast and staffed this chat service with volunteers. This meant training them and providing briefings on various operational matters within a short span of time. The chat function became an essential service that made a huge difference to our beneficiaries. It is also important to remember that technology infused with a “human touch” goes a long way.
4. Not everyone understands the “big picture” and you need to accept that.
A common feedback from the volunteers managing the chat service was a minority of people were demanding and came with an attitude of entitlement. Some volunteers were taken aback and distressed by this. But they eventually realized that people might not fully grasp the background of the initiative. This insight helped the volunteers to be more compassionate as they muster all the patience to answer and help those with requests, no matter how unreasonable they might have been.
#SGUnited BukaPuasa was a success and we are honoured and privileged to have played a part in this initiative. We know it is a colossal undertaking to devise a social campaign from the grassroots level. With the support of competent governmental agencies, we were able to tap into a pool of expertise, experience and know-how. At the same time technology gave us the tools to bring all the stakeholders together — late night Zoom calls were the norm. This enabled us to grow a seed of idea into reality, thus improving the lives of many within a community. In the right context, we can utilise technology to make a positive difference.
We should remember that technology exists to solve problems and serve humanity, and we have the power to choose to do good. In this case, we chose to feed a community.
About the Authors
Mohamed Irshad is a Nominated Member of Parliament and Head of Corporate Affairs for ASEAN at Tata Consultancy Services Asia Pacific. He is also the Founder & President of Roses of Peace, an interfaith non-profit organisation dedicated to fostering social cohesion and community building.
Ted Aravinthan is the founder of WyzeUp, a social enterprise that focuses on digitally transforming under-served communities. He is also a seasoned Technology Executive focusing on Cloud and Digital Transformation ex DellEMC, Cisco Systems, Symantec, and Alcatel Telecommunications.
Together they joined forces to lead and contribute to the #SGUnited BukaPuasa initiative along with the various stakeholders during the period of COVID-19 Circuit Breaker.