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Meet Chan Chi Ling, jazz dummer and civil servant at the heart of the Covid-19 battle

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“We are like a skunkworks team, an experimental unit that sets out to innovate and roll out products quickly,” says Chan Chi Ling, deputy director and head of operations technology at GovTech. This may not sound like the typical job description of a civil servant, but it is what makes Chan and her team think outside the box.

They integrate government agencies’ operations with technology that may be built or matched creatively to help improve outcomes for citizens. As a division called Open Government Products, the team of 44 delivers solutions across domains, assisting various ministries to make Singapore a Smart Nation.

The 28-year-old, whose first job out of Stanford University was as a strategist in our Prime Minister’s Office, is also deputy director at the Ministry of Health. In her dual role, she has led her team to develop many healthcare-related technologies for timely mass adoption during this pandemic. These include systems to support Covid-19 antigen rapid tests for mass events and data architecture, the underlying infrastructure for data exchange, for the timely dissemination of healthcare data.

Incidentally, before joining MOH, she co-wrote an article that said a more agile, iterative and inclusive approach to policymaking and problem-solving can help the public sector keep pace with change. Chan got what she wished for. Timelines can now be as short as two weeks to roll out new applications.

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“In a crisis, things can change in days, even hours. Since you never know if it works until you’ve put it out, just test it.” One of their recent projects involved building an appointment system to enable the vaccination of the nation’s population, to achieve herd immunity in time.

She says being open to being proven wrong has led to better and more creative solutions at work. While the focus of her unit’s work is to build new products, she is aware that technology is rarely a silver bullet. She likes that there have been times when the team has found simpler ways to resolve problems, sometimes without even needing technology.

Despite having to deal with so much at work, she co-founded Better.sg, a non-profit tech for good platform that supercharges organisations with innovative digital tools to do more social good. Since its inception in October 2019, 600 volunteers from different fields have reached out to help. Her current focus is on building the consultancy arm of Better.sg to help other nonprofits leverage technology to do things that benefit the largest number of people in the largest possible way.

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Chan is also classically trained as a pianist and is a jazz drummer. She still finds time to play with bands and participate in jazz workshops. “I have a fondness for improvisation in all senses of the word, not just in music, but to expect the unexpected and to embrace surprises. In jazz, there’s no wrong note; you can always improvise a tune out of wrong notes. If something is not alright, it is not the end.”

She also handles work speedily by improvising as she goes along. That’s probably how she takes it all in her stride and is still able to enjoy going home in time for Mum’s boiled soup and dinner, and sleeping at least seven hours daily.

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