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Singapore is using WhatsApp to fight COVID-19

6 minute read
In an attempt to combat misinformation around COVID-19 in Singapore, the government has been using WhatsApp since January 2019 to send updates two or three times a day.
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COVID-19 has plagued the world with challenges that have burdened governments and societies worldwide. Given its close business ties with China, Singapore was one of the countries to be affected early by the virus after its outbreak in Wuhan, China. Like other nations, Singapore had to quickly address a number of challenges, including the rapid spread of false news and rumors about the number of people infected, the mode of transmission, and available treatments. Although these were only stories passed on by people, they significantly affected the community's morale since people were overwhelmed with fear and panic, and lacked a sense of safety. In an attempt to put an end to these rumors, the government of Singapore decided to use WhatsApp, the most popular communication tool in Singapore with 4 million users. The app is also considered the main source of misinformation in a society that has not yet recovered from the disaster of the SARS epidemic in 2003.

Since January 2020, the government started sending updates two or three times per day to keep citizens informed of the latest developments and fight any rumors or misinformation about COVID-19. Since October 2019, Singapore relied on WhatsApp to send governmental updates, although it did not actually test the system until January of that year. "Despite having a system of notifications for dispatching government information and communications to citizens, it is intended for completely different purposes and was not designed for this sensitive timeframe and scope", says Sarah Espaldon, Head of Marketing and Operations at Singapore's Open Government Products.

Singapore has four official languages: Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil. The government uses AI technologies to translate materials from English to other languages and deliver updates as quickly as possible across every community. Information was sent in four languages two to three times per day.

The algorithm presents an initial draft which is edited by public employees before sending the final draft through WhatsApp to ensure the proper translation of messages. Individuals can set a preferred language through a simple registration form linked to encrypted data systems stored in the cloud.

The team developed two additional tools to assist the concerned authorities and ensure full compliance, as the government was convinced of the importance of the quarantine laws for confirmed or suspected cases. The first tool relies on reporting by sending text messages at random times during the day. The users click on a link within the message to report their current location through the app. The second tool is a bot that answers the questions of employers about virus outbreak policies.

At first, the updates took a long time to reach Singaporeans. Moreover, adding new subscribers to the list of message recipients required about four hours, and the system was unable to send more than ten messages per second. With a simple equation, the team realized that it would take about 14 hours for messages to reach all 500,000 subscribers every day.

In an attempt to overcome these obstacles and within weeks, the Open Government Products team developed Postman, an alternative notification system that provides a faster and more extensive service compared to the software previously used by the Ministry of Communications and Information. Postman successfully linked all other systems, such as registration forms, translation software, and automated subscriber lists, thus increasing the number of messages to 500 per second. Today, all subscribers receive messages in less than 30 minutes.

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