PropTech: Driving Digital Transformation in the Wake of COVID-19

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COVID-19 is accelerating digital transformation activities across industries. Remote working is now standard practice and digital engagement is replacing face-to-face interaction. Cloud technology has become essential rather than an option, and rollouts of new technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and intelligent automation are being expedited.

One of the industries that offer great potential for technology-driven transformation is the property sector.

Many activities within the property ecosystem have remained unchanged for decades. There are several opportunities for digital engagement and automation in this sector, ranging from the use of robots in construction to the ‘uberisation’ of the residential property customer journey.

The processes associated with buying or renting property remain cumbersome and complex for customers. Indeed, customers engage with many different organisations throughout their residential property lifecycles. When compared to some other industries, the customer experience can be poor. Components of the journey – such as property search – offer some great experiences but other parts such as exchanging contracts can rarely be described as positive customer experiences.

Although AR and virtual reality (VR) technologies can facilitate property inspection, most inspections are still undertaken on-premise, together with a real estate agent. Contract exchanges often involve interactions with legal professionals in-person. Securing a mortgage or a rental agreement also typically requires face-to-face interaction. Deposits commonly necessitate the physical presentation of a cheque.

The Uberisation of the Property Sector

So, in the residential sector, there are clear opportunities for start-ups and property search platforms to offer greatly enhanced customer experiences. The COVID-19 crisis will speed up the rate at which digital technologies are used to automate activities throughout the residential property customer journey and to engage customers digitally.

Property search platforms such as Singapore-based PropertyGuru, have been creating innovative ways of engaging customers and extending their range of services, for many years. For PropertyGuru, its news features, mortgage calculator, and ability to search for investment properties overseas, have enabled it to offer customers more value from its platform. Its PropertyGuru Lens feature uses AR and artificial intelligence (AI) to give customers a more immersive and improved experience. In common with other real estate platforms, it offers AR and VR tools for inspections.

Today’s crisis creates opportunities for platforms such as ProperyGuru to engage customers throughout their journey. It can potentially transform the residential property business, by becoming an Uber-style platform for agents, movers, shippers, storage companies, interior designers, renovation firms and all other stakeholders within the residential property ecosystem. Subject to regulation, it could also act as a mortgage broker and an agency for the exchange of contracts. In other words, it could ‘own’ the customer journey and act as a platform for all services associated with residential property. From the customer perspective, such a platform would be a welcome way of enhancing the experience associated with buying, renting, maintaining, improving, managing, and selling residential property.

IoT and the Commercial Property Sector

From a commercial property perspective, the COVID-19 crisis can also be expected to accelerate the digitalisation of many activities associated with the construction, maintenance, and management of buildings.

According to the findings of the Ecosystm IoT Study, the Construction industry is evaluating several technology solutions that are expected to benefit the industry (Figure 1).High Traction IoT Solutions - Construction Industry

While the industry views these solutions as beneficial, the adoption has so far been low. This will change. Drones have been used to inspect the outside of tall buildings for several years, but this is not yet standard practice. Structural inspections and maintenance of buildings will be automated at a much faster rate post COVID-19. IoT technology will be used for building management. Using IoT technology for the predictive maintenance and management of lighting, climate control, elevators, security, windows and doors will become standard as firms seek to reduce human interactions. Technology that measures footfall, manages safe distancing, takes peoples’ temperatures and identifies those who enter and leave buildings will be introduced, as organisations guard against disease clusters developing within or around their premises.

In essence, the COVID-19 crisis will act as a catalyst for the digital transformation of the property sector. There is a huge opportunity to create new business models not least by offering customers a digital platform on which all of their property-related needs can be addressed. For the commercial property sector, a similar platform can be offered. Additionally, many core activities ranging from construction to building management will be automated, fully leveraging robot, AI and IoT technologies.


Milroy was recently part of a conversation with Hari V Krishnan, Group CEO of ProperyGuru Group and Ecosystm CEO, Amit Gupta. Watch the video here ?
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The Cybercrime Pandemic

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Organisations across the globe, are facing disruption on a scale never seen before, and are urgently seeking ways of remaining viable. Predictably, cybersecurity is a secondary concern and is often handled reactively. To make matters worse, a chronic cybersecurity skills shortage is being made much more severe by the crisis.

Remote working has reached unprecedented levels as organisations try hard to keep going. This is massively expanding the attack surface for cyber criminals, weakening security and leading to a cybercrime pandemic. Hacking activity and phishing, inspired by the COVID-19 crisis, are growing rapidly. Containing and suppressing this cybercrime pandemic is proving to be almost impossible.

Remote working intensifies known threats posed by phishing and ransomware. More alarming are the distinctive cybersecurity vulnerabilities associated with home working including reliance on home Wi-Fi, increased use of unpatched VPNs and devices, and the exponential growth of network access points. These vulnerabilities increase the likelihood of a breach enormously.

Corporate IT is in a very challenging position. It needs to ensure that organisations can operate in a way that they have never operated before, while ensuring that their assets are secure – a very difficult, if not an impossible task for which there is no precedent.

Some important cybersecurity considerations, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic include:

Re-enforce Basic Cyber Hygiene

As massive numbers of people work from home, basic cyber hygiene becomes more critical than ever before. Organisations must maintain awareness of security threats among employees, ensure security policies are being followed and be certain that corporate software is being updated and patched on time. With a dispersed workforce, these basic practices are more challenging, and training becomes more critical. Phishing attacks are often the primary attack vector for malicious actors, so employees must be able to identify these attacks. They increasingly exploit shortages of goods such as protective equipment and sometimes claim to offer official information relating to COVID-19.

Remote employees often access sensitive business data through home Wi-Fi networks that will not have the same security controls – such as firewalls – that are used in offices. There is more connectivity from remote locations, which requires greater focus on data privacy, and hunting for intrusions from a much larger number of entry points.

Place More Focus on Endpoint Security

The unprecedented switch to remote working is radically increasing the number of vulnerable endpoints. Given that endpoints are located at a distance from corporate premises, it is frequently difficult for IT departments to configure endpoint systems and install necessary security software.

It is vital to assess the security posture of all endpoints connecting to the corporate network. This practice enables an organisation to determine whether or not an endpoint requesting to access internal resources meets security policy requirements. It requires the ability to monitor and enforce policy across all devices, while making onboarding and offboarding seamless.

It is essential that endpoint solutions can be rapidly deployed for remote workers, as needed on both personal and corporate devices. Devices used for remote work need much more than the basic antivirus and antispyware protection. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) and on-board endpoint detection and response (EDR) capabilities are crucial.

Be More Selective About How and When Video Conferencing and Collaboration Platforms are Used

Since lockdowns spread around the world, the use of video conferencing and collaboration tools has grown beyond the wildest expectations of suppliers of these tools. The extraordinary growth of Zoom has made it a target for attackers. Many security vulnerabilities have been discovered with Zoom such as, a vulnerability to UNC path injection in the client chat feature, which allows hackers to steal Windows credentials, keeping decryption keys in the cloud which can potentially be accessed by hackers and gives the ability for trolls to ‘Zoombomb’ open and unprotected meetings. Zoom has so far managed to augment its security features in part by its recent acquisition of Keybase, a secure messaging service.

Switching to an alternative video conferencing platform will not necessarily offer greater levels of security as privacy is typically not a strength of any collaboration platform. Collaboration platforms tend to tread a fine line between a great experience and security. Too much security can cause performance and usability to be impacted negatively. Too little security, as we have seen, allows hackers to find vulnerabilities. If data privacy is critical for a meeting, then perhaps collaboration platforms should not be used, or organisations should not share critical information on them.

Protect all Cloud Workloads

In today’s remote working paradigm, cloud computing is being used more than ever. This frequently exposes organisations to risks that are not adequately mitigated.

Organisations typically need to manage a mix of on-premises technology together with multiple clouds, which are often poorly integrated.  These complexities are compounded by the increasing risk from cyberattacks associated with cloud migration and hybrid cloud implementations. In cloud environments, the leading cybersecurity risks include insecure interfaces and APIs, data breaches and data loss, unauthorised access, DDoS attacks, and a lack of a unified view of assets.

Protection requirements for securing hybrid multicloud environments are evolving rapidly. In addition to tightening up endpoint security, organisations must also place greater emphasis on cloud workload protection. Cloud security solutions need to offer a unified and consistent view across all physical machines, virtual machines, serverless workloads and containers, used by an organisation.

Amend Incident Response Plans

It is the containment of breaches that often determines the success of security policies and procedures. Basic cyber hygiene as well as changes to IT architecture, such as micro segmentation, play an essential role in breach containment. But incident response plans also need to be made relevant to the current pandemic scenario.

Employees and IT teams are now working in a completely different environment than envisaged by most incident response plans. Existing plans may now be obsolete. At the very least, they will need to be modified. Usually, incident response plans are designed to respond to threats when most employees are operating in a corporate environment. This clearly needs to change. Employees need to be trained in the updated plan and know how to reach support if they believe that a security breach has occurred in their remote location.

Critically, new alert and warning systems need to be established, which can be used by employees to warn of threats as well as to receive information on threats and best practices.

 

Organisations are struggling to keep the lights on. In this battle to remain operational, cybersecurity has been taking a back seat. This cannot last for long as the deluge of new vulnerabilities is creating easy pickings for attackers. Cyber hygiene, endpoint security, cloud security, security policies and incident response plans must be continually reviewed.


This blog is based on Andrew Milroy’s recent report titled “Cybersecurity in the COVID-19 Era”.
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Zoom selects Oracle as Cloud Infrastructure Provider

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The COVID-19 crisis has forced countries to implement work from home policies and lockdowns. Since the crisis hit, uptake of cloud communication and collaboration solutions have seen a dramatic increase. Video conferencing provider, Zoom has emerged as a key player in the market, with a rapid increase in user base from 10 million daily active participants in December 2019 to 200 million in March 2020 – a growth in the number of users of nearly 200%!

Security Concerns around Zoom

The rapid increase in user base and the surge in traffic has required Zoom to re-evaluate its offerings and capacity. The platform was primarily built for enterprises and now is seeing unprecedented usage in conducting team meetings, webinars, virtual conferences, e-learning, and social events.

The one area where they were impacted most is security. In his report, Cybersecurity Considerations in the COVID-19 Era, Ecosystm Principal Advisor Andrew Milroy says, “The extraordinary growth of Zoom has made it a target for attackers. It has had to work remarkably hard to plug the security gaps, identified by numerous breaches. Many security vulnerabilities have been discovered with Zoom such as, a vulnerability to UNC path injection in the client chat feature, which allows hackers to steal Windows credentials, keeping decryption keys in the cloud which can potentially be accessed by hackers and the ability for trolls to ‘Zoombomb’ open and unprotected meetings.”

“Zoom largely responded to these disclosures quickly and transparently, and it has already patched many of the weaknesses highlighted by the security community. But it continues to receive rigorous stress testing by hackers, exposing more vulnerabilities.”

However, Milroy does not think that this issue is unique to Zoom. “Collaboration platforms tend to tread a fine line between performance and security. Too much security can cause performance and usability to be impacted negatively. Too little security, as we have seen, allows hackers to find vulnerabilities. If data privacy is critical for a meeting, then perhaps collaboration platforms should not be used, or organisations should not share critical information on them.”

Zoom to increase Capacity and Scalability

Zoom is aware that it has to increase its service capacity and scalability of its offerings, if it has to successfully leverage its current market presence, beyond the COVID-19 crisis. Last week Zoom announced that that it had selected Oracle as its cloud Infrastructure provider. One of the reasons cited for the choice is Oracle’s “industry-leading security”. It has been reported that Zoom is transferring more than 7 PB of data through Oracle Cloud Infrastructure servers daily.

In addition to growing their data centres, Zoom has been using AWS and Microsoft Azure as its hosting providers. Milroy says, “It makes sense for Zoom to use another supplier rather than putting ‘all its eggs in one or two baskets’. Zoom has not shared the commercial details, but it is likely that Oracle has offered more predictable pricing. Also, the security offered by the Oracle Cloud Infrastructure deal is likely to have impacted the choice and it is likely that Oracle has also priced its security features very competitively.”

“It must also be borne in mind that Google, Microsoft and Amazon are all competing directly with Zoom. They all offer video collaboration platforms and like Zoom, are seeing huge growth in demand. Zoom may not wish to contribute to the growth of its competitors any more than it needs to.”

Milroy sees another benefit to using Oracle. “Oracle is known to have a presence in the government sector – especially in the US. Working with Oracle might make it easier for Zoom to win large government contracts, to consolidate its market presence.”

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Survive to Thrive: How the Right Technologies can keep you Engaged with your Employees

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As we get into the second month of Circuit Breaker here in Singapore and most people are working from home, we are hearing a lot more about the difficulties that organisations and individuals have faced when it comes to operating as a remote workforce – or what is commonly called working from home or “WFH”.

As the CEO of technology research and advisory platform, I am lucky to have some of the global experts and thought-leaders in remote working as part of our team. While it is not an easy ask of staff, and some find it harder than others, remote working is going to be an increasingly important component of our work lives in the future, and something we need to get right in order to “Survive to Thrive”.

People and Engagement

​Let’s face it – we are in a humanitarian crisis, foremost and the economic crisis is just a fallout of it. So impact on People has to be the number one consideration. Working from home can be a real culture shock. Gone is the ability to quickly speak to the colleague next to you, meet someone for lunch or even just have a discussion in the pantry. Taking away these social interactions can impact employee morale and therefore productivity. Putting an effort into team-building – as hard as it is to do remotely – is very important.

Groups on social messaging apps (outside of the work-related ones) can help rebuild that camaraderie and strengthen social bonds. Plan team-building exercises such as quizzes, virtual drinks, or even networking lunches that can be done remotely. Remember, the wellness of your teams is directly proportionate to the well-being of the business.

Process and Practice​

Working from home requires a different mindset to being in the office, and it is easy to get dragged into an endless cycle of emails and conference calls. This often means that the act of planning and discussing replaces the act of doing!

This is where good-practice from the pre-COVID-19 era becomes an essential practice right now. Note-taking, summarising discussions, and recapping roles and responsibilities for project execution becomes paramount. Documenting and tracking progress will have a positive impact on productivity and ensure that teams are focused on their collective and individual responsibilities.

While there are many applications that you may consider to manage and monitor projects, you may also want to explore appointing dedicated people whose role is to identify how processes have been affected by remote working, and how bottlenecks can be cleared with more effective use of collaboration software.

Technology to get Digital Ready

Teams need the applications to communicate and carry out their responsibilities diligently. Luckily, in the age of cloud computing, most organisations were able to quite easily transition to a work from home environment. Those that struggled were the companies that had not embraced digital and were not using any cloud-based software (for email, collaboration, bookkeeping, HR or CRM); or those that are mandated by strict compliance and cybersecurity measures that cannot be enforced in employees’ homes.

While many organisations were already using a variety of communication & collaboration solutions, in the new work from home setups, you may want to consider additional solutions to help you get through your current challenges. The good news is that many technology providers have made their offerings available for free trials during this period, so the financial outlay may be minimal or non-existent.

You should also not overlook the importance of cybersecurity at this time. Regulations around data privacy are still applicable, and home-networks are not as secure as enterprise networks. At the same time, social-engineering and phishing attacks are also on the rise. So be sure to provide regular updates to your teams with guidance on how they can help maintain the security of your data and networks.

 

In conclusion, as we come to terms with the current normal, and get a glimpse of what the future normal may look like; we continue to see the old adage that it’s people, process and technology – in that order – which will guide us through the current situation and set us up for continued success. While no one has a crystal ball, it is actions – how you interact with your colleagues and the processes you put in place – and not technology that will ultimately best position your organisation to thrive in the future.

 

As published in the tabla! (An SPH Publication)

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Zscaler Augments Data Protection Capabilities with Cloudneeti Acquisition

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There has been a widespread adoption of hybrid and multi-cloud architectures in the recent past and this trend is only expected to go up in the near future. A hybrid cloud adoption has its challenges though; including the need for organisations to baseline their security practices across so many different environments. Organisations that are aware of the cybersecurity risks associated are increasingly looking for external specialised help in managing their cloud security measures, especially with an aim to automate the processes.

Zscaler Acquires CloudNeeti

In a recent announcement, Zscaler announced its intentions to acquire Cloudneeti, a niche Cloud Security Posture Management (CSPM) start-up based in Redmond, Washington. This is set to expand Zscaler’s Cloud Security Platform capabilities to include data protection. With this acquisition, Zscaler will be able to complement its own offerings to provide:

  • A complete Data Protection and Exposure Prevention suite, that works across locations, users and applications and ensures better compliance with regulations
  • A Unified Compliance Assurance platform that provides compliance visibility and breach mitigation across the multiple SaaS applications an organisation uses
  • Risk Reduction through automated remediations following both industry compliance laws and organisations’ own risk management program guidelines

Ecosystm research finds that organisations are struggling with their cybersecurity implementations, especially as the solutions get increasingly complicated to combat the complex and evolving threat environment (Figure 1). Integration with existing cybersecurity measures, and a lack of sufficiently skilled IT staff to handle the myriad needs of the multiple systems and applications, builds a strong case for automation in cybersecurity practices.

Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Alex Woerndle says, “Automation is critical in cybersecurity, given the volume of data, alerts and incidents that are being dealt with on a daily basis, globally. Automating recurrent and high-volume tasks is a critical step in getting on top of this challenge.”

Importance of Automating Cybersecurity Processes

Woerndle sees a growing role for CSPM providers for multiple reasons. “Firstly, a lot of companies are finding that they cannot be ‘fully cloud’ and as such, end up with a complex architecture spanning on-premise, private cloud environments and multiple public cloud tenancies. Secondly, due to poorly planned cloud migrations, changing priorities, differences in service requirements, cost differences and also personal preferences across multiple teams, a lot of companies end up consuming different services across multiple public cloud providers (Azure, AWS, GCP, and so on).  IT teams are struggling to be experts in all aspects of the shared responsibility model and with the capabilities to secure the various services. Finally, there is a constant stream of upgrades and addition of new services team members, given the easy accessibility public cloud environments provide. CSPM solutions provide the ability to establish baselines, enforce security controls and run regular checks to ensure compliance. Doing this manually is time consuming, expensive and always three steps behind.”

Woerndle also sees further complications because of the COVID-19 crisis. “COVID-19 has shifted the world to remote working overnight. Once workers are outside of the trusted corporate network and have access to cloud resources from their home networks, additional complexity to the corporate security posture is highlighted. Depending on how organisations have prepared for this, they either maintain control of all services and applications, and the access into each, or if not prepared, open direct access to a lot of unsecured applications from potentially very unsecured networks.” In fact Zscaler has seen its stock prices rising in the aftermath of the global crisis.

However, Woerndle warns, “While the conversation certainly supports the use of CSPMs, there is a lot more to it in terms of securing home networks, identity and access management, and so on.”

 

Zscaler’s acquisition of CloudNeeti certainly appears to be a timely move, in the current environment when organisations are struggling with a lack of resources with the extensive knowledge to understand all private and public cloud environments. There are controls required to secure each application, resource and system within an organisation – along with the time and effort required to implement, monitor, audit and improve cybersecurity measures over time.

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How Will COVID-19 Change the Telecom Industry?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of the telecommunications industry which has now become the backbone of the new normal, both in a social and business sense. The last few months have seen a number of changes including more video usage, location of traffic and time of traffic. Network usage is on the rise and telecom carriers are prioritising on the resilience of their networks and the quality of services offered to their customers.

What goes up must come down

According to Speedtest, global mobile and broadband speeds have suffered as a result of the increase in traffic with speeds dropping in March 2020 for mobile to 30.47 Mbps (from 31.62 Mbps in February) and fixed broadband to 74.64 Mbps (from 75.41 Mbps in February). In Southeast Asia, only Singapore and Vietnam averaged mobile speeds of 54.37 Mbps and 33.97 Mbps respectively, exceeding the global average speeds. As for fixed broadband, Singapore ranked highest globally achieving 197.26 Mbps while Thailand and Malaysia clocked 149.95 Mbps and 79.86 Mbps respectively, trumping the global average speeds.

Southeast Asian carriers increase network efficiency and quality

Singapore. The country’s ICT regulator, Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), reported an increase in internet usage and its intentions to support telecom carriers in boosting network capacity to ensure essential services run smoothly. Priority will be given to high traffic and residential areas where a larger proportion of the population are working from home. The Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) reported that Singapore has at least 30 percent buffer in network capacity even during peak periods. Major TV operators Mediacorp, Singtel and Starhub have made more content available for free during this period. This may further impact network speeds as customers are consuming more content over wifi (on mobile apps) or over the fibre networks.

Thailand. Part of the country’s public assistance measures during the pandemic, include offering about 30 million mobile subscribers 10GB free data. The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) will also upgrade the speeds of fixed broadband to at least 100 Mbps which is expected to benefit 1.2 million household subscribers. Leading operator Advanced Info Service (AIS) recently announced that it has deployed 5G networks at hospitals to boost network capacity and speeds, and is deploying robots for telemedicine to empower the healthcare system to fight COVID-19.

Malaysia. Maxis and Telekom Malaysia (TM) reported a surge in traffic since the movement control order (MCO) was implemented by the Government on the 18th  March 2020. The MCO is expected to run at least until 28th April 2020. TM cited a 30 percent increase in usage attributed to the increase in traffic for streaming, online games and teleconferencing. Leading operators Maxis, Digi, Celcom and U Mobile have offered 1GB free data during the MCO period as part of the Government’s stimulus package. Maxis, TM, Digi and Celcom have also committed significant manpower to ensure that the networks are operating efficiently and to ensure customer support. Leading TV operator Astro has made all movie, news and cartoon networks available to all its customers until the 28th April 2020.

Social distancing fillip for video conferencing

The rise of social distancing has made us all seek new ways to connect, mainly through video chat. Video conferencing traffic is on the rise as it is the next best thing to face-to-face meetings. Microsoft Teams and Zoom have been big benefactors. The American Economic Institute (AEI) notes that Zoom hit some 200 million users daily from a daily average 10 million. Microsoft Teams added some 12 million registrations to a total of 44 million.

Many predict that the home working trend will continue in the recovery stage and beyond, due to improvements in the telecommunications infrastructure and impending rollout of 5G. It is also predicted that the commercial property sector is likely to suffer due to this trend. This period also highlights the critical importance of cybersecurity with increasing occurrences of hacking and fraud. Zoom is being forced to reinforce their privacy and security measures, as an example.

COVID-19 has changed the way we web

On the social front, many are also using video conferencing to communicate with friends and family. Operators relaxing and offering additional data has undoubtedly contributed to the increase in this usage too. Now that many are homebound, network traffic in residential areas are higher than ever. In the past, peak hours of traffic at homes were at night – this has changed with adults and children homebound. Adults are using video conferencing and more voice calls; while children are using elearning, playing games or streaming videos. The European Commission had asked Netflix and other streaming platforms to reduce streaming quality to standard definition (SD). Netflix has assured that it has the capability to manage levels of streaming quality in accordance with the networks quality requirement of individual countries.

Online gaming and video streaming have emerged as winners and have seen an increase in consumption in these times as they provide for entertainment for millions stuck at home. There is tremendous opportunity for both telecom operators and content providers to increase their number of services in this area. Netflix, YouTube, Microsoft Xbox and PlayStation are among the winners in this sector. YouTube provides for a primary news source and commentary on the epidemic for many. Netflix’s stocks are near an all-time high at present.

eCommerce boost for essentials goods and services

The eCommerce sector should see a major improvement in Southeast Asia as physical channels to market have reduced. Emerging economies such as Malaysia and Thailand should see an improvement in services and embrace eCommerce like their mature counterparts. Statista reports that the average Malaysian eCommerce shopper spent just US$159 and Thailand just US$100 on online consumer goods purchases in 2018, considerably lower than the global average of US$634. There is huge opportunity to provide for basic necessities such as online grocery, food and delivery of goods. As a consequence, contactless payment and the transport and logistics sector will be forced to adapt their business operations to ride this wave successfully. As eCommerce transactions diversify and increase in emerging markets, it will give telecom providers an opportunity to keep engaging with platform players.

 

 

Telecom carriers are likely to suffer financial losses due to the scale of the disruption COVID-19 has brought about. However, there are some positives takeaways from this period. The increase of network traffic and the changing patterns have driven carriers to better understand network traffic management. The sharp consumer and business onboarding as far as applications and digital services are concerned, has given the digital economy and 5G use cases a shot in the arm. This is likely to spur innovation in services including communications, eCommerce, payments, logistics and healthcare among others.

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The Use of Technology in Singapore’s COVID-19 Response

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Authored by Mervyn Cheah, Aga Manhao and Sash Mukherjee

In January we wrote a blog on How Technology is Helping to Combat the Coronavirus – since then the COVID-19 outbreak has fast become a global threat, disrupting healthcare systems and economies. As the world struggles to contain the spread, Singapore’s response to the crisis shows how governments can use policies and technology to combat emergencies. While it is true that Singapore’s size is its advantage, and most of what it was able to do cannot be replicated in larger, more spread-out countries, there are still lessons there – in the simplicity and responsiveness of the measures. The threat is by no means behind us and the Government will need to implement many more policy changes in the near future. But it is worthwhile to look at what Singapore has done so far to contain the spread.

#1 Identifying and acknowledging the threat early

Like other Asian countries, Singapore suffered during the SARS outbreak in 2003. While the number of people infected during SARS was less at 238, at the end of the outbreak the country had recorded 33 deaths. Having learnt from that experience, Singapore knew that early response is key. Acknowledging the threat early allowed Singapore to have test kits made available to all major hospitals through the Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). A*STAR is a statutory board under the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Singapore. The agency supports R&D that is aligned to areas of competitive advantage and national needs. By the time the first case was reported on 23rd January, health professionals were equipped with testing capabilities. Health authorities and biotech companies have continued to modify and launch newer testing technology – like the fast-track swab test kits launched in early March – as global research continues.

#2 Focusing on contact tracing

Right from the start, Singapore has been focused on contact tracing. Following the chain of the virus allows government agencies to identify and isolate people at risk, including their close contacts. This became more important as the virus spread into the local community with the first reported case on the 4th February. The contact tracing process has been a concerted effort using technology, manpower and dedication. As Singapore faces a second wave of spread from returning travellers, the Government launched Trace Together, an app that records distancing between users and the duration of their encounters. Individual consent is required to share the data which is encrypted and deleted by the Ministry of Health (MOH) after 21 days. This allows the MOH to contact citizens in the case of possible contact with an infected individual.

#3 Keeping the citizens in the loop

The speed in imposing border controls, meticulous tracing of known carriers and aggressive testing are all positive steps in combating a crisis like this. But arguably the most productive strategy was to get citizen buy-in. The need was felt most when the country’s Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level was raised from yellow to orange on 7th February. With the raised DORSCON level, buildings and public facilities with a high volume of people were required to do fever screening and collect personal details for further communication and alerts, if required. Simultaneously, the Government started sharing clear, transparent, daily public communication through mobile phones. The messages contain anonymised details of the patients (to make people aware of their own possible exposure), as well as an update of the number of patients being treated and released. The 2 deaths were also reported promptly – but enough details were shared to avoid panic. Demonstrating cross-agency collaboration, the information disseminated comes from multiple government agencies – the same channel is also used to drip-feed hygiene guidelines and the evolving government policies on travel, trade and so on.

The message from the leadership has also been clear and timely, and an economic stimulus package was announced fairly early. The Government is currently working on a second stimulus package, as the threat to the economy continues.

#4 Dispelling misinformation

Taking this daily communication to the next level, the Government has been prompt in stopping the spread of rumours. Not only does the MOH website share all the latest details, any spread of misinformation (usually through social media) is being quelled by official statements. It is extremely important to be able to address issues such as these, because it impacts trust in the government and the healthcare system. The daily updates are now a ‘single source of truth’ on all COVID-19 related information. The Cyber Crime Portal has also been activated with the intention to track unverified messages especially regarding the treatment and cure of COVID-19.

#5 Empowering healthcare professionals and citizens with digital tools

Unfortunately, the community spread appears to be happening in waves, especially as Singapore has a high volume of returning travellers. Healthcare facilities continue to be stretched. Although Singapore has adequate healthcare facilities to cope with the number of current cases, the Government is also prepared with additional quarantine facilities. Meanwhile, hospitals have set up makeshift triage centres in their car parks to deal with the growing number of patients needing to get tested. To counter the need for more infrastructure and the cost to get additional facilities ready, the use of digital health, remote patient monitoring and online care planning is being explored to limit patients presenting themselves to providers. KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital has launched UPAL – Urgent Paediatric Advice Line – as a pilot online consultation channel. It is expected that more healthcare facilities will offer services such as these. Being cloud based, these solutions can be deployed within days and high-risk patients can be immediately onboarded, easing the burden on the healthcare system and providing relief to patients and families. Telemedicine and remote monitoring are not new, having been proven and tested by several healthcare systems. In these extraordinary times, the technology will help the healthcare system keep all in Singapore safe.

#6 Having a strong Data and Digital infrastructure

Singapore’s data and digital services infrastructure is the overarching factor that has allowed the Government to act quickly and efficiently to fight this community threat. While this is not linked directly to the current response measures against COVID-19, it is the true enabler. Firstly, the electronic health record system has access to records of all patients who have availed of the public healthcare system (private, primary care organisations have also started contributing to the system – enabling the vision of complete longitudinal health records). This is the backbone of the Government’s healthcare measures in these difficult times. Secondly, the network infrastructure allows the introduction of online consultation services. Moreover, people are able to work from remote locations seamlessly using collaboration tools such as Zoom, Skype and WebEx. This allows the Government to encourage people to work from home, to stay away from healthcare facilities and other measures to reduce overcrowding of public spaces to prevent the spread. And finally, Singapore has a strong access to eCommerce and online platforms, allowing people to access almost anything they choose to, online.

 

While the battle against the pandemic is far from over, Singapore has so far managed to avoid complete disruption by using technology to be responsive to the community’s needs.

 

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Governments Should Focus Coronavirus Stimulus on Digital Initiatives

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The last week or so has seen a numbers of central banks (such as the US and Australia) ease their monetary policies – lowering interest rates in order to stimulate investment and economic activity. But this alone won’t be enough to slow down economic growth – the generally accepted wisdom is that governments will need to quickly roll out stimulus packages to get money into the economy faster. Some countries, like Hong Kong, have already kicked off this process – others are likely be announce packages over the next few weeks.

Typically, these stimulus packages are designed to get the economy moving again – bringing forward existing spending plans or creating new spend. Good stimulus packages will have a broad impact but also drive improved business and employment outcomes. Some are targeted towards the sectors most impacted (e.g. in Australia the seafood export market has been impacted heavily by China’s decision to stop importing any seafood; in Thailand the tourism sector is hit hard by the slowdown in arrivals from China – that makes up a large percentage of the tourists in an economy where tourism is a significant sector).

But often they are not targeted. Some governments might just let businesses write off any investment faster than usual (such as within a single financial year instead of depreciating the spend over a number of years) or will just send a cheque to every income earner. The issue with these stimulus packages is that they don’t drive a specific outcome apart from getting spend into the economy faster. Stimulus packages have an opportunity to drive change – and the COVID-19 virus has shown that some businesses are not well equipped for the digital era. They are finding it hard managing the distributed workforce when they ask their staff to work at home. There are also many challenges that governments and businesses are facing in serving customers across digital channels.

This is the opportunity for governments to stimulate the economy and help businesses improve the digital experiences of customers and employees. The world is going digital – we all know what good digital experiences look like as we have them on our smartphones in our pockets. But we also know that most companies and government agencies we deal with are not offering great digital experiences… And while we all hope that virus outbreaks such as COVID-19 don’t happen that often, we know that something like this will happen again – so it would be great if businesses were prepared for such an outcome.

Therefore now is the chance to target the stimulus packages towards both the impacted sectors of the economy as well as the areas of spend that will drive better digital experiences for customers and employees. There could be incentives to spend more on software and cloud services, spend more with consultancies or spend more with digital marketing agencies. It will also help small businesses compete with larger businesses on an equal playing field (for example, the large takeaway food outlets have an app that lets you pre-order food, but many small ones do not).

In 2009, the Australian government rolled out a stimulus package – one that was ultimately one of the major reasons the economy came through the global financial crisis without falling into recession. They gave an immediate cash stimulus to taxpayers which helped get an immediate spend in the economy. They also had a housing insulation spend which promised roof insulation for 2.7 million homes – this provided stimulus to the economy in the mid-term. They then provided new school halls, social housing and roads – which provided the stimulus in the longer term. While it can be argued that the programs were not effectively administered, the stimulus got the economy moving and also helped the government hit some longer term goals – such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions (through better housing insulation therefore less use of electricity to heat and cool homes) and also upgrading aging infrastructure in schools across the country. For many businesses, the focus today is on providing great customer experiences – and many of those experiences will be digital. Governments have the chance to use their stimulus p to accelerate that outcome.

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How Will the Coronavirus Impact Tech Spending in 2020

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2020 was originally forecast as a good year for technology spend. Many categories took a hit in 2019 – hardware, telecommunications, datacentres – even the software and IT services segments came down from their high growth rates of previous years. The consensus for growth in IT spend in 2020 was somewhere between 3-4%. But that growth is now under threat by the COVID-19 virus that is spreading across the globe. The 26th  February was a significant day, as the number of new infections outside of China is now greater than those in China. Furthermore, the growth in infections is not isolated. Iran, Italy and South Korea all have experienced significant growth and the virus has hit Brazil, directly from Italy.

With the situation changing every day it is hard to have a firm view on how it will impact broader economic growth as well as the technology spending. Much will depend on the ability of countries to control the spread of the virus along with the fiscal stimulus packages of governments across the globe. Some countries are in a better position than others to push money into economies to keep them growing.

But even with the uncertainty, it is worth noting some feedback we are getting from tech buyers, vendors and economists. While much of this feedback is anecdotal, we believe it is indicative of trends across the market. The next few weeks are critical. If China shows that they can stop the transmission of the virus, that will help global confidence which has been hurt by the newer outbreaks in Italy, Iran and Korea.

Overall Economic Spend is Slowing

Businesses across the globe – particularly those in heavily impacted economies (such as China, Italy, Japan & South Korea) and those impacted by the slowdown in China (Thailand, Australia etc) – are putting the brakes on spending across the board. And there are not too many initiatives in businesses today that don’t involve technology. We are seeing projects delayed and – more rarely – cancelled. Several central banks, such as those in Thailand and Singapore, have lowered their growth forecasts, as has the IMF and OECD. Ratings agencies and economists have also reduced their growth forecasts for heavily impacted economies. The USA is avoiding much of the slowdown although the Nasdaq High Tech Index was down around 8-9% on the 28th February – the market has priced potential future slowdown into share prices already.

Limited Face-to-Face Collaboration Will Slow Tech Spending

We are also seeing the projects that are underway slowing down: more staff are required to work from home; experts can’t fly in to help drive projects; and without teams meeting physically, collaboration has become harder than ever before.

This doesn’t mean the projects aren’t happening – the timelines are slipping. Will this impact the overall spending in 2020? Yes! But not by much at all, as many projects these days are delivered in 3-6 months – not 24 months like years gone by. So, delivery will mostly happen in 2020, but more in the second half than the first half. But again, with the situation changing every day, the scenario might change. As soon as growth in the number of infections slows down and the travel bans are lifted, we can expect activity to slowly return. But the further out that is, the more projects will decrease scope, be cancelled or be shelved for another day.

Another factor impacting innovation and the resulting technology projects is the lack of face-to-face collaboration between management teams. Some businesses have already put into place initiatives to ensure their board and executive management do not meet face-to-face. This is because they are considered the most valuable assets to the business – and are often likely to be in the age group most heavily impacted by the coronavirus (over 50). While not suggesting that collaboration cannot happen in virtual environments, it is sometimes a shared experience or non-business interaction that might drive a new idea for the business. And that idea might end up driving tens of millions of dollars of technology spending.

Cash Flow is Impacted – Which Slows Business Investment

Cash flow is already being impacted. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are already feeling the pinch, and they don’t have access to the funding tools that many large businesses use to get through tough times. SMEs really represent the biggest threat to spending: if a large business has to lay off some staff, they can then get a project going as soon as the economy or their sector recovers and employ the people they need, as required. But in countries like Australia and the US, small businesses represent almost 40-50% of economic activity. If SMEs shut down or even restrict spending, it takes some time for new businesses to start up and fill in the gap they leave. SMEs don’t tend to buy software or services from the large vendors – they tend to use small and medium services and software providers – so it is these smaller technology businesses that are immediately threatened if the coronavirus spread continues. The multiplier effect quickly comes into play here to reduce consumption, employment and economic activity.

We are also aware that some businesses that are directly impacted by the virus (such as those in the travel sector) have informed their suppliers that they won’t be paying any bills until mid-year. This could also put a small technology provider under – whereas a larger one should be able to survive the cash-flow crisis. Despite most economies having a low interest rate environment, the access to capital is not easy, particularly given the risk to the overall economy. A further challenge to global expenditure and an accelerated recovery is the US elections which provide distraction to businesses in the US and globally.

Cancellation of Customer Events Will Limit Technology-Led Innovation

Many vendors have cancelled or postponed their customer events, even in relatively unaffected markets such as Australia. And nearly every vendor will attest to the spike in opportunities and deals that get signed after these events. The coming together of potential and existing customers with thought leaders, tech evangelists, bleeding edge customers and the partner ecosystem drives new ideas. Individuals get inspired to act – they hear about best and next practice and kick off conversations within their businesses. They see how technologies can impact other businesses and use those assumptions within their own business cases. Sceptical customers become converts, and those already considering projects sometimes accelerate them.

With these events cancelled tech spending will not collapse. Companies still have budgets and these budgets will be, for the most part, spent. But it is the innovative initiatives that will suffer – the exploration of new technologies or services, the experimentation and testing that won’t happen because people simply won’t know about it. This is the spending that is typically not budgeted for – the new spend that often has a big impact on business results and customer outcomes. These customer events are learning opportunities – without the events the learning will be harder and slower to push out. So, this will likely have more of an impact on spending in calendar Q2-Q4. But without other assets in the market or other chances to educate clients and prospects, this spend simply won’t happen.

The COVID-19 virus is also impacting the technology supply chain. Many technology products are manufactured in China – or rely on components manufactured in China. Factories across China have been shut down – and while some are coming back online, it is hard to know how long it will take them to get back to full capacity. Transport services in China are impacted –globally 200,000 flights have been cancelled since the public emergence of the coronavirus. Some products are waiting but just cannot be shipped. A number of vendors have flagged the impact of the slowdown to the supply chain on their revenues, including Apple and Microsoft. With limited supply, prices are rising, which slows down demand. While this may show some short-term opportunity for the cloud providers, the hardware companies and the software providers that rely on the availability of hardware will feel the impact. In the longer term, it may lead to business reviewing their supply chain and risk analysis. This presents an opportunity for India, Vietnam and other potential manufacturing hubs.

The Overall Impact of the COVID-19 Will be Real and Measurable

Ultimately, we believe that the coronavirus will wipe up to 1.5% off the total tech spending for 2020 – bringing the overall average down to between 1.5% and 2.5%. Part of this is based on the fact that technology spending is coming off a poor year. Confidence was just starting to climb with some of the hardest hit segments expected to return to growth in 2020. This confidence will disappear – and could lead to further price competition. Which is good for the buyer but bad for the whole vendor supply chain!

But again, this depends on the response of central banks and the ability of countries to control the spread of the virus. The development of a vaccine would be ideal but appears to be highly unlikely. The sooner it is brought under control – along with effective targeting of fiscal stimulus packages – the lower the impact on overall economies and the technology spending of businesses.

Some sectors will witness growth – telecoms providers, collaboration software and tool providers, remote and online education providers, cloud providers and healthtech will all witness growth – in fact many are already! Digital spending will increase as face-to-face opportunities plummet – this will drive opportunities for advertisers, digital agencies and developers.

Now is the time to make contingencies – vendors need to get better at digital marketing and selling and simpler implementation. Tech buyers and implementers need to put in place best practices for remote working – many companies witness an increase in productivity when they get remote working right.

Please let us know your feedback or thoughts in the comments section – we look forward to keeping the analysis going – and stay healthy!

This post was authored by Tim Sheedy, with valuable assistance from Phil HasseySash Mukherjee and Claus Mortensen.

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