Irene Ng <email@example.com>
c/o Singapore Press Holdings
390 Kim Seng Road, Singapore
Quah Cheng Hai <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Allan Tan <email@example.com>
Rudi Wong <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Tan Tin Wee <email@example.com>
Tampines New Town is a model satellite regional center in the eastern part of Singapore. Predominantly composed of government-subsidized public housing, it is often used as a testbed for innovative ideas such as complete cabling to the home for cable TV. For its excellence in quality and design in its physical organization and architectural plan, it was awarded the World Habitat Award for the Best Planned Town in 1993.
It is picked as the first new town in Singapore to receive cable as a pilot project. Can this new town excel in cyberspace as well? Its Member of Parliament Mah Bow Tan, who is also Singapore's communications minister, believes that this is possible and has set out to explore this new medium by appointing a diverse team to come up with innovative ideas. The aims are to network every home, shop, office, and public amenity in Tampines and to find ways to use the Internet to draw the residents of Tampines closer together and foster a deeper community spirit.
Besides the by-now common Web home page (http://www.tampines.org.sg), which will be totally reorganized on a less corporate theme into a resident-friendly and homey theme, a key feature of the new Tampines WebTown is the use of interactive applications such as multilingual Web chat systems, Java applications and Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML). Among other things, they will allow the minister to have online chats with residents on issues of the day. Residents will have the opportunity to communicate with each other, visit virtual post offices, libraries, town council offices, and community centers for information, make bookings for facilities such as squash or tennis courts, or transact through virtual shopfronts.
To further personalize the system, there is also an online counsellor to offer advice to families who need help, as well as a "community wall" where residents can pin up their best pictures and personal essays on life in Tampines New Town.
Threading through each page is its resident bird, Mainah (a mynah, a common little bird found in Tampines), which acts as the WebTown's mascot. New technology such as VRML will be used for effect, such as to allow the new resident to navigate to lesser known areas of the town virtually in advance, before making the actual journey.
The community project is conceptually and technically challenging as it seeks to reach the common person in average government housing. The hope is that eventually, each home will be wired to its neighbors via the Internet, and thus people will establish a deeper sense of belonging to the local community.
Tampines New Town, with a population of about 200,000 people living in 52,000 government-subsidized public apartments, is a testbed of sorts for experimental projects. If a great and bold idea works here, chances are that it will be expanded across this island state. Tampines New Town, which covers 424 hectares of land, was the first neighborhood hub to be successfully transformed into a regional town center in the 1970s. Since then, other "regional town centers" have been in the making in the other parts of Singapore.
Today, Tampines New Town is an institutional, social, recreational and commercial hub of the eastern part of Singapore. It is a modern, bustling satellite town, billed as the intelligent town of the future. It houses Singapore's first regional library, which uses innovative ideas to get busy people to read, such as providing home delivery services for books, and to get the community involved in the local arts scene by having a resident theater group. Tampines also has the distinction of being the first new town built based on the precinct concept to promote neighborliness and a sense of belonging. For its excellence in design and quality, it was awarded the prestigious United Nations' World Habitat Award for the Best Planned Town in the World in 1993.
To further promote a sense of belonging and community, several mammoth projects are underway. One of them involves cable: Tampines New Town residents are the first in Singapore to be wired up with cable. One in four flat-dwellers has already been wired up. This gives them access not only to programs from various parts of the world, but also to a community channel, special to Tampines New Town. Today, cabling an entire neighborhood remains a national pilot project, confined to Tampines New Town.
Another mammoth project involves linking residents via the Internet as a community tool. The infrastructure--cable and well-designed precincts--has been laid.
Our team's task is to creatively embrace the power of the Internet, adapt it to this environment and culture, and make it useful and meaningful for the average person-on-the-street.
The primary aim is to allow residents to get to know each other, fostering a deeper sense of community and a stronger sense of belonging to the community. At the same time, they can get to know their leaders--Members of Parliament (MP) and town councillors--in a more personal way and to help them shape the community into an even better one.
Another aim: to give residents a leg up onto the information superhighway. Of particular concern is the lower-income residents, who live in smaller apartments (by this, we mean those in one- to three-room flats). Most do not have a computer at home and may not feel at ease with bits and bytes. If this situation is left unaddressed, it may create a class of information have-nots. We try to reach their children through schools, which have an aggressive computer program as a national policy.
At the community level, 20 computers will be given away to grassroots bodies in Tampines New Town, for the use of lower-income residents without computers, when the revamped Web site at http://www.tampines.org.sg is officially launched on 27 April 1996. At the same time, several hundred free Internet accounts will be given away to get more residents online. We are also looking into collecting old computers, discarded by those who have upgraded their systems, and distributing them to the lower-income families, the way we do now for old school textbooks.
The idea to link residents using the Internet came from Communications Minister Mah Bow Tan, who is an MP for Tampines GRC (a Group Representative Constituency--a constituency that requires at least three MPs running on a single slate during the elections. Tampines GRC has four MPs.)
When the Tampines New Town first set up its Web site in 1995, it was called the Tampines Internet Project. It is driven by Chief Statistician Dr. Paul Cheung, an active ideas man in Tampines who is responsible for moving several big projects in Tampines New Town. Dr. Cheung also heads the Steering Committee of the Tampines Regional Library.
The technical team came from the National Computer Board (NCB), the government body tasked to spearhead Singapore's drive--dubbed IT2000--to turn this island into a fully intelligent city.
The information was initially static and dealt mainly with information on facilities, such as community clubs and the Tampines Regional Library. The tone was largely officious and perfunctory.
It offered a bulletin board for residents to post their comments. Comments received ranged from warm greetings from residents who are presently studying abroad to local complaints about services and facilities, such as litter found in public places.
In late 1995, Mr. Mah appointed a newspaper journalist to be Web editor of the project so as to inject a community feel to the project. His concern was on tailoring the pages to appeal to the average flat-dweller and, at the same time, to provide the content necessary to form a virtual community to better draw the real community closer. The technical team assigned to assist with this redeveloped version of the Tampines Web site came from the Internet Research and Development Unit (IRDU), Computer Center, National University of Singapore (NUS), known for its innovative work in the field.
The IRDU team was responsible for providing technical advice and rapid prototyping of new Internet technologies such as Java applications and VRML sceneries to enhance the interactivity of these Web pages. Upon completion, the IRDU team has handed over the prototype to the NCB team, which continues to be the technical team in charge of operations.
Even though institutions are involved, the spirit of volunteerism very much prevails. The people involved expend their energies well beyond their working hours and the call of duty. Presently, the project is now being grafted into the community. Eventually, youth groups from the community will run the site, with funds from the Tampines Town Council. The webmaster and Web editor will remain to provide continuity.
The concept and content were revamped by the Web editor in early 1996, and renamed Tampines WebTown, to reflect a virtual community in the making. We tried to resist the common impulse--and indeed, this is common failing of many community Web pages--to dwell on gratuitous icons and pictures that may be graphically stimulating to the computerphile, and technically challenging to produce, but totally divorced from the target audience.
In the case of Tampines WebTown, the target audience includes children, housewives, and working-class people who are not very computer-literate. Consequently, the level of technicality and the interface were scaled down by means of embellishments such as a familiar icon--e.g., a little mascot called Mainah (as a homonym to mynah, a common bird in Tampines), homey pastel colors rather than sophisticated multimedia designs. For instance, the various cartoon images of Mainah--the WebTown's resident little bird--are used on almost all pages.
Figure 1. Mainah, the Tampines WebTown Mascot, in action, drawn by professional cartoonist Lee Hup Kheng.
This is to give a distinctive feel to the WebTown and also to make the WebTown more engaging and endearing to the average resident. We let Mainah do most of the talking in the pages--his tone is chatty and casual--rather than the regular approach, which may give residents the sense that a bureaucrat is tapping on the keyboard.
At the same time, we wanted to make the WebTown a fascinating place, where users would want to return again and again. To captivate the target audience, we have added attractive features using Java technology, client-server push-pull and other techniques to animate the retrieved screen. Some features include an animated picture of the pet cat of the minister chasing a flapping Mainah. The content was further expanded to house all the familiar things that are found in the real Tampines New Town: shops, doctors, schools. Of particular interest is a page that allows residents to seek help from their Members of Parliament.
In the real world, the leaders meet residents at a specific time every week in housing estates to help with their problems. Called the Meet-The-People session, it is an established feature in our democracy. In the virtual WebTown, the MPs have another avenue to do the same, only unconstrained by time and physical space. Residents can send their problems to an address provided by the MP, and the MP will deal with the problem. Also, the MP can forward it as a written request to the relevant government body for action (say, an appeal from someone for a flat in a certain location close to that person's parents) or activate grassroots leaders, should it be a localized problem.
There is also a counsellor online to help residents with their relationship problems. The counsellor, Salamah, is a known figure in the community and is involved in helping troubled youth. She is also a grassroots leader.
We also offer visitors virtual tour packages, such as the "Free and Easy Roam" package. By clicking at any point on a graphical map of Tampines New Town, a picture of a landmark will pop up, with a description of it. For those with upgraded computers and high-speed modems, we have on display VRML models of familiar landmarks. They include the building of Tampines Regional Library and a train used in the local subway, which allows users to walk through doors and into the train. More VRML sceneries will eventually be added in response to users' requests and feedback.
Today, all residents on the Net are paying customers connecting through local Internet service providers. Singapore has to date three Internet access providers, namely SingNet (http://www.singnet.com.sg), Pacific Internet (http://www.pacific.net.sg) and Cyberway (http://www.cyberway.com.sg); numerous Internet access resellers, including AsiaConnect (http://www.sns.com.sg); and cybercafes. For the charge of a local call and affordable subscriber fees (as low as below U.S. $10 for 10 hours connect time per month), users can easily connect to the Internet and hence to the Tampines WebTown.
Slightly more than half of the 2.25 million Singaporeans aged between 15 and 59 are computer users. Of this, a quarter use the Internet. About 40 percent of them access the Net through their home computers; the rest either use computers in the office or elsewhere. In the case of Tampines, users may shortly have cable modems as well. If residents cannot afford access, there are public places where Internet access is available to anyone for free or for a minimal charge--for example NTUC cybercafes (run by the labor movement, the National Trades Union Congress), Tampines Regional Library Internet terminals, including kindergartens, all equipped with protective software to prevent children from accessing unsuitable Web sites.
A pilot program is in place for using cable to link up residents for Internet access. It is anticipated that should the pilot be successful, Tampines residents may be able to have high-speed Internet connectivity via cable modems. Audio-video conferencing through the Internet may then be possible.
Internet is an extremely powerful medium for information retrieval. However, owing to the overwhelming emphasis on the World Wide Web as an information-retrieval agent, the true power of the Internet as a communications tool using applications such as e-mail, Internet Relay Chat, and more recently, audio-video conferencing tools has to be exploited.
In this respect, we are implementing our version of a Web chatting software that allows users to interactively key in messages through a Web browser interface. This is similar to services such as WebChat that are already available on the Internet, but with special features to assist users who are unfamiliar with netiquette from network faux pax.
Built in will also be mechanisms to authenticate users so as to encourage responsibility in the online communications and minimize inflammatory or inappropriate comments, so typical of many network newsgroups and Web chatting sites. Depending on the demand, we will expand the Web chatting rooms to cover general chat to age-specific groups and language groups. As there are four official languages in Singapore--English, Chinese (Mandarin), Tamil and Malay--the various multilingual tools will be made available to enable users to chat in their language of choice.
In addition to communications, the WebTown will have a comprehensive range of online services, both local services as well as hyperlinks to other online services hosted on other sites. They include the following:
We are working toward creating a Web site that users will consider as a place where they belong, where they can expect to encounter their friends, and where they are likely to find information and discussions that meet their needs and interests.
Where people congregate regularly, there will be camaraderie. We are working on ways to provide avenues to give residents opportunities to volunteer to help in this project and to help each other as neighbors.
In the process of revamping the corporate Tampines Web pages, there were many lessons learned:
At least eight different teams for each major link of the home page, each team to gather information and feed them to their team leaders. Mainly from the community.
It is important to find people within the community who believe in the usefulness of this WebTown and who can commit time and effort to it. These people will then be slotted into specific task-teams, reporting to their teams leaders, who report to the Web editor and webmaster. The person right at the top, who calls the shots, is the Minister himself. This will even out the burden of maintaining the WebTown. Also, it will help maintain the WebTown's consistent look and feel, and keep us down-to-earth in our approach. On the other hand, we don't want the structure to be so unwieldy that the WebTown cannot respond quickly to changes and new demands.
This paper describes the efforts of many. Our prime mover is Communications Minister Mah Bow Tan, who provided the direction for the WebTown and garnered high-level as well as grassroots-level support for it. A key driving force is Dr. Paul Cheung, Chief Statistician, Department of Statistics, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Singapore, who brought together the main players and has sustained the vision of connectivity and creativity in the WebTown project.
Irene Ng is a newspaper correspondent and regular columnist with the Singapore Press Holdings. She was appointed by the Minister for Communications, Singapore, to be the Web Editor of Tampines WebTown. She has been active in community work for many years, serving in the Steering Committees of Tampines Regional Library and Tampines West Neighbourhood Library, among others. She is a graduate of the National University of Singapore, majoring in Sociology and English Language.
Quah Cheng Hai and Allan Tan are members of the operational technical team of Tampines WebTown. Cheng Hai is Senior IT Analyst at the New Media and Internet (NMI) Cluster, National Computer Board (NCB). Allan Tan graduated from the Department of Computing Science, University of Stirling, Scotland, and is presently an IT Analyst at NMI, NCB. Both work as part of the team to promote the use of Information Technology and turn Singapore into an intelligent island as part of the IT2000 master plan.
Rudi Wong is a systems engineering student with the University of Virginia. He is presently attached to the Internet Research and Development Unit (IRDU) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) for training. He has been an avid user of the Internet since 1991. Tan Tin Wee (Ph.D., Edinburgh) is the Head of IRDU, Computer Center, NUS. He was formerly Senior Lecturer, Department of Biochemistry and Head of Technet Unit, Singapore's first ISP. Both are part of the developmental technical team.