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Different ways to think about ‘Smart’ Transportation

(Also published on the Malaysian Insight

RECENT announcements heralding Alibaba’s move to roll out its City Brain Artificial Intelligence (AI)-driven smart city solution in Kuala Lumpur (the first city outside China to implement this system) had me initially excited, for two reasons.

Firstly, I hope that the system would help alleviate some of the horrendous traffic jams at critical junctions in downtown KL. Secondly, that this initiative would spur further initiatives using AI and other ‘smart’ systems to tackle transportation issues in the Klang Valley.

But, as with most policy matters, the devil lies in the details. No matter how ‘smart’ a system is, it cannot solve traffic problems caused by human driving patterns and infrastructure bottlenecks. And sometimes, overly ‘smart’ systems may not be as useful as other simpler, non-AI driven information provision systems.

For example, one of City Brain’s earliest initiatives aimed to analyse livestream data from 500 of DBKL’s CCTV cameras and integrate the information with 300 of DBKL’s traffic lights. Presumably, this data would be used to optimise traffic light changes in order to improve traffic flow. But this kind of optimisation will do little to solve the massive congestion that occurs at major traffic intersections during rush hour, when drivers tend to routinely ignore traffic signals, creating ‘bottlenecks’ in traffic.

Information is power, and sometimes, keeping it simpler may be more effective. Instead of centralising traffic flow information at the top to drive data analytics, a better alternative is to cascade the data down to consumers and empower them to use that information to optimise their own travel schedules.

If RAPID KL were to create an app providing real time information on the RAPID bus, LRT and MRT services, this would give public transport users the ability to anticipate bus and train delays, and to adjust their journey schedules accordingly. This kind of app may not sound as sexy as the City Brain initiative, but the likelihood of having a greater impact on time savings is much higher.

RAPID KL already collects real time data for its buses as well as the LRT and MRT trains. The former information is probably of more value to public transport users. Waiting times for the LRT and MRT are much shorter and are already displayed at the LRT and MRT stations, but with the exception of a few public bus stops that have electronic displays, there is typically no information on when the next bus will be arriving at most other bus stops.

We know that real time data for the location of each RAPID KL bus exists. I’ve visited the state of the art control room of the RAPID KL bus depot in Balakong, where the exact location of each bus on the road was shown on a gigantic screen. At some larger bus stops, such as the one at the Bangsar LRT station, RAPID KL also provides real time data for bus arrivals.

The Malaysian Administration Modernisation and Management Planning Unit, better known as MAMPU, is one of the key government agencies which is pushing for greater data sharing, open data and data transparency. To MAMPU’s credit, it has been encouraging various government agencies and ministries to share their data via its open data website ( Last May, an open data day event held on the premises of the University of Malaya, saw PRASARANA sharing RAPID KL’s real time data for Bus No.789 (the bus’s route crosses into  the university).

The real time data for Bus No.789 was then shared on an app created by WRZIT Sdn Bhd (according to the company’s Facebook post).

MAMPU then published the GPS location mapping information of Bus No.789’s route on its website. The map of the bus route as indicated by the GPS locations is shown below together with the regular Bus No.789 route.

Blue line: The bus route for T789 (Bukit Angkasa – Universiti Malaya);
Green line: Bus stops along the T789 bus route;
Red line: Location of bus from MAMPU bus tracking data
*Map prepared by Penang Institute intern, Atticus Seong.

Instead of relying on a private company to show real-time data for RAPID KL buses, wouldn’t it be better for RAPID KL to create its own app to provide this information to the user for ALL its buses?

The Petaling Jaya Municipal Council (MBPJ), for example, has an easy to use PJ City Bus app which shows the real-time location of all of its free buses that are currently on the road.

The Selangor state government has also launched a real-time bus tracking app called the Selangor Intelligent Transport System (SITS). This app tracks the real time location of all the Selangorku buses plying the free bus routes in Shah Alam, Petaling Jaya, Subang Jaya, Ampang Jaya, Klang, Kajang, Selayang, Sepang, Hulu Selangor, Kuala Langat, Sabak Bernam and Kuala Selangor. It shows the plate number of the bus, the bus stops along the route and notifies the user on the estimated arrival time (including possible delays).

To sum up, before getting overly excited about brand new innovations in the marketplace, we might be better off investing in less “sexy” (yet more practical) efforts to make both public and private transportation in Malaysia ‘smarter’, more efficient and more user-friendly.

The ‘nudge’ theory and policy-making in Malaysia

(This article can also be read at the Penang Institute in KL Column in the Malaysian Insight, 15th October 2017)

EARLIER this week, Professor Richard Thaler was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics for his contribution to the field of behavioural economics. He is probably most well-known for his “Nudge” theories on providing incentives to change people’s behaviours on a number of dimensions, such as one’s propensity to save money or to switch to a healthier lifestyle.

In 2010, the transition of behavioural economics from a marginal topic in the discipline to mainstream public policy making was formalised with the establishment of a Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) or better known as the “Nudge Unit” within the Cabinet Office in the United Kingdom government. Around the same time, Thaler’s co-author for the best-seller “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”, Professor Cass Sunstein, worked as a regulatory ‘czar’ in Obama’s White House from 2009 to 2012 and a “Nudge Unit” was formally established in Obama’s White House in 2015 via executive order.

Some examples of the UK’s Nudge unit achievements include using various telephone messages to encourage greater participation in organ donation drives and personalised messages to increase the percentage of those who pay their government fines on time.

Such “nudge units” are fashionable among politicians and policy makers, because the positive results arising from such initiatives are usually measurable and yield benefits which far surpass the low-cost implementation methods.

How likely will such “nudge” ideas find their way to our shores? To answer this question, we must first understand the potential obstacles that lie in the way of implementing such initiatives in Malaysia.

Firstly, we have scarcely any local experts in the field of behavioural economics in our public and private universities. Whereas places like the UK, the US and Australia have established economists working in this field and full-fledged research centres dedicated to the testing and implementation of ‘nudge’ initiatives, we would be hard pressed to find even one well-trained and experienced Malaysian behavioural economist.

Secondly, for any ‘idea’ to take root in a government, the politicians in charge must have some basic level of understanding of that ‘idea’. For example, most politicians and senior civil servants in Malaysia are familiar with the “Blue Ocean Strategy” (for better or for worse) through exposure to the authors of the book and various consultants who have formulated ways to weave this marketing theory into our government machinery. By contrast, few of our Malaysian politicians or senior civil servants are familiar with the concepts underlying behavioural economics and how these ‘nudge units’ can potentially work for the benefit of the population.

Thirdly, many of the initiatives undertaken by these ‘nudge units’ use randomised control trials (RCTs) to evaluate the effectiveness of various ‘tweaks’ in order to find the method with the highest returns. This kind of experimentation, although commonplace in clinical trials, could be terrifying for our civil servants and the wider population. Imagine telling a civil servant to issue different variations of a speeding fine or ‘saman’ notice to registered car owners as a test, to see which would result in the most fines being paid. He or she would find it difficult, to say the least, as it goes against the typical government procedure of standardising such documents. Additionally, car owners may doubt the authenticity of their fines, if they compare their own letter to that of others and find that the wording is different.

Furthermore, such experimentation may require a ‘control group’ to benchmark the performance of tested subjects. If incentives are given out to the test group, but withheld from the ‘control group, the ministry or government department in question may very well be criticised for unfairly ‘rewarding’ one group and ‘punishing’ the other.

This being said, I do not think that it is impossible for such ‘nudge’ experiments to be tried out in Malaysia. However, for it to be feasible, the pilot project will need to be conducted using a very limited and carefully selected sample size, using a research design that is well-thought out. Policy makers and politicians also need to be assured that these social experiments won’t come back to haunt them and that the potential benefits could be significant.

It would be very useful, for example, to identify communities which are especially prone to diabetes and provide incentives for such families to decrease their sugar intake via cash payments or the provision of healthy replacements in lieu of sugar.

The Ministry of Consumer Affairs can also work with supermarkets and hypermarkets to display healthier foods in more prominent locations and make them more visually appealing. This would be a far more effective strategy to deal with health problems associated with high sugar intake, instead of merely raising sugar prices across the board. Such ‘nudges’ to reduce diabetes rates could well result in a much healthier population and lower health care costs for the government.

* Dr Ong Kian Ming is the Member of Parliament for Serdang, Selangor and is also the General Manager of Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Duke University, an MPhil in Economics from the University of Cambridge and a BSc in Economics from the London School of Economics.

Memastikan prestasi Sukan SEA kita kekal mampan

(Artikel ini juga boleh dibaca di ruang Institut Pulau Pinang di KL dalam Malaysian Insight, 2hb Sept 2017)

Ketika saya menulis artikel ini, Malaysia telah pun mendahului rekod pungutan pingat Sukan SEA ke-29 dengan meraih 140 emas, 91 perak dan 84 gangsa. Jumlah pingat emas kita adalah 2 kali ganda jumlah pingat emas Thailand, yang berada di tempat kedua. Kita turut berjaya memecahkan rekod Sukan SEA 2001 di mana kita telah meraih sebanyak 111 pingat emas.

Ini merupakan pencapaian yang menakjubkan dan usaha gigih atlet-atlet kita harus disanjung tinggi. Namun adakah pencapaian ini sesuatu yang mampan? Adakah atlet kita mampu melangkah lebih jauh dan bersaing di peringkat Asian dan, untuk sesetengah mereka, di peringkat antarabangsa juga?

Kini, sukan telah menjadi sebuah industri berbanding sebelum tahun 1990an di mana ianya kelihatan lebih bersifat amatur (kurang mahir atau profesional). Di samping mengenal pasti bakat, bidang sukan kini melibatkan pelbagai aspek lain seperti pembiayaan, latihan dan bimbingan, nutrisi dan pertandingan, dan banyak lagi.

Masyarakat sememangnya menaruh harapan kepada kerajaan, khasnya Kementerian Belia dan Sukan, untuk memacu pembangunan sukan negara ke arah yang sepatutnya. Bagi negara kecil seperti Malaysia, pembiayaan kerajaan bagi sukan adalah perlu terutamanya apabila ia melibatkan sokongan untuk atlet yang berpotensi besar.

Dengan berbekalkan objektif tersebut, program Kita Juara telah dilancarkan pada 2015. Atlet-atlet terpilih diberi sumber dan lebih banyak peluang untuk bertanding di peringkat antarabangsa. Ini merupakan sebahagian dari proses jangka masa panjang untuk melahirkan juara dunia lebih dari sekadar untuk Sukan SEA.

Namun, dana kerajaan adalah terhad. Malahan UK Sport, iaitu organisasi kerajaan UK yang bertujuan memandu pembangunan sukan, terpaksa membuat potongan besar terhadap perbelanjaan bagi sukan seperti badminton, memanah, lawan pedang dan angkat berat kerana kekurangan potensi untuk memenangi pingat pada Olimpik Tokyo 2020, walaupun organisasi ini menerima sejumlah £347 juta daripada hasil National Lottery.

Di sinilah peranan penting perlu dimainkan oleh persatuan-persatuan sukan di peringkat persekutuan mahupun peringkat negeri. Kebanyakan orang tidak sedar akan kuasa besar yang dipegang persatuan-persatuan ini. Dalam hal tertentu, mereka lebih berkuasa daripada menteri. Contohnya, mereka ada kuasa untuk memilih atlet yang akan mewakili negara, serta memberi dana kepada atlet terpilih untuk ke pertandingan luar negara dan dilatih oleh jurulatih kebangsaan.  

Presiden persatuan sukan biasanya merupakan ahli politik dan / atau ahli perniagaan. Presiden yang juga merupakan ahli perniagaan biasanya diharapkan untuk membiayai sebahagian kos operasi pengendalian persatuan, manakala ahli politik pula diharapkan untuk mengumpul dana yang perlu melalui hubungan mereka. Selepas Sukan SEA, persatuan-persatuan sukan ini masih perlu mencari dana untuk membiayai aktiviti-aktiviti dan membangunkan atlet-atlet mereka.

Setiap sukan menerima tahap sokongan yang berbeza dari masyarakat. Selain dari persatuan bola sepak dan badminton yang sudah pun menerima sambutan meluas dari masyarakat, persatuan sukan lain boleh lebih melakukan pelbagai usaha untuk mempromosikan sukan masing-masing.

Tahap sokongan orang ramai terhadap sukan sebenarnya mempengaruhi keupayaan persatuan sukan ini untuk menambah baik kedudukan kewangan mereka. Sebagai contoh, walaupun larian untuk rekreasi kini menjadi makin popular di Malaysia yang boleh dilihat melalui pertumbuhan pesat acara larian di seluruh negara, persatuan yang bertanggungjawab untuk bidang olahraga iaitu Persekutuan Olahraga Malaysia (MAF) tidak mempunyai laman Facebook yang dikemaskini, apatah lagi laman web yang berfungsi.

Pasukan balapan kita mempamerkan prestasi yang lebih bagus dari jangkaan dengan memenangi 8 emas, 8 perak dan 9 gangsa, termasuklah pingat gangsa bersejarah dalam acara Marathon Lelaki dan rekod Sukan SEA dalam lontar peluru. Namun tiada satu daripada pencapaian ini didokumentasikan dalam laman Facebook MAF, di mana kemaskini terbaru adalah dari tahun 2014. Laman web MAF yang sedia ada merupakan sebuah blog mengenai makanan dan pelancongan.

Begitu juga dengan Persatuan Renang Amatur Malaysia (ASUM) yang tiada laman Facebook, malahan laman webnya tidak mempamerkan pencapaian perenang kita dalam Sukan SEA.

Dalam satu soal selidik ringkas terhadap 37 persatuan sukan yang menghantar atlet ke Sukan SEA, hanya terdapat 21 laman Facebook yang wujud (sama ada berbentuk page atau group) dan tidak semua daripada laman ini berstatus aktif. Pujian perlu diberikan kepada Persatuan Luncur Ais Malaysia (ISAM) dan Persatuan Bola Keranjang Malaysia (MABA) kerana aktif di Facebook dan memaparkan pencapaian atlet mereka. Ironiknya, walaupun Persatuan Polo DiRaja Malaysia (RMPA) mempunyai seorang pemain yang aktif dalam media sosial, namun laman Facebook persatuan tersebut seperti kurang menyerlah.

Walaupun laman Facebook yang aktif tidak menjanjikan kejayaan sukan, namun ia merupakan petunjuk sejauh mana hubungan antara persatuan sukan tersebut dengan peminat-peminat mereka serta masyarakat. Bagaimana sebuah badan korporat mahu menaja sukan tersebut jika dilihat amat sedikit peminat dan hubungan yang dibina dengan orang awam? Dalam hal ini, adalah lebih berbaloi jika penaja korporat ini menghubungi atlet individu yang sudah pun menjadi tokoh awam berbanding menaja persatuan sukan yang dianggotai atlet tersebut. 

Kekurangan aktiviti media sosial bermakna bahawa persatuan-persatuan ini kurang berusaha untuk mengembangkan kelompok penyokong melalui cara menyebarkan maklumat mengenai pertandingan tempatan dan menyoroti profil atlet-atlet. Sekali lagi, berbalik kepada sukan olahraga yang lebih saya kenali, dilihat bahawa agak kurang publisiti dilakukan untuk Olahraga Terbuka Malaysia yang berlangsung sebelum Sukan SEA walaupun ia merupakan pertandingan utama bagi kategori balapan di negara ini.

Nampaknya, lebih banyak maklumat yang dihebahkan di sosial media berkenaan acara larian yang disertai ramai, berbanding Malaysian Open bagi acara balapan. Walau pun acara balapan tidak sepopular sukan teras lain seperti badminton dan bola di Malaysia, hakikat bahawa persatuan yang bertanggungjawab dalam mempromosikan sukan itu nampaknya tidak melakukan tugasnya hanya akan menambah cabaran kepada atlet kita. Semakin kurang dana dan sokongan untuk persatuan, maka semakin kurang sumber untuk menggaji jurulatih-jurulatih yang bagus dan menghantar atlet-atlet yang berpotensi untuk berlatih dan menyertai pertandingan di luar negara.

Selepas gembar gembur Sukan SEA, apabila sukan bukan teras tidak lagi menerima tumpuan ramai, dapatkah atlet-atlet kita mengambil langkah seterusnya untuk bertanding dalam Sukan Asia 2018 di Jakarta? Mampukah persatuan sukan menjadi lebih aktif dalam mempromosikan sukan dan mendapat lebih banyak perhatian dari masyarakat?

Mari kita tunggu dan lihat. Pada masa yang sama, saya akan turut serta menjadi sebahagian rakyat yang bersorak di Stadium Nasional Bukit Jalil semasa majlis penutupan Sukan SEA demi meraikan pencapaian Malaysia!

Dr Ong Kian Ming adalah Ahli Parlimen Serdang, Selangor dan juga Pengurus Besar Institut Pulau Pinang di Kuala Lumpur. Beliau memegang ijazah PhD dalam bidang Sains Politik dari Duke University, MPhil dalam Ekonomi dari University of Cambridge dan BSc dalam Ekonomi dari London School of Economics.