In his 2016 National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the launch of a new mobile app that would change how people would pay for parking in Singapore. The app, called Parking.sg, introduced a novel way for motorists to make cashless payments for their parking sessions via a mobile app on their smartphone, a convenient alternative to traditional parking coupons.
The Parking.sg app was developed by a team at GovTech led by PM Lee’s son, Li Hongyi. They created the app with the support of the Ministry of National Development (MND), the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Housing and Development Board (HDB).
According to presentations delivered by Li Hongyi himself at various conferences and events, the app took 4 years to complete, from rough ideas to the actual end product that is in use today. The app, once launched, has received high praise for how it has improved the day to day lives of motorists in Singapore.
One point we’d like to note here is that around the 4:48 mark in the video, Li Hongyi mentioned that they started brainstorming for this app way back in 2013. Now, GovTech – where Li Honyi is a deputy Director (Data Science & Artificial Intelligence Division) – was only established in 2016. So who did Parking.sg belong to when it was first conceptualized in 2013?
Moving back to the reception of the app, MP Ang Hin Kee asked Parliament in February 2018 for an update on how well the app is being received and what the rate of utilisation was compared to the standard coupons.
The Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said in a written reply that over half a million unique vehicles have used the app since it was launched in October 2017. He also highlighted that over 60% of cars in Singapore have used the app.
Overall, Mr Wong said that 15 million parking sessions have been initiated using the app since it went live and that it appears to be gaining popularity. When it was launched, the number of parking sessions were clocked at 300,000. In February 2018, that number has more than tripled to around 1.1 million parking session per month.
In contrast and probably as a result of the success of the app, the use of coupons has significantly decreased. Mr Wong said that in October 2017, 180,000 booklets of parking coupons were sold per month. But now with the app, that number has dropped to only 50,000 booklets. Mr Wong described it as ‘not bad at all’.
Earlier this month (6 March), Minister Grace Fu also highlighted in Parliament the Parking.sg app, noting how it has eliminated the need for motorist to pay for parking using physical coupons. The app made it more convenient for people to pay for parking, said Ms Fu, and even helped motorists save some money.
“Nearly half of parking sessions are ended early, with more than $3.3 million refunded to drivers for unused time so far,” she said.
So based on those numbers and feedback both in Parliament and the media, it’s clear that Mr Li’s brainchild is working as intended and that motorists in Singapore have really taken to it.
Successful though this app may be, we do wonder how much it cost to develop.
On 16 March, former CEO of NTUC Mr Tan Kin Lian shared on Facebook an encounter he had with a woman at Hong Lim Park who told him that the Parking.sg app cost S$30 million to develop. Mr Tan said he did a search online to verify the woman’s claim but couldn’t find any.
In response, Parking.sg posted a statement on their Facebook page clarifying that the project received 4-year funding of S$1.96 million in February 2017. One way they managed to keep costs low was via the use of modern cloud services and by having the app built in-hour by the project team themselves, said the statement. They even presented a list of the roughly monthly costs of services that were used in the development process.
Now, whether it was $30 million or S$1.96 million, that’s still a lot of money. In fact, it is significantly more than what a group of five Temasek Polytechnic (TP) students used when they developed their own parking app back in 2016 as part of their final year project.
This group of students from TP’s Business Information Technology course developed a simple Android application called eParking which allows drivers to select the location, period of time and load funds to fulfil a parking session. According to the press release, the app also provides push notification updates “as to when time is running out and with a quick reload, the user can extend the coupon time from wherever he may be”.
The statement continued, “In addition to being environmentally-friendly, the service will also allow convenient summons management, be it issuance or payment. It aims to also ease the workload of Parking Enforcement Officers with the use of QR-code scanning.”
Back then, Straits Times featured this new student-made app which, while it was innovative and creative, seemed like just another school project.
However, when compared to the Parking.sg app, it’s clear that these TP students back in 2016 had already developed a fully functioning application in eParking. The functions they provided were rather comprehensive and comparable to that in the app launched by Li Hongyi.
According to a sample of the eParking app developed by the TP students in 2016 that TOC got to see, the features are largely similar with that of the Parking.sg app by GovTech led by Li Hongyi which launched in 2017:
The similarities are obvious.
Here’s another startling fact. In terms of cost, one of the students involved in the eParking project told us that they didn’t spend a single cent on in developing the app as they used software which was open source. Also, the server was provided for by the school. Which means these students made a complete application with absolutely zero funding that works pretty much the same as the S$1.96 million-dollar app by GovTech.
With all the praise the Li Hongyi has received for Parking.sg, should we not be also looking at these talented, aspiring technopreneurs?
To find out what happened to the eParking app, TOC reached out to the URA to enquire if they were still working on the project with these TP students. We were informed that while URA helped these students back in 2015 by providing information about car parks, it was not directly involved in the project.
So we then reached out to Temasek Polytechnic to find out if the project is still alive and if the school had applied for a copyright for the project in question, but they have yet to respond.
The question remains, what happened to the eParking app developed by these students? If the URA responded positively to the outcome, why did the project come to a halt?
One of the students told us that they wanted to continue with the app, taking it beyond their final year project. Unfortunately, the student told us that TP had them waive ownership of the project right from the start.
“At the start of the final year project, the school asked us to sign a document saying that whatever we did, it belongs to the school.”
Beyond the copyright issue, there was also the news of the new electronic road pricing system which effectively put a stop to their dreams of expanding or following up on the project.
Around the same time the students introduced their eParking app, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced that it was developing the next generation of the ERP system which would employ the use of satellites to not only manage traffic congestion but also provide added services such as electronic payment for roadside parking.
In fact, in 2016 right about the same time ST published its article about the eParking app by TP students, LTA themselves announced that they had awarded a tender to NCS Pte Ltd and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Engine System Asia Pte Ltd to develop this new Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS)-based ERP system. According to the LTA website, they hope to have it operational by the year 2020.
Now, given LTA’s commitment to this new generation of ERP, it’s puzzling the amount of resources and time that invested in the development of GovTech’s Parking.sg app, especially considering it works pretty much the same way as the eParking app developed in 2016 which was shut down because it was thought that the new ERP would make the app redundant.
It’s disappointing because these students did came up with an innovative and well-thought out alternative to parking coupons which is in line with Singapore’s push for a tech-driven society. These are the talents we should be grooming and encouraging. After all, their app is really not any less effective than the one developed by Li Hongyi’s team. The only difference in why one took off where the other flopped is down to the fact that the students were not fortunate enough to have their fully-functioning app adopted and used.