Captions: Engineer Ong Si Ci helps assess technologies for use in Home Team operations. PHOTO: WINSTON CHUANG
By Toh Ee Ming
When Singapore went into circuit breaker mode last year, HTX (Home Team Science and Technology Agency) engineer Ong Si Ci found herself thrust into the front lines of the nation’s battle against Covid-19.
As the Republic swiftly rolled out quarantine measures to isolate travellers, a fresh challenge arose: How to effectively keep track of those serving their stay-home notices (SHNs)?
Ms Ong and her teammates had to race against time to source for an electronic monitoring wristband that could be adjusted to fit both adults and children serving their SHNs.
The team worked with partners to make the strap thinner and waterproof so that users could wear the wristband at all times and be able to carry on with their daily activities. More importantly, the team had to ensure that the technology worked so that users would not be able to circumvent the system.
”Having studied engineering, it’s rewarding to see the fruits of your labour being used and having an impact on the ground,” says the 25-year-old.
A TRANSFORMATIVE LEARNING EXPERIENCE
During her four-year programme at Imperial College London where she completed her master’s in materials science and engineering, Ms Ong studied under renowned experts like Professor Molly Stevens, who specialises in biomedical materials and regenerative medicine. They worked on a research project that explores how biomaterials can be used to detect various diseases.
Another highlight for her was a summer research internship at the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She did research on the use of technology (in particular, alkali halide salts) to monitor radiation therapy during cancer treatment.
Having witnessed the tremendous potential that material science holds for medical breakthroughs, Ms Ong was motivated to find a meaningful job that makes an impact on the community.
“I remember being awed by the extent and breadth of research being done at MIT and the inquisitiveness, curiosity and thirst for learning of the students whom I interacted with,” she says.
“The students had a lot of ideas to propose and explore. In Singapore, we don’t have that much initiative to propose things that are different from the conventional.”
Ms Ong joined HTX in 2019, after completing her master’s. She was initially set for a policy-related role under a Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarship open track, but decided to switch to an engineering track in her final year of studies. That was when she chanced upon an article about the Ministry of Home Affairs setting up a new statutory board called HTX to develop science and technology capabilities for Home Team operations. She was drawn to HTX’s mission of leveraging on science and technology to safeguard Singapore.
USING TECH TO AUGMENT THE HOME TEAM
Despite having little knowledge in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) when she joined HTX, she was able to quickly grasp concepts like computer vision, with support from her colleagues.
Leveraging state-of-the-art computer vision and video analytics capabilities, she and her colleagues at the Sense-making & Surveillance Centre of Expertise develop tech-enabled solutions to help the Home Team carry out their operations. The electronic wristband is one such solution.
Her team’s other notable projects include developing facial recognition and licence plate recognition systems to help Home Team officers in law enforcement.
In order to design secure facial recognition systems, Ms Ong is currently studying the vulnerabilities of such systems to better understand how potential security breaches can be thwarted. Researches have found that alterations made to images or physical masks could be used to fool the facial recognition systems.
HTX was also involved in the Prisons Without Guards initiative, a collaboration with the Singapore Prison Service to tap on technology for automation and streamlining of work processes and operations in the prisons.
It developed a Human Behaviour Detection System that alerts prison officers to abnormal activity in the cells. Previously, prison officers had to trawl through closed-circuit television footage and conduct physical checks to pick out any instances of fighting among inmates or signs of aggression.
Ms Ong says she enjoys working in an environment where she can keep abreast of technological advancements in the field of AI.
“I hope my experience and training in the engineering domain can contribute to the advancing and strengthening of engineering and tech capabilities within the public service.”
Visit go.gov.sg/mhascholarships to apply.