The first group of users on the evening of 1 May 2023. Shazwi Suwandi (fourth from left) built it single-handedly.

On Monday, 1 May 2023, many of us at TWC2 were nervous, with our software engineer, Shazwi Suwandi, more than most. He had been single-handedly building the second-generation case management system (“Camans v2”) for the past 15 months, devoting almost all his evenings and weekends to this labour of love. This Monday was when it would go live – the day of reckoning.

He needn’t have worried. It went smoothly. Seven users logged on simultaneously updating case information for about 40 workers. It was not a particularly busy evening; there will be days ahead when much bigger numbers will be involved. However, it was still more than any test we had conducted in the months prior.

The project was not just one of building a system to client’s requirements. It included migration of existing data from version 1, so that from the word go, users could access all the data we had accumulated from years back, including all the images and documents (“attachments”) we had collected. Moreover, one of our requirements was to have an easier way than version 1 to insert personal data privacy consent forms (“PDPAs”) into client profiles.

Says Lalitha, one of the volunteers from that evening, “I truly enjoy using the new system. PDPA and face pics are a breeze too! I’m so glad that all my worries are for nothing.”

Debbie Fordyce, TWC2 President, was also among the first group of users on 1 May. Her thoughts after that evening: “Before we launched our first version of our shared data system for case management, I had no concept of such a thing. That modest project, thanks to a group of SMU students, quickly became integral to our work. This new system, with improved interface and location of data now accommodates our changing and expanding needs.”

And in her usual tongue-in-cheek manner of speaking, “I especially appreciate the simplicity of cropping and uploading facial images, while telling our male clients that we need to have handsome faces to keep our volunteers focused.”

The Home page is a search page allowing users to search, using a variety of keywords, from among 15,000 clients – a number that grows by one to two thousand a year.

This project actually began in 2019. After assessing several possible vendors and solutions, we chose one, only to run into huge frustrations. Despite extraordinary patience, we ultimately came to the view that this vendor was never going to deliver, yet the thought of revisiting a vendor selection exercise was hardly palatable, having formed the view earlier that nearly all the others were unsuitable.

There was a silver lining though. We realised through the initial period trying to make it work with the first vendor that taking an off-the-shelf application and customising it to our needs was far from ideal – a realisation that we might not have come to if not for the painful experience of actually trying to customise something. Shazwi then stepped forward in early 2022, volunteering to build a custom solution for us. And thus began 15 months of relentless work.

Did he regret it? We dont think so. This is what he says:

1. You’ve spent fifteen months of weekday evenings and weekends doing this project; do you feel it has been rewarding to you?

Definitely. I got the opportunity to put on both business analyst and software engineer hats, which enabled me to dive deeper into both the processes and the technical implementations, something I won’t be able to in a bigger team where roles are more strictly defined. What’s most rewarding is creating something that is relied upon by a big group of users to deliver value to their respective stakeholders and not one that would turn out to be a white elephant.

2. Was this a bigger challenge than you expected? If so, what aspects were memorably challenging?

I took this up not knowing that I could implement 100% of the scope. Initial impressions would paint a picture that the system would turn out to be a straightforward case management system. However, the current workflows in TWC2 involved several external systems such as form management, report management and chat collaboration. Implementing portions of these was eye opening to say the least. There were new languages and syntaxes I had to learn on the fly to get the different pieces working together.

3. Would you urge other developers to consider doing such projects for NGOs — not necessarily on the same scale — as learning experiences?

For sure. You should seek out any form of avenue to sharpen one’s skills. Doing projects for NGOs beats developing side projects as you’ll be creating impact to not just yourself. I’m grateful and fortunate to have met [TWC2 vice-president] Alex and for him to give me the opportunity to grow myself as a software engineer. I was able to work with other brilliant individuals like [TWC2 exco committee member]  Leong who gave me insights on best practices of infrastructure design, to support the workload at the scale TWC2 is operating at.

In the following article, Reflections on the development of our second case management system, TWC2 vice-president Alex Au looks back and describes the key issues in the process.

But the results are already evident. “It is fast and the structure is more organised,” says caseworker Alfiyan. “Certain key information have their own place,” making navigation easier.

Caseworker Alfiyan (right) has Camans open on his larger monitor while he discusses with a migrant worker.

The next month will be spent getting more and more users on board and familiarising them with the features of Camans v2 that were not in Camans v1. We don’t expect that process to be difficult.

Between October 2022 and April, we had several sessions where select volunteers and caseworkers were exposed to the new Camans. The happy thing was that the more digitally-savvy younger volunteers hardly needed any hand-holding. They found the system intuitive even though the pages were often crowded with information – a design requirement. They performed the set tasks with ease.

Watching them sail through the app even though they were using it for the first or second time, we were confident it would purr and hum. We gave the green light to launch it on 1 May.