Ombudsman Alan Lai Nin addressed an important issue - strengthening access to government information - with his call for Hong Kong to introduce freedom of information legislation. It is very timely and long overdue.
Such a law would not only protect the public's right to know, it would also greatly benefit academic research. At present, there are many barriers for any researcher seeking access to government data; the fear of infringing the personal privacy ordinance is frequently used to deny access. By locking up data, there is no risk of this happening, but doing so is also a missed opportunity to enhance researchers' capacity for development. By taking the proper steps to remove details such as name or ID card number, the risk of leaking personal information is small.
Other barriers include excessive administrative costs to process data.
The existing Code on Access to Information gives government departments too much power to refuse to act. Sometimes, it's not just a case of added research time - in some cases, lives could be saved, too. For example, we requested data from the MTR Corporation five years ago in connection with research examining the effectiveness of setting up platform screen doors to prevent accidents and suicides.
After negotiating with the MTR and Transport Bureau for nearly a year, they still refused to release the data, citing a possible breach of personal information. However, we did not ask for names but simply the occurrence of incidents plus some socio-economic profiles of the cases and the impact of the subsequent delays. We took our case to the Ombudsman, who found no grounds for the privacy concerns, saying there was clearly a public benefit in the request and the bureau was ordered to release the data.
Since then, we have published two articles to show the effectiveness of installing platform screen doors in preventing accidents and suicides and their cost-effectiveness.
Our research in Hong Kong has been cited in Toronto and elsewhere to support the installation of platform safety doors, which save lives and money.
Fortunately, some government departments are more supportive. For example, the Census and Statistics Department has helped with our study on alleviating poverty, enabling us to have a better understanding of spending patterns on housing, health, food and other essentials and thus target the right policy areas. In this way, we can be better focused in tackling the problem.
Another example of co-operation is in the use of information collected by the Coroner's Court investigating a suicide, which can help in developing effective prevention policies.
Of course, in every case, personal privacy must be protected. But it is possible to do so while allowing access to information. The US and countries in Europe have established effective open government information policies. For example, in Sweden and Denmark, all health records can be made available to researchers. It is also possible to link information from different departments and other sources to build a large database to aid research.
The Hong Kong government uses public money to collect information; it should be in the public domain and not subject to high administrative costs for access or simply at the discretion of the officer in charge.
A freedom of information law can create opportunities to use big data, which will promote development of a knowledge-based economy. We should let the information flow so the data can speak and, ultimately, the public can benefit.
Paul Yip is a professor of social work and social administration and director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong