Time to open Hong Kong's archives

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 November, 2013, 12:41am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 November, 2013, 12:41am

Access to public information and records is fundamental in a free society. It keeps people informed about what has happened and enables them to stay in touch with change and trends. More importantly, it puts the government under scrutiny. The importance of a free flow of information cannot be overstated.

With technology changing rapidly, there is a need to provide information in a user-friendly manner. The recent initiative by Legco is a case in point. Previously, online records in graphics had to be converted digitally before mass-volume analyses could be made. In a welcome change, the secretariat has made them machine-readable, enabling analysis of voting records by statistics software. Separately, verbatim records dating back to 1877 are available in files that allow word searches. The initiatives are by no means ground-breaking, but they are good news for those who want to know more about the policies and decisions that shaped Hong Kong. Researchers and journalists can also track political parties and individual lawmakers' records closely without ploughing through the data manually.

Sadly, access to government archives is far more limited. The Government Record Service prides itself on holding the city's memory. But it only releases some 17,000 digitised archives on the web, citing the large volume of files, copyrights and privacy protection as constraints. A look at its website reveals an array of interesting presentations, such as those on the Japanese occupation and the old airport at Kai Tak. Imagine how fascinating a showcase it would be if the public could freely navigate through Hong Kong's 170 years of history.

Making government information more technologically accessible is just part of the job. It is far from satisfactory when access is only governed by administrative guidelines. The absence of legislation means archiving and the release of information can be done arbitrarily without legal consequence. If the government is truly committed to openness and transparency, legislation is the way forward.