Hong Kong needs a data revolution at the very top

Winnie Tang calls on the government to build solid infrastructure for spatial data, so citizens and companies can use it to devise innovative solutions for urban living

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 November, 2016, 4:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 November, 2016, 9:48pm

About two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050, according to the UN. The increase in demand for services in these areas will pose great challenges to governments. To meet them, we need smart and sustainable urban planning, and strategies that ensure prosperity is shared among all social classes.

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How can we put these ideas into practice? How can we foster innovative ecosystems and citizen engagement to deliver urban services? These are the key topics to be discussed at an upcoming World Bank conference on smart cities, where I will speak about Hong Kong.

Open data is a crucial part of the answer. By “data”, I’m referring to spatial data or geospatial data, information about the geographic location of features, that can be mapped. It can be accessed, visualised, manipulated and analysed through the use of software.

It may seem technical but if you bring it back to basics, you will find that it already plays a key part in our daily life. It is also a key element for driving the growth of a smart city. Many countries and cities recognise spatial data as an important digital asset. The US, Singapore and some European countries have projects that integrate spatial data and make these available to the public.

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Last year, the Los Angeles city council launched GeoHub, an online portal providing location-based data. It contains more than 500 categories of real-time (or near real-time) information, such as public roadworks and traffic black spots, and allows anyone to access live, continuously updated data directly from the city’s database, rather than as a static download. The data transparency empowers citizens to take part in the city’s governance. It also features Street Wize, a web mapping app that allows residents to track road-opening permits and construction activities around the city, which will help them to plan their routes.

A holistic approach would encourage more public engagement, which is essential in building a smart city

Here in Hong Kong, different government agencies like the lands, highways, civil engineering and development departments have dedicated spatial data. However, they rarely share such information with each other or make it available to the public. That’s why the GeoInfo Map developed by the Lands Department is so encouraging, as it is open for public use and contains over 180 kinds of spatial data provided by 26 government departments. The Planning Department has also launched a Statutory Planning Portal, which allows citizens to search for planning and zoning information. It has recorded over 16 million page views in a single month.

In fact, the government has offered over 6,000 data sets in 18 categories through the data.gov.hk website since March last year. The local technology sector, however, has criticised the government for providing most of the public information in Excel, CSV or PDF format instead of the API format which can be directly used in program or app development. This forms an obstacle for public use. Furthermore, the information is not updated as frequently as it could be. To achieve genuinely open data, the government needs to improve these areas.

Hong Kong cannot become a smart city without its people’s buy-in

A recent advisory paper by the Smart City Consortium suggests that all government services should be “digital by default”, with open data and availability of APIs as the basic standard. To achieve these goals, the government should take the lead in the development of spatial data infrastructure – by collaborating with various departments and the private sector. A high-level government body is therefore required to coordinate the major tasks, including the standardisation of data and setting up a framework to develop guidelines.

In addition, the government should review the relevant regulations for the development of technology and data usage, particularly on the protection of privacy and personal information. This would ensure flexibility to accommodate technological changes and help to overcome potential risks.

A holistic approach would encourage more public engagement, which is essential in building a smart city. After all, such development should be led by citizens, not technology or the government.

Dr Winnie Tang is chairman of the Smart City Consortium Steering Committee