As New York shows, open data is the key to smart traffic solutions
Winnie Tang says Hong Kong can learn from the New York experience in addressing privacy and data security concerns, to build trust between the local government and its people as smart cities move towards open public data
In the era of smart cities, improvements are often heavily data driven. That is why data collection and sharing is the key to solving traffic congestion in the Hong Kong government’s smart city blueprint.
Today, while some mobile apps update users with real-time traffic information, it is limited to submissions by subscribers. It is only possible to have a comprehensive picture of the traffic situation with open access to public data and sharing among private and public organisations.
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In New York City, open data is law, rather than just a policy or an executive order as is the case in many other cities. In 2012, the city mandated that “all public data be made available on a single web portal by the end of 2018”.
A city official noted that safeguarding privacy was a major issue: a request for pickup and drop-off locations and times from for-hire vehicles, such as Uber, for analysis and release to the open data portal triggered an outcry.
Data from ride-hailing companies could enable public officials to understand the effect on the transport network – whether a neighbourhood needed more frequent bus services, a new line or a bike-sharing station as well as areas not served by ride-sharing firms – enabling informed decisions to be made on traffic and transit services. The data could also help monitor drivers’ working hours to reduce the risk of fatigue driving.
Privacy concern advocates, however, noted that a public log of a person’s travel movements could be used to negatively target certain groups. Underlying the furore was people’s lack of trust in the government, fuelled by anxiety over the Trump administration’s stance on civil liberties and the city’s struggle to avoid sharing its data with the federal government.
Data security was yet another concern. A flaw in the data anonymisation process, which should avoid identifying individuals, enabled software developers to reidentify all 173 million entries of taxi drivers’ “hack” licence numbers, revealing which driver took each trip. Finally, after a hearing at which citizens engaged with public officials, the pickup and drop-off locations were substituted with a neighbourhood code on the portal.
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The development of New York’s open data policy and its roll-out was a partnership between the agency leadership, city politicians, civic technology leaders, government oversight groups and ordinary citizens. The government continued to engage stakeholders so that the law remained relevant.
The New York experience is a good reference for Hong Kong. All sections of society should keep an open mind and be willing to share their concerns and aspirations on the issue. That’s the best way to move the city forward.
Dr Winnie Tang is an honorary professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Hong Kong