Hong Kong air pollution

Hong Kong authorities' deafening silence on noise pollution

While New York has a detailed map of areas most affected by noise, Hong Kong authorities seem reluctant to release data on complaints

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 3:29pm

When it comes to noise, Hong Kong could give bedlam a run for its money. From ear-pounding pile-driver punishment and the impatient hum of snarled-up traffic to barking dogs and excitable late-night neighbours, the cheek-by-jowl city we call home just loves to make a racket.

And while air pollution rightly grabs headlines, the problems caused by noise pollution often fall on deaf ears.

That's certainly the case when it comes to the authorities charged with monitoring and collating the thousands of noise complaints stressed residents make every year.

When New York produced a map of that city's noise topography, so detailed was the information it was lauded as a work of art. Behind it was a former Polytechnic University student and designer, Karl Sluis.

But attempts to make a similarly detailed map of Hong Kong have been met with the sound of official silence.

"There are no comprehensive noise pollution surveys or studies in Hong Kong," said Yip Yan-yan, chief operating officer of think tank Civic Exchange. "Appropriate and effective mitigations could be well in place only if factual situations of noise impact to the public are available."

Most noise complaints are dealt with by the Environmental Protection Department and the police. When the Sunday Morning Post requested specific information on the dates, locations and nature of recent complaints, a department spokeswoman said only district-level information could be provided.

At the same time, a police duty officer said the number of noise complaints received by the force would have to be individually tallied by district commanders and they were "too busy" to provide precise information; only numbers for five central districts were provided. What data the department and police did release shows that noise pollution remains a persistent problem. Last year, they received 15,692 complaints in the central districts, including Central, Wan Chai, Yau Tsim Mong and Sham Shui Po.

The department "does register and maintain precise location data of premises being complained [about]", said the spokeswoman, but it would not release it to the public because it "does not provide much useful information on the actual noise climate or the nature of noise problems in individual areas".

By contrast, New York releases all noise complaint data on its Open Data website, and that's how how Sluis was able to make his map. "What got me excited was the combination of geolocation data, time data, and, particularly, the metadata on what type of complaint had been filed," he said. His map showed a striking disparity between rich and poor neighbourhoods, suggesting authorities deal with noise more seriously in rich parts of town.

Without open-source data, there is no way to see if a similar situation exists in Hong Kong. "There's potential for the government to be embarrassed - it's like having an auditor, and that's why they drag their feet on releasing information," said Darcy Wade Christ, a researcher for the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre's Open Government Data initiative, which is pushing for more transparency in the government.

Last year, the department spent about HK$100 million fighting noise pollution. It regulates noise from construction work and commercial and industrial activities; neighbourhood noise is dealt with by the police.

In a submission this week to the Legco pollution panel, Civic Exchange says the government is not doing enough to stop noise pollution at source.