Hong Kong government needs to improve access to public sector data to realise smart city ambition, academics say

Scientists using big data for research and app development say public sector data more comprehensive on mainland

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 8:31am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 8:31am

Academics have urged the government to improve access to public sector data if it truly wants to develop Hong Kong into a smart city.

Typical public sector information (PSI) disseminated for free include demographic, socio-economic, geographical, geo-spatial, meteorological and municipal management data. But some scholars claim the public data sets academics can access on the mainland are richer in content than they are in Hong Kong.

“The mainland has more data in some areas, Hong Kong has more in others. My feeling is that on the mainland the data is more comprehensive and the availability is higher,” said Professor Huang Bo of Chinese University’s geography and resource management department, who uses big data for his research.

Based on a statistical model that he developed, Huang recently launched a new mobile app – TouchAir – that allows personal air quality monitoring. 

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The system can estimate six key air pollutants in real time, anywhere in Hong Kong and some mainland cities, with 80 per cent accuracy.

I asked for the data several years ago but they will not entertain me now and therefore my data about the projects is bit outdated
Dr Wilson Lu

The research won him bronze at the recent Hong Kong ICT Award in the category of smart citizens’ data applications.

His model is based on sparse data from the Environmental Protection Department’s 16 air monitoring stations, but is supplemented by information from satellite imagery, aerosol networks, traffic conditions, land use and meteorological data.

Huang claims the app can also predict air quality 24 hours in advance and help users plan travel routes and transport to a certain destination with the lowest possible exposure to pollution.

But further fine-tuning the model would require more raw data such as real-time traffic flow – something currently not available from the government portal.

“Right now we are using imagery from Baidu or Google Maps on road congestion levels. It’s effective to an extent, but what we really need is real-time traffic flow data,” he said.

Currently, the Transport Department runs a dedicated website to broadcast live traffic videos but the quality is often too poor for meaningful big data analysis.

Last week, the government auditor took the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer to task for not doing enough to encourage more government agencies and public and private organisations to open up their data banks to the government PSI portal –

The report noted that more than one-third of the government’s 71 bureaus and departments did not release data to the portal. 

Only eight public and private organisations contributed to the portal and just two of the city’s four major transport operators had released some information to it. 

Dr Wilson Lu Weisheng, associate dean for research and knowledge exchange at the University of Hong Kong’s architecture faculty, said government bodies and organisations were major sources of PSI and big data and without their active contributions the portal would be “hollow”.

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“Our government bureaus and departments and organisations can really do a better job in contributing to the PSI scheme,” he said.

Lu, who uses big data to analyse construction waste management and illegal dumping in the city, said it was extremely difficult to access data that resided only in government agencies’ databanks and what was currently made available to the portal was “meaningless” because it was not up-to-date.

Important pieces of data such as waste disposal records were available from the Civil Engineering and Development Department, for example, but there were still “missing pieces in the jigsaw” that he needed such as project information and lorry information, kept by the Environmental Protection Department, which were still not publicly accessible. 

“I asked for the data several years ago but they will not entertain me now and therefore my data about the projects is bit outdated,” he said.

Lu said for many public organisations, including the UN, World Bank, national statistics bureaus and government agencies around the world, it was an obligation for data to be made available to the public. “That should be a prerequisite to our smart city blueprint,” he said.

The office has said it would develop a more “robust policy” on the opening-up of government data.

One of the initiatives under the government’s Smart City Blueprint, released in December, is to open up more public and private sector data in digital forms to facilitate research and innovation starting with the health, transport and education sectors this year.

Hong Kong was ranked 68th in a global smart city index out of 500 cities last November, trailing far behind Singapore, which placed second, as well as other regional rivals Taipei, Tokyo and Seoul.