Big Data should be open to all

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By LI YANG in Shang­hai

Gov­ern­ment data are public prop­erty. They are col­lected from the peo­ple, and should be used to serve the peo­ple. The gov­ern­ment should over­come the ob­sta­cles of depart­ment in­ter­ests, and make it more con­ve­nient for the public to ac­cess the data it col­lects.

Big Data has be­come a popular con­cept in gov­ern­ments’ industrial poli­cies. But the devel­op­ment of the emerg­ing in­dus­try is con­strained by some gov­ern­ment de­part­ments’ mo­nop­oly over data that should be public.

The op­er­a­tors of on­line maps run by In­ter­net search en­gines can­not ac­cess some es­sen­tial public data from the au­thor­i­ties, data which are mainly about public ser­vices in trans­port, traf­fic and med­i­cal care, and bear no re­la­tion to public se­cu­rity or state se­crets.

When the Spring Fes­ti­val hol­i­day ended last Tues­day, sev­eral ma­jor high­ways around big cities like Shang­hai, Bei­jing and Guangzhou were clogged by hun­dreds of thou­sands of ve­hi­cles try­ing to get into the cities, while other branch high­ways were prac­ti­cally empty. Trans­porta­tion au­thor­i­ties were per­fectly aware of the sit­u­a­tion but did not tell driv­ers in a timely man­ner. Or they ac­tu­ally do not have the proper chan­nels to share the in­for­ma­tion with peo­ple stuck on the road.

China had about 650 mil­lion In­ter­net users as of the end of last year. The gov­ern­ment’s strict con­trol over such data di­rectly in­flu­ences the public’s use of on­line maps, which are, in most cases, peo­ple’s first choice.

The gov­ern­ment needs to change its mind­set on public data, which are of in­creas­ing value for not only so­cial gov­er­nance, but also public ser­vice, thanks to the ad­vance­ment and spread of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy.

If the gov­ern­ment can open some of the data to the IT in­dus­tries and the public, the statis­tics will help cre­ate more jobs, im­prove the ef­fi­ciency of so­cial op­er­a­tion, and en­hance pro­duc­tiv­ity.

The stam­pede in Shang­hai on the last night of 2013, which claimed 36 lives, might have been avoided if public se­cu­rity could ad­just its strat­egy ac­cord­ing to the changes in pedes­trian traf­fic and know­ing how crowded the nar­row river­side square was. The gov­ern­ment re­port re­vealed there were nearly 400,000 peo­ple at the scene wait­ing for the ar­rival of a new year but only about 500 po­lice.

The civil­ian use of the global po­si­tion­ing sys­tem (GPS) is a case in point. The data in­volved in the sys­tem be­longed to the US mil­i­tary be­fore the Cold War ended in early 1990s. Af­ter the US opened parts of the data and the sys­tem to the mar­ket and so­ci­ety, the use of the satel­lite data quickly evolved into a new in­dus­try worth tens of bil­lions of dol­lars. GPS and var­i­ous ap­pli­ca­tions of the data re­lated to the sys­tem are ev­ery­where in peo­ple’s daily lives.

Yet, if the gov­ern­ment re­gards the public data as its own prop­erty and keeps tight con­trol over them, it is ac­tu­ally erect­ing ob­sta­cles against good gov­er­nance, low­er­ing the ef­fi­ciency of public op­er­a­tions and im­ped­ing so­cial progress.

The Chi­nese cen­tral gov­ern­ment re­quires lo­cal au­thor­i­ties to make good use of the data in good gov­er­nance. But many lo­cal gov­er­nors still lack the tech­nol­ogy and mar­ket chan­nels to trans­late the data to con­crete benefits for the peo­ple and the in­dus­try. Some de­part­ments even turn data min­ing into a lu­cra­tive busi­ness for them­selves. Peo­ple and busi­nesses have to line up and pay to get the in­for­ma­tion they want.

Many coun­tries pay spe­cial at­ten­tion to the ex­plo­ration of the gov­ern­ment’s data.

The United States, the United King­dom, Mex­ico, In­done­sia, Philip­pines, South Africa, Nor­way, Brazil and some other gov­ern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions jointly founded the Open Gov­ern­ment Part­ner­ship to pro­mote mul­ti­lat­eral ini­tia­tive and seek­ing strong com­mit­ments from par­tic­i­pat­ing gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions to im­prove trans­parency, in­crease civic par­tic­i­pa­tion, fight cor­rup­tion, and har­ness new tech­nolo­gies to make gov­ern­ment more open, ef­fec­tive and accountable.

China should draw lessons from th­ese in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ences and prac­tices, mak­ing its public data more open and user friendly to in­ter­ested peo­ple.

Many gov­ern­ment de­part­ments in China set up their own in­tra-data­base. Some of them are even not will­ing to share the data with each other, be­cause some of the data can lead to power and profit.

Although the cen­tral gov­ern­ment has vowed to cut through the red tape and en­hance gov­ern­ment ef­fi­ciency, it is still not un­usual for a per­son to go to many dif­fer­ent de­part­ments to get some­thing that would not have been so com­pli­cated if the de­part­ments had shared their data with each other.

There should be laws on public data to en­sure that the data serve the public good.

GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

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