Big Data should be open to all
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.