Singapore and UK examples show how open data accelerates innovation

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Dr. Winnie Tang, Honorary Professor, Department of Computer Science, University of Hong Kong

In June this year, Singapore and the United Kingdom took a strategic step in the same direction of innovation and development. These jurisdictions share history and close ties with Hong Kong, but are leading Hong Kong in promoting innovation. Spatial and geolocation data provide key data for the development of a smart city.

Our eternal rival, Singapore

In early June, Singapore’s Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) announced a blueprint for digital government with a five-year plan. The blueprint targets the citizens, businesses and public officers, and lists the goals to be achieved by 2023.

First of all, in terms of daily activities, the citizens will be able to pay bills, sign documents, apply for public housing, as well as buy and sell real estate or car through the government online platform.

Civil servants must fully upgrade their digital competency, 14% or 20,000 of them have to go through training in data science and analytics. Departments have been instructed to adopt artificial intelligence in decision making.

Concurrently, the government will establish an open and easy-to-use information platform or common spatial data infrastructure (CSDI) to provide data in machine readable format or application programming interface (API) for the convenience of application developers, and to facilitate the business sector with better accessibility and utilization of data.

Singapore’s ambition is shown on the measurable success indicators listed in the blueprint. By 2023, at least 75-80% of the citizens and the business community shall be “very satisfied” with the government’s digital services. At the same time, 90-100% of the core data fields have to be available in API format.

While back at home…

Readers familiar with Hong Kong’s progress towards smart city development may envy Singapore. The Smart City Blueprint for Hong Kong, published at the end of 2017, actually recommends a similar public data platform. But it will only be available by 2023, much slower than our neighbours.

The role of a CSDI  has yet to be defined, bringing into question the government’s commitment to providing this important element of open data to support a broader smart city development. Digitalization of some of the government department data has already been carried out. However, opening data in API format (i.e. machine readable format) is yet to be realised. In this regard, Hong Kong is once again surpassed by others!

Some may argue that Singapore is a small country with uniform governance that lends to agility in policy making and execution. But the United Kingdom, with its bigger population, federated government and competing interests, has boldly embraced innovation promoting policies.

Innovative Britannica

For example, in mid-June, the Ordnance Survey, the government map agency with a history of more than 200 years, announced that the location data will be freely available to the public and the business sector. It is expected that the SMEs and startups will benefit the most, and this new policy could boost the UK economy by at least £130 million (approximately HK$1.35 billion) a year.

The new policy is important because almost 80% of the data is related to location – from planning travel routes, finding lost elderly, tracking cargo under delivery, to future autonomous vehicles and 5G service, geospatial data plays a pivotal role. Besides, data on everyday life and businesses, e.g. dining and shopping, will only be meaningful when linked to location information.

SMEs can use these spatial data directly, or they can combine the data with other public data to derive new information and benefit the wider economy. This would help grow the country’s overall digital economy by an estimated £11 billion (approximately HK$113.8 billion) a year.

The information available includes topography layer, building heights, land use, green areas, highway networks, waterways, path network and more. Furthermore, the data is open to the public through APIs. The Ordnance Survey pointed out that “the housing market will be boosted” because people can identify which potential sites have not been developed.

Geospatial information is valuable. Navigant Research estimated that the value of global market for core geographic information in 2016 was about US$1.6 billion (approximately HK$12.5 billion), and it will be doubled to over US$3.2 billion (HK$25 billion) by 2025. Apart from the U.K., many countries also see the potential of geospatial data, including the United States, Canada, Japan, India, and Australia. They set up comprehensive legislation, standards, and specialized department to collect and manage these intangible assets, and share it with the public to optimize the potential of the data.

In Hong Kong, we have many world leading infrastructure projects. In addition to advanced technology, there are dedicated departments: the Hong Kong Observatory for collecting weather data; the Environmental Protection Department for collecting and analysing air pollution data; the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department for electrical installation; the Highways Department for road works. But for geospatial data and location information, we lack a dedicated department to formulate relevant laws and policies for implementation by the relevant bureaux and departments. And if the data can be shared with the public in API format, Hong Kong’s spatial information usage will be enhanced, it could also inject more momentum to the development of our innovation industries!




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