18 September 2018
Inaccurate data has prevented economic planners from recommending effective policy solutions. Photo: Bloomberg
Inaccurate data has prevented economic planners from recommending effective policy solutions. Photo: Bloomberg

POLICY WATCH: Big data puts big picture into sharper focus

Through the years, many China-focused economists and analysts have raised doubts about the accuracy of the country’s economic indicators.

They have learned to take with a grain of salt such key statistics as gross domestic product and consumer price index, knowing that the figures have been collated from submissions of local authorities who are a bit too eager to project their respective jurisdictions in the best possible light.

Such tendency to highlight accomplishments and downplay inadequacies has resulted in bloated or deflated figures — depending on what serves the officials’ interests. Not only has it contributed to muddling the overall economic picture but it has also prevented economic planners from accurately analyzing the situation and recommending effective policy solutions.

It is against this backdrop that the government has decided to team up with local high-tech enterprises to deploy big data technology in collecting, processing and analyzing important statistics.

On Nov. 19, the National Bureau of Statistics signed a strategic partnership agreement with 11 companies specializing in big data technology, including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., China Unicom Ltd. (00762.HK), Inc. (WUBA.US), Nanjing Skytech Co. Ltd. and Baidu Inc. (BIDU.US). (Interestingly, Tencent Holdings Ltd. (00700.HK), the country’s largest internet company that provides online games and instant messaging services, was not included in the pact.)

Big data — or the processing of huge amounts of statistics from various sources to discern useful, if coherent, patterns — could help in giving a clearer and more accurate picture of the country’s economic situation.

In fact, the era of producing, using and sharing complex statistics to help the government in looking into thorny issues and coming up with appropriate solutions is at hand.

Big data will become the foundation of government management, social management and macroeconomic control,” said statistics bureau chief Ma Jiantang {馬建堂}.

Given this emerging trend, frontline technology firms are in the best position to help the government in handling big data.

E-commerce giant Alibaba, for example, can provide real-time data on online shopping transactions that could reflect the level of domestic consumption in specific cities and provinces. Search engine operator Baidu, by analyzing internet traffic, could discern major issues and concerns, providing the government with a reliable barometer of public sentiment and helping officials respond promptly and more effectively.

Under the partnership, the statistics bureau and the 11 technology companies will jointly develop a set of standards on how to use big data in statistics.

The agreement is expected to help increase the bureau’s efficiency in processing data and coming up with high-quality statistics, such as consumer price index, one of the key inflation gauges, according to a statement posted on the bureau’s website.

Meanwhile, business enterprises are also interested in using big data to aid them in their operations. “Data mining has become an important driver for business innovation,” said Tong Tengfei, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Economy and Information Technology.

In China, big data-related services will reach US$2.38 billion by 2017, with a compound average growth rate of 34 percent in the next five years, according to market research firm IDC. In this emerging industry, the handling of data from social media is expected to be a major focus.

Tong said large amounts of data are controlled or monopolized by the government, and as such, big data as an industry cannot hope to develop without the government’s support.

The government’s partnership with high-tech firms can provide the impetus for the sector’s growth.

– Contact the reporter at [email protected]



EJ Insight writer

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe