Open data can inspire innovations

January 18, 2018 12:12
New York’s Open Data Law, legislated in 2012, mandates all public information “to be made available on a single web portal” by end of 2018. Photo:

The world is experiencing a data-driven revolution. Data has been generated from every move you make – about 1.7 megabytes of new information will be created every second by each human being on the earth by 2020 while data storage worldwide is expected to grow at rocket speed to 40,000 exabytes, from 15,000 exabytes in 2016. And thanks to the Internet of things, data is transmitted by a whole range of channels and appliances, including connected cars, smart watches, sensors, and surveillance cameras across cities.

Investors value companies with mountains of data because of the unlimited market potentials. One well-known example is Tesla which has generated 1.3 billion miles-worth of driving data. Its market capitalization has surpassed BMW, the German luxury automaker, and made headlines in the financial market last year. Uber, a ride-hailing service provider that owns huge amounts of driver and passenger trip data, is estimated to be worth over US$70 billion.

A powerful tool

Today, big data has grown to become a powerful tool for the world's prosperous economies. It drives customer demand, stimulates innovation, revolutionizes business models, and creates new jobs. Retailers who leverage the full power of big data could increase their operating margins by as much as 60 percent. It also helps develop new products to meet the demand and manage supply chains better. For instance, e-commerce giant Alibaba is using the large pool of data collected from its 500 million customers to better match products with potential buyers.

Utilizing data can promote efficiency and create opportunities for the community at large, inspire people to offer innovative solutions to improve the quality of life. New York is a good example to follow. Its Open Data Law, legislated in 2012, mandates all public information “to be made available on a single web portal” by the end of 2018.

Innovation vs privacy

In Hong Kong, we have yet to enact open data legislation. Though Chief Executive Carrie Lam has committed to make more data available to the public, the license conditions of telecommunications companies (telcos), for example, prohibit the operators disclosing customer information other than necessary for providing telecom service, no matter if it is aggregate and anonymous. The outdated policy undermines the treasure trove of data that telcos sit on.

While it is necessary to allow and encourage innovation, it is equally important to strike a proper balance between the development of big data applications and the right of individuals to privacy. This is the reason why many governments have tightened people’s privacy protection.

Overseas examples

In September last year, Britain revised the Data Protection Act to provide tougher rules on consent, access, as well as the right to move and delete data.

The General Data Protection Regulation, "the most important change in data privacy regulation in 20 years” for the European Union, will take effect in May this year.

Both legislations include the “right to be forgotten”, which means “individuals will be able to ask for their personal data to be erased” from organizations including social media. This offers peace of mind to people who value their privacy.

As pointed out by Minister Chan Chun Sing, a member of Singapore’s Committee on the Future Economy, big data is a valuable economic resource that allows the country to “overcome its intrinsic limitations on land, human capital and natural resources”.

I truly hope that the government will do its utmost to hasten the opening and sharing of data to build Hong Kong into a world-class smart city.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong