Open data will help spur innotech development

October 29, 2018 14:01
A view of Canary Wharf skyline in London. To enhance its competitive edge in the global market, the UK has taken bold steps in relation to opening up data to private businesses. Photo: Reuters

Singapore and the UK, both of which have had historical ties with Hong Kong, recently made some strategic moves to boost nationwide innovation through maximizing the value of their geospatial data.

To enhance its competitive edge in the global market, the UK took bold steps to spur innovation. The 227-year-old Ordnance Survey, Britain's official mapping agency, announced in June that geospatial data will be made freely available to citizens and businesses. SMEs and startups are expected to benefit most from the opening-up policy. The scheme is expected to produce 130 million pounds revenue per year for the British economy.

New schemes are crucial to the nation’s future. First, about 80 percent of the data are related to geolocation. Second, geospatial data plays a key role in planning road trip routes, locating missing elderly, tracking cargo shipments, developing autonomous vehicles and deploying 5G mobile services. Moreover, the data on daily life linked with geospatial information can fully respond to citizens’ needs.

As a result, startups and SMEs can use the geospatial data directly from the open database. By merging the geospatial data with other data, they can generate new information to develop more innovative solutions. Given the knock-on effects, the UK government estimated that the value of British digital economy can reach 11 billion pounds per year.

The geospatial data, which contain details of terrain, building heights, land use, green space, as well as networks of highways, water and paths, will be made available for public access via API. Ordnance Survey indicated that real-estate sector can make good use of open geospatial data to identify undeveloped land.

Singapore: Using data for innovation

The Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) of Singapore released in June a 5-year Digital Government Blueprint, which highlights a series of Smart Nation initiatives and lists out objectives that have to be achieved by 2023. Citizens, businesses and civil servants are the main targets of the 5-year plan.

In the future, citizens can pay bills, sign digital documents, apply for public housing, and buy and sell properties and cars on the e-government platform. The project also aims to increase ICT competencies of Singapore’s civil servants. Twenty thousand public service officers will undergo training in data science and data analytics. All the ministries are also required to start using artificial intelligence for formulating policy.

The government also planned to establish a user-friendly open information sharing platform or common spatial data infrastructure (CSDI) to facilitate the development of innovative industries. All the data will be available in application programming interface (APl) format to meet the requirements for developing programs. It would be more convenient for businesses to extract and use the “new oil” to develop innovative solutions.

Singapore unveiled a smart nation ambition in its key performance indicators. By 2023, the percentage of citizens and businesses "very satisfied" with public digital services should reach 75-80 percent, while 90-100 percent core data fields should be released in API readable format.

These intangible assets could be of a very high value. The UK and Singapore are not the only nations that foresee the potential of geospatial data. USA, Canada, Japan, India and Australia have  set up regulatory frameworks, standards and dedicated departments for collection and management of the intangible assets. Open databases have been set up in these countries to unleash the big data potential.

From their experience, it can be concluded that successful implementation of open data policies bears no relationship to the size of land area or the population served.

What Hong Kong needs to do

As for Hong Kong, in addition to the superior infrastructure and cutting-edge technologies, the city is in need of a dedicated department to coordinate geospatial data, and push regulatory frameworks and policies to implement geospatial data infrastructure. Also, work needs to be done to operate an open database to distribute data in API format. If the government takes the right initiatives, citizens will be able to obtain high quality spatial data, and the innovation and technology sector will have much more room to develop more innovative solutions.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong