Making best use of spatial data to enhance HK's competitiveness

November 08, 2021 08:39
Spatial data refers to any data with reference to a specific geographical location. Image:

The Geospatial Commission of the United Kingdom commissioned a consulting company earlier to undertake a detailed economic study on the size, features and characteristics of the U.K. geospatial or location data market, and how these data can promote the economy. The report is also inspiring to Hong Kong for our emerging geospatial data market.

The report pointed out firstly that their "geospatial data market" has three characteristics:

Firstly, it is an ecosystem rather than a traditional market structure.

Multiple industries use a range of diverse geospatial products and services, therefore, we should not view geospatial activity as taking place “within a single economic market”. Take the information on aggregated user journeys as an example. It can be used by transport authorities to learn the patterns of changing demand on public transport, while private companies can use it for targeting its advertisement. The smartphone applications, like travel planning, recording and photo taking, and health tracking, are embedded with geospatial data and other elements.

Secondly, the real value of geospatial data is difficult to assess.

In 2018, the U.K. Cabinet Office estimated that the private sector’s use of geospatial data can unlock £6 - £11 billion of economic value each year, excluding that from the technology giants: Apple, Google, and Amazon. In fact, geospatial data has been widely applied in many fields such as retail, logistics, dining, and travel, and forms a key part of the commercial activity for a wide range of companies, thus, it is challenging to estimate its full value.

However, it is certain that the related industries have grown steadily: 55% of geospatial companies in the U.K. were established in the past 10 years. According to the data of two thirds of these companies collected by the authority, the number of employees has increased by about 45% annually, from 20,000 in 2009 to 115,000 in 2019.

Lastly, the spill-over value of geospatial data cannot be underestimated.

The spill-over effect value of geospatial data refers to the value other than that captured by direct or indirect creators or users of the data. For example, the government’s improvement in management of the road network reduces carbon emissions, which in turn improves air quality, and slows down global warming, the entire society is benefited as a whole, including people who do not use the road network.

Based on the above three characteristics, the report puts forward recommendations to the authority. I think the one related to policy makers is particularly relevant to us.

Even though geospatial data can produce huge economic and social benefits, the report points out that these data are often not fully utilised or even left unused. This may be due to a lack of knowledge in applying geospatial data by the policy makers and therefore geospatial insights are not utilised in the decision-making process.

In Hong Kong's 2017 Policy Address, opening government data was identified as one of the eight major directions for promoting the development of innovation and technology. From 2019, the number of open datasets has been over 4,670, it has laid a solid foundation for a common spatial data infrastructure (CSDI), a data supermarket to be officially launched next year. However, with the data opened, how about the usage? Have the public and the government made the best use of the data resources? How much value has the open data created?

In fact, the government has already reaped the benefits of open data and information exchange. One of the examples is a common operational picture (COP), an electronic platform launched by the Civil Engineering and Development Department in 2019. The shared geographic information system platform allows various departments to exchange information in real time on accidents related to natural disasters, such as landslides, flooding resulting from rainstorms, seawater inundation, thereby facilitating coordination and division of responsibilities among various departments. Early last year, in response to the raging COVID-19 epidemic, various government bureaux and departments jointly developed an interactive map dashboard, “Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) in Hong Kong” to provide the public with one-stop updated information of the epidemic, which greatly eased the tension of the general public. This Asia's first bilingual epidemic dashboard in both Chinese and English has attracted more than 58 million views as of mid Oct this year. It is another case to demonstrate the success of inter-departmental cooperation and sharing of geospatial information.

Currently, the major livelihood problem in Hong Kong is shortage of housing. CSDI with geospatial data as the core can be used to solve the problems. In the planning of old districts such as the Kowloon East, or the development of new towns like the 30,000-hectare Northern Metropolis, Tung Chung or Lantau Tomorrow, the authority should make good use of CSDI, and not let the value of investments turn into vanity.

I hope that the policy makers can recognize the importance of geospatial data and promote its usage. This will not only speed up the pace of our development towards a smart city, but also enhance Hong Kong’s competitiveness.

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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