Navigation company TomTom says traffic congestion costs each Hong Kong passenger more than half an hour a day — 145 hours a year on average. No wonder the first issue the latest Hong Kong Smart City Blueprint addressed was Smart Mobility. The government has initiated a number of ways, from in-vehicle units to traffic detectors, to collect real-time traffic data but it is certain that aggregate location information from mobile telecom operators can provide comprehensive insights into commuters’ travel patterns. Few organizations possess more data than the telecom companies as the number of mobile-phone subscriptions in Hong Kong has long exceeded population size — by about 2.4:1 — based on the latest official statistics.
By “aggregate information”, it means “collective data that relates to a group or category of services or customers, from which individual customer identities and characteristics have been removed”, according to the definition of a United States legislation.
Utilizing these data can promote efficiency and create opportunities for the community at large, inspire people to innovate solutions not limited to traffic issues but also those that improve our quality of life and boost the economy. Research agency IDC says the big-data and business analytics market would grow from $150 billion last year to more than $210 billion worldwide by 2020. The prerequisite is to require opening and sharing of public information, as New York City does, mandating “all public data be made available on a single web portal”.
In Hong Kong, we have yet to legislate on open data. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has committed to making more data available to the public but license conditions of telecom companies, for example, prohibit operators from disclosing customer information other than that necessary for providing telecom service, even if the data is aggregate and anonymous. The outdated policy undermines the treasure trove of data that telecom companies sit on.
Outside Hong Kong, many places have allowed the use and sharing of these aggregate data. The US is one, Japan is another.
In order to “facilitate and legitimize business analytics and positive use of big data”, Japan has renewed its privacy law effective from the middle of last year to introduce a concept of “anonymously processed information”. The new change in privacy law lets organizations process or transfer customer information after data being “anonymized, pseudonymized”. In other words, if customer identity details — including names, biometric information and government issued numbers — are all removed then no consent is required no matter the data is aggregate or not. Smart Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has also collected anonymous cellular data of commuters to help transport officials analyze traffic flow during peak hours, in order to formulate measures to reduce traffic congestion.
Singapore has tried to make the best use of anonymous customer data. Its three telecom companies — Singtel, Starhub and M1 — provide data analytics to businesses as well as government agencies. One of these is commuting patterns. This enables selecting new locations for retail outlets, differentiating rental rates and tenant mix for mall operators based on anonymously mapping crowd movements in shopping malls, identifying the peak and off-peak period of the day and which entrances or exits visitors mostly use. Healthcare service providers are using millions of medical transactions at public hospitals to flag any concentration of cases of a particular chronic condition such as diabetes in terms of geographical areas. At the same time, the public housing agency improves its service after analyzing more than 90,000 emails and found out customer concerns on certain issues.
While allowing and encouraging innovation, it is equally important to strike a proper balance between 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.
The British authority, for example, revised the Data Protection Bill — which includes tougher rules on consent, rights to access, rights to move and rights to delete data — last September. In May this year, “the most important change in data privacy regulation in 20 years” for the European Union General Data Protection Regulation will take effect. Both of them include the “right to be forgotten” that means “individuals will be able to ask for their personal data to be erased” from organizations including social media. This offers a peace of mind to citizens at large.
As pointed out by Chan Chun Sing, a member of Singapore’s Committee on the Future Economy, big data is a valuable economic resource that lets authorities “overcome its intrinsic limitations on land, human capital and natural resources”. In the era of Smart City 3.0, which is to embrace citizens to collaboratively build our future smart city, I truly hope that the Hong Kong government would hasten implementation of opening and sharing data to build a world-class smart city.
The author is honorary professor at the Department of Computer Science, the University of Hong Kong.