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Monday, February 25, 2019, 10:58
‘Smart mobility’ needs data-sharing ecosystem
By Oswald Chan
Monday, February 25, 2019, 10:58 By Oswald Chan

Data-enabled smart transportation can reduce traffic jams, commuting time, and carbon-dioxide emissions. Data can leverage Hong Kong’s efficient public transport. The routes and schedules of local and cross-boundary buses can be centralized for public online access. Cars need to find parking places. Oswald Chan investigates HK’s ‘Smart Mobility’ potential.

(INFOGRAPHIC: OSWALD CHAN, DONG KAI, MOK KWOK-CHEONG / CHINA DAILY)

Data-sharing vital

Hong Kong has a population of over 7 million. The number of licensed private cars has grown 44 percent over the last 10 years. “Smart mobility” solutions are required for commuters to navigate the routes, and for car owners to find parking places and evade jams. Technologies are available for real-time public transport information via digital connectivity. However, that requires open sharing of data within an ecosystem of public transportation, including carpark operators. 

We lack legislation for open data or a dedicated department on geospatial data, to develop policies and standards

Winnie Tang, adjunct professor at the Department of Computer Science of the University of Hong Kong

The government needs to play a facilitating role in the information flow for smart mobility optimization. It unveiled the “Smart City Blueprint for Hong Kong” in December 2017, opening up over 650 free datasets of information from over 80 government bureaus and departments. This will help private companies design more useful mobile applications for users, and also provide useful data for technology and policy research.

Cross-boundary travel can be frustrating when passengers cannot reach their destinations smoothly. Currently there are about 14 cross-boundary bus operators in Hong Kong but their schedules and routings are unreliable. Terminals and stops for these cross-boundary bus companies are scattered across different districts of Hong Kong. Several of these transport companies do not have websites for passengers to make online bookings. 

Parking woes

Motorists in Hong Kong are frustrated by the shortage of public carparks during peak hours. We have half a million private cars registered in 2018. The ratio of parking spaces to cars was 1.5:1 in 2006. Ten years later, by 2016, that gap inched closer to 1.1:1. The super-rich and companies have drivers holding vehicles. Other motorists find a convenient spot where they are served tickets for illegal parking. That is not a solution. It just adds to mobility distress.

The government has committed to release vacant parking slots in its 11 car parks in June. But the private parking operators in the city do not share their data, which if aggregated within a central data hub, can help motorists find convenient parking by location. That is a daily challenge for drivers.

CO2 emissions

It is widely believed that diesel-fuel vehicles and harbor traffic congestion are the major contributors to CO2 emissions. However, the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department’s 2016 data show the major source of CO2 emissions were the coal-burning power stations which produce our electricity. They generated 67 percent of the 42 million tons of annual CO2 emitted. Transport contributes the next highest at 18 percent.

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Cross-boundary app

To improve the cross-boundary travel experience, Ken Yung and three partners launched online platform GoByBus at the end of 2017, to consolidate the data on bus terminals, routes, stops and updates for the cross-boundary bus industry. One partner visited all the cross-boundary bus stops in Hong Kong, to list their arrival and departure information. That data is now available to commuters online via the GoByBus application.   

Since October 2018, GoByBus sells tickets for four cross-border bus companies, covering about 30 routes into Guangdong province. The startup hopes to include 100 routes for 14 cross-border bus companies by the end of this year. GoByBus will leverage its big data technology to install GPS (global positioning system) chip devices on cross-border buses for real-time arrival and departure information. “The government must push public transportation service operators to share data because they are granted the monopoly to operate the services. They should disseminate the data because it is good for the public,” Yung told China Daily. “The administration must include data-sharing as criteria to evaluate license renewal for public transport operators.” 

Shortest route app 

Annoyed by traffic congestion, Brian Hui and two partners founded the Pokeguide application, which uses big data analytics and artificial intelligence, to enable users to choose the shortest travel path from origin to destination. The system lists all the public transport mode combinations, with relevant fares. About 280,000 people in Hong Kong and Taiwan have downloaded Pokeguide. In addition to Hong Kong and Taipei, the startup will provide similar information for Macao and Tokyo, in the first half of 2019.

Minibus operators in Hong Kong do not release real-time travel information. Hui welcomes the government’s initiative to provide an arrival information system for green minibuses by early 2022. The administration will fund and develop a data collection system and a mobile app, and install devices on green minibuses for this purpose. When available, Pokeguide will add the real-time data of green minibuses to its hub to provide more travel combinations to users.

“Releasing real-time information of arrival and departure can encourage more people to use public transport. Smart technologies can reduce traffic congestion in such a dense city,” Hui told China Daily. Besides information sharing, Hui urges the government to consider more flexible and innovative public transportation options beyond taxis, buses and trains. 

In the United Kingdom, transportation licenses are granted to app developers with mixed-fleets of travel vans, according to Hui. Covered by appropriate insurance policies, these technology startups provide the shortest travel paths to users by exploiting big data and GPS technology. 

Open data law

Winnie Tang, adjunct professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Computer Science, urges the administration to be proactive in following up its smart city ambitions. “We lack legislation for open data or a dedicated department on geospatial data to develop policies and standards. The United States, Japan, Australia and Canada have developed policies, laws, standards, and departments to manage geospatial data, from collecting, disseminating to sharing with the public.” 

In New York, the Open Data Law was legislated in 2012 and implemented by the end of last year. The law requires data of public transport, private parking lots, as well as ride data of for-hire-vehicles, to be published on a single web portal for public access and use.

Tang suggests the SAR government should crowd-source information from the general public and build a central platform to integrate data from multiple sources, so that information sharing can be effective, efficient and powerful.

Eric Yeung, president of the Smart City Consortium, said the fear of incurring financial responsibility may be a reason why private enterprises are reluctant to share data. “The government is on the right track by announcing its data-sharing programs for public uses. After that, it should provide incentives to public transport and utility companies for data sharing when renewing licenses. When these companies share their data, it creates an ecosystem to encourage more data sharing by other corporations,” said Yeung.

The Global Open Data Index ranks Taiwan 1st, Singapore 17th and HK a poor 24th. That Taiwan tops the world in open data, is astonishing. Singapore is highly respected for its proactive citizen services and information access. Hong Kong is joining the smart city movement belatedly.

Rich mobile data

Sharing of anonymous mobile data to improve mobility is another issue the government needs to tackle, according to Tang. The license conditions of telecom operators in Hong Kong prohibit them from disclosing customer information other than that necessary for telecom services, even if it is aggregate and anonymous. This outdated policy freezes the treasure trove of data that telecom companies hoard. If the city can share mobile phone data after an anonymization process like Singapore, then smart travel value can be tremendously enhanced.

What’s next?

  • Consider legislation for mandatory data-sharing;

  • Build a one-stop central public transport information platform;

  • Incentivize a data-sharing ecosystem for private enterprises;       

  • Enable telecom companies to share anonymous mobile data;

  • Improve connectivity of different transportation modes for users.

Contact the writer at oswald@chinadailyhk.com


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