The People’s Republic of Open Data?

0 Comments11 December 2014



Open Data lit up the Shanghai skyline for the Fudan University symposium.

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This post originally appeared on the blog of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation

Over the last few years, a growing number of countries have recognized the importance of Open Data – publicly available data from government and other sources that can be used for economic development, new business creation, and improved decision-making. In 2013, the G8 countries agreed on an Open Data Charter that described Open Data as “an untapped resource with huge potential to encourage the building of stronger, more interconnected societies that better meet the needs of our citizens and allow innovation and prosperity to flourish.”

Now interest in Open Data is spreading to China as well. Fudan University in Shanghai recently hosted the country’s first national symposium devoted entirely to Open Data. I was honored to keynote the conference and to give a talk the night before at the University’s “Starry Forum,” where more than a hundred students and faculty stayed for a lively discussion.

The idea of promoting Open Data in China is not an oxymoron.

The idea of promoting Open Data in China might seem like an oxymoron. But there have been recent moves in that direction by some government agencies, notably the National Bureau of Statistics, which now publishes data in “machine-readable” formats that can easily be analyzed. The Open Data Index published by the organization Open Knowledge, which ranks countries by their data policies, puts China at number 34 out of 70 countries, right in the middle of the pack. The Index shows that the Chinese government has made data publicly and freely available in major categories with the notable exceptions of election results and government spending.

China has no official policy promoting Open Data—although some think it may establish one soon—but the Fudan symposium showed that Open Data innovation is already taking root in cities across China, despite the lack of a clear mandate from the central government. Unlike the U.S. and other countries where national governments have taken the lead by establishing clear open data policies, it is citizens, nonprofits, and urban government leaders driving the movement for more data in China.

Citizens, nonprofits, and urban government leaders are driving the movement in China.

The Fudan University symposium, organized by Associate Professor Zheng Lei in the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, was co-sponsored by the World Bank (represented at the symposium by Lead Economist Amparo Ballivian) and Open Data China (represented by Feng Gao, one of that organization’s founders). Bruce Haupt, an Open Data expert from Houston who now lives in Chengdu and presented at the conference, has posted a thorough summary of the day’s presentations. The symposium was held shortly after some of the same presenters spoke on an East West Chat, a new online forum on Open Data that Haupt and others have started. As Bruce Haupt puts it, one of the most interesting things about the presenters, who came from government, academia, and NGOs, was “what they didn’t say. There were no mentions, nor was there an underlying feeling, that open data couldn’t work in China. Quite the opposite, government officials were incredibly supportive and highlighted supportive laws passed in China in the last decade and the initiatives underway.”

Open Data is still a new phenomenon in China, as a timeline published by Open Data China shows.  Between October and December 2012, both Shanghai and Beijing launched their Open Data portals, each with hundreds of datasets. (These portals, or course, are in Chinese, but using Google Translate or a similar service will give non-Chinese speakers a sense of their contents.) At the same time, government official Wang Yang, who is now a vice premier of China, made a speech stressing the importance of making government data publicly available—apparently the first national Chinese leader to do so.

The data published on government websites in Beijing and Shanghai cover many of the same areas as Open Data portals in other parts of the world—data on weather, air and water quality, commerce, transportation, mapping, and so on. But each city is also the site of some significant data experiments done by academics or NGOs. In these two cities, as elsewhere in China, urban development and environmental quality are major concerns for data analysts.

In Beijing and Shanghai, data for urban planning and environmental quality.

In Beijing, data is being used for urban planning at a center called the Urban Data Lab hosted at THUPDI, the Tsinghua Urban Planning and Design Institute. The lab focuses on Beijing’s Xicheng district, the largest part of the old city, and provides demographic, socioeconomic, and mapping data for research analysis. To avoid breaking any government rules on data publication, the lab uses a quasi-open model: It publishes a catalog of its data so that interested parties can come to the lab and use the data there. Current projects range from an analysis of taxi patterns to studying visits to local historic sites. The work is part of a broader movement in China, including work done by an organization called the Urban Data Party, to use data for city planning and development.

In Shanghai, an NGO called Shanghai Qingyue, founded by Randy Liu in 2012, is providing customizable Open Data platforms on air, water, and soil quality, used by universities and many other NGOs. Environmental data in China has limitations. Many who work with it don’t trust its accuracy; data from the central government may not match that from local governments; and historical data on the environment is hard to find. To deal with these issues, Shanghai Qingyue and the NGOs it works with combine several approaches. They use what government data they can; collect additional data about local environmental issues through crowdsourcing; coordinate public requests for additional environmental data; and issue reports asking the government to release more Open Data on key environmental issues. The tech giant Alibaba now supports this work through its foundation.

Other Chinese cities and regions are experimenting with Open Data as well. Qingdao, a major seaport and industrial center, has taken the lead with an innovative website providing data on healthcare, tourism, and family planning issues, among others. And the Nanhai District in Guangdong Province, a leader in open government initiatives, now provides Open Data for government transparency, improved government performance, economic growth, and innovation.

Journalists are playing a key role in pushing for Open Data.

In China, as in the U.S. and elsewhere, journalists have played a key role in finding and using data and pushing for more data openness and availability. The group Data Journalism China has presented data on political leaders, environmental issues, and more. A latter-day Upton Sinclair, the Shanghai-based journalist Wu Heng, has developed a food-safety website staffed by volunteers who collect and publish data on unsafe meats, vegetables, and additives.

Despite all this activity, it’s still early days for Open Data in China. Several of these websites are still struggling to attract users. The data that they provide may not be as granular as analysts would like. And without common standards, city-to-city comparisons are difficult. Perhaps most important, it’s not clear exactly how official Chinese government policy will evolve as Open Data begins to have an impact. Whether the central government will become more or less encouraging of Open Data is hard to predict. For now, however, a number of city governments, journalists, and NGOs are doing what they can to bring more openness and information to the People’s Republic.

- Joel Gurin, founder and editor, Audrey Ariss contributed research to this report.

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