Big Data | Emerging Trends | Smart Cities
January 22, 2018

Why building a ‘city brain’ is key to becoming a world-class Smart City: OPINION

By Dr. Winnie Tang, Honorary Professor, Department of Computer Science, University of Hong Kong

According to the Dutch navigation company TomTom, traffic congestion costs each passenger in Beijing some 47 minutes per day in extra travel time in 2016. This is approximately 179 hours a year on average, equivalent to 22 working days. Road congestion costs the United States some USD 160 billion per year, according to one estimate by Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute a few years ago.

No wonder the first public issue of Hong Kong Smart City Blueprint, published last December, has addressed Smart Mobility as a matter of priority. Its key solution lies in using Big Data to alert drivers and road users and transport management officials, through in-vehicle units to detectors, to collect real-time traffic data.

As mobile-broadband subscriptions are expected to reach 4.3 billion globally by the end of 2017 with over 97% penetration among people in developed countries, no entity can provide the same level of comprehensive insights into commuters’ travel patterns as mobile telecom operators.

Data creates business opportunities

Several countries have tried to make the best use of the treasure trove of data in order to ease traffic congestion and boost the economy, among other uses.

Singapore, for example, has allowed its operators to utilize anonymous customer data to provide analysis service to businesses and government agencies. One of these is about commuting patterns. Also, mapping crowd movements in shopping malls and identifying which entrances or exits visitors use the most, for instance, helps enable retail outlet owners to select the best possible locations for new shops.

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Dubai in United Arab Emirates has collected anonymous cellular data of commuters to help transportation officials to analyze traffic flow during peak hours, in order to formulate measures to reduce traffic congestion.

Hong Kong boasts nearly two mobile phone subscriptions for every person. If handled properly, the user data could also be turned into a treasure trove of information to help power a range of Smart City solutions. Yet, in Hong Kong, customer data, no matter aggregate or anonymous, is not allowed to be used other than necessary for providing the telecom service, according to license agreements.

Open Data Laws

In Japan, a renewed privacy law, effective from mid-2017, enables organizations to process or transfer customer information after data has been “anonymized, pseudonymized”.

The U.S. also allows the use and sharing of “aggregate” customer data with individual identities and characteristics having been removed. Utilizing this wealth of data can promote efficiency and create opportunities to the community at large. It can also help inspire people to create innovate solutions to improve quality of life. New York could be a good example to follow: Its Open Data Law legislated in 2012 mandates all public information “to be made available on a single web portal” by end of 2018.

Data sharing platform is a city brain

At the same time, the China government is planning to set up a nationwide information-sharing platform for e-government and Smart City systems. “Implementing a Big Data strategy to better serve the country’s development and improve people’s lives should be accelerated,” said President Xi Jinping at a key meeting recently.

To catch up with the economic and innovative technology development, Hong Kong could speed up the use and sharing of Big Data with the use of an information-sharing platform, or a common spatial data infrastructure (CSDI).

The CSDI works like a city brain to support better decisions and realize greater efficiency.

It can provide government departments as well as public and private organizations with an infrastructure to share spatial data, support various Smart City applications, and government-to-business applications. The Los Angeles City portal GeoHub is one of the famous examples of CSDI.

For Hong Kong to fast track the implementation of the city brain, a CSDI or other Smart City technologies, an open data sharing platform would greatly hasten the implementation of smart city infrastructures. It would be an important step to developing Hong Kong as a world-class Smart City.

Dr. Winnie Tang, Honorary Professor, Department of Computer Science, University of Hong Kong
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Why building a 'city brain' is key to becoming a world-class Smart City: OPINION

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