Open Data in China
I’m SUPER optimistic about open data and civic tech in China.
For the last five years I worked for the City of Houston. Among the projects I worked on, I was part of the city/community team that launched Houston’s open data and open innovation hackathon
As you might have guessed, I now live in Chengdu. I moved here with my wife in December, and I love this city already. The food is awesome (我最喜欢担担面), the people are great, and I love the community. The pandas are definitely awesome too!
This is my research on open data and civic innovation in China.
I wondered when I moved here if I’d be able to continue my previous work on open data and civic innovation initiatives. Would the government be interested? Would it be okay? Some people told me that I shouldn’t even mention open data or civic engagement once we got here. Luckily, there were just as many others who said otherwise, and I’ve learned since moving here that open data and civic engagement are alive and growing.
Note: If you’re not familiar with “open data” or “civic innovation” programs (many in the west aren’t familiar – it’s not mainstream), open data programs are often government or non-profit led initiatives to collect and distribute useful datasets in an accessible web location in machine readable formats. Businesses, citizens, and researchers can use the data to create value added services, applications, and analyses. GPS location services are a well known example of the success of governments opening data to create services and value.
Naturally, open data and civic engagement initiatives are newer in China and come with Chinese characteristics, but it’s not so different from the newness of open data in Houston with its Texas characteristics. As in the west, the idea of connecting citizens and government in order to improve public services is also very real in China. I’m optimistic about open data here because of the people I talk to along with the progress I see from civic technologists and the government.
Not surprisingly, I see many of the same opportunities I saw in the U.S., except with more scale. I also see the problems, yet they are also very familiar. Below are things I’ve seen written or said about open data in China that explain why “China and open data could never get along with one another.” If you know the story of open data in the west, you’ll recognize some themes:
- “The government doesn’t promote or put any real effort into open data”
- “The government data is not trustworthy or accurate”
- “The government doesn’t release information that could make it look bad”
- “The data isn’t available, isn’t in one place, isn’t defined, and isn’t machine readable”
- “The government subject matter experts cannot be found. No one can answer questions”
- “The government doesn’t like the term ‘hackers’, which has a serious negative connotation here”
All these comments resonate with my experience in Houston. I’ve also seen and heard them from many of my peers in government and civic tech circles in the U.S. The west may be further ahead in terms of open data and civic tech, but not that far ahead and the west also has a lot of work to be done still.
So what IS happening in China?
For starters, as Andy Liu commented in the talk, Exploring Open Data in China, maybe China already has open data but they call it something different? Perhaps there IS open data in China, but it’s in a bunch of different places and it’s just not so easy to find.
The Sichuan Province Fact Book is a good example, which has enormous amounts of useful commercial information. It’s not machine readable, and as a book it’s not as accessible, but it’s not hidden. There is more information like this published online too (although most of it is not easy for westerners to understand since it’s in Chinese). Naturally, lots of information in the west is published this way as well.
PLUS, there are data portals in China!
The Chinese National Government, along with Provincial and Municipal governments, are launching data portals. Two national sites I found are the National Bureau of Statistics and Public Information Online. They’re not easy for a westerner to navigate, but it’s a start. There are also city data portals: Beijing Data, Data Shanghai, and Hong Kong’s Open Gov Project are the standouts I found. Once again, not perfect, but a good start.
China’s Smart City Open Data Platform is also very interesting. The government rolled out their Love City Platform to a handful of municipalities, including Qingdao and its ~9 million residents, and are planning implementation in ~30 more cities. That’s a BIG initiative, especially if it can be done successfully across jurisdictions.
Moreover, these activities are supported by conversations I’ve had with Chinese government delegations in the U.S. who were looking to understand open data and how it ties to innovation. So as you can see, I’m pretty bullish on Chinese open data (moreso than OKFN’s Feng Gao who presents good arguments). I see iterative progress that can be built upon, and China’s reasons to support open data are the same powerful arguments that convinced my government colleagues in the U.S. — it goes far beyond transparency.
Community Interest > Data.
Open data alone is not enough however. There must be civic and business interest in the data, and there must be mutual value for the government/non-profit and external parties.
In China there is certainly external interest. As reported by Rebecca Chao in The Hunt for Open Data in China, open data and civic tech was initially led by the community. Community members, businesses and developers are requesting the data they need. When they don’t get it, they’re finding innovative ways to obtain the data, like Cui Anyang scraping JPEG’s to get water quality data (kudos).
I believe open data is also generating goodwill. Bu Shujian learned that available Chinese government data was not necessarily inaccurate or fake. As Chao reported, she was interested in comparing air quality reporting by the Chinese and US Governments, and was skeptical of the data from the Chinese. Interestingly, she found the differences were due to different calculations and the Chinese Government’s use of more data points from across the city (which could mean their reporting was more accurate).
Then there are hackathons too!
The community and value is there, and people are rallying together over weekends on hackathon projects just like in the U.S. At one of my first dinners in China, a friend in Beijing told me about the Cleanweb Hackathon they hosted just months before I arrived. If you’re a coder worried you’d be bored on weekend – have no fear – there are many, many hackathons in China. (Derived from combining words “hack” and “marathon” – “hackathons” are events where software developers, designers and business people come together to develop creative technological solutions and insights for specific problems in a finite amount of time).
Why I’m Interested in Open Data in Chengdu.
When I was in the U.S., I believed in the missions of Code for America and Open Houston because we could engage government with citizens and businesses to make a real difference in terms of services, dollars, and quality of life. People and organizations could be empowered to work together toward building better lives. From the people to the government, I believe open data and civic engagement are also of great value here in China – and many are embracing these opportunities already.
In Chengdu, many benefits await us. People can use open data to both tell the exciting story of our city, as well as drive additional economic investment from the outside into the Sichuan province. With better information available in Chengdu, it will makes good business sense to locate here. Equally important, with open data we support entrepreneurs and new industries. With new sources of easily accessible data, we can create opportunities for new services and new tech companies.
I think great progress is being made in China, and I hope to work with others here to bring open data to Chengdu. In the meantime… I’m off to learn more of a new language and it’s not for programming with open data! 我住在中国。我喜欢学汉语。我爱吃中餐。再见！