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How Data Sharing Can Improve Transport in Hong Kong

From bus fares to itineraries, most parts of a passenger’s journey can be measured and tracked to improve time, distance, and price efficiencies. For the transport sector, as with most others, the generation and use of data is becoming a principle service in its own right, a source of competitive advantage, and a growing source of revenue. In Hong Kong, for example, a mobile app of a bus company is earning over HKD1 million a month in advertising revenues.

Leveraging transport data
Data used for mobile applications can alert users of train delays, notify of additional buses being rolled out, or provide alternative routes. These personalised services are collectively known as Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS), a fast-growing sector shaped and enriched by the different types of data made available.

Transport data can also guide the complex decision-making that defines modern smart cities. Combined with artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics can discern patterns, make predictions, and assist in everything from urban planning to green policy development. For example, it has only recently become evident that around 40% of the four major air pollutants found in Hong Kong originate not from road transport or from industrial activity in mainland China, but from marine turbines using lower-grade fuel in the unregulated waters of the South China Sea.

So far, private-sector innovation is driving the sector – partly because of the wide range of commercial opportunities it represents, and partly because it is harder for the public sector to get a hold of the right kind of data and the right kind of talent. Governments can collect data themselves, but it is often rather static data derived from surveys, rather than dynamic real-time data that can be gleaned from smartphone usage or roadside sensors.

In most cases, public authorities depend on third-party operators to collect and obtain actionable data. Such operators tend to be private-sector firms, which means they will reluctantly share their data – at least until they find a way to profit from shared data. This has been the case in Hong Kong, and this is where current practices need to be re-examined in light of the greater socio-economic benefits that Smart City initiatives can deliver if they are allowed to grow and mature.

Improving data-sharing frameworks
A major obstacle is the fact that sharing data is not as straightforward as it may seem. In addition to cybersecurity concerns (the safety of data), there are integrity concerns (the non-repudiation of payments) and privacy issues (who owns the data, who has the right to collect it, and who has the right to use it). To make matters more complicated, there is the challenge of properly categorising data: there is personal data, which includes private information such as employment history, health records, tax forms; and there is restricted data, which includes sensitive information such as a company’s operations or a country’s strategy.

In Hong Kong, the Policy Innovation and Co-ordination Office (PICO) has formally recognised the strategic importance of data for Smart City initiatives, but Government has nevertheless taken a bottom-up approach that lets the private sector decide what type of data to share, if any at all. Hong Kong’s terrestrial transport companies are mostly private, which is why they have been reluctant to share their data. There is also a first-mover problem; who shares first? In many ways, Hong Kong has a legacy problem, as the government’s hands-off approach of yesteryear is no longer fit for the digital age.

Inspired by Singapore’s government-driven approach to building a ‘Smart Nation’, Hong Kong has started re-visiting its strategy. A Smart City Blueprint was published in 2017 to underpin the HK2030+ strategic plan for the city and its environs. The role of the private sector remains prominent, but with additional government support and initiative. However, the transport sector, in particular the two main bus operators, have been urged by the Chief Executive to share more data.

Taking the first steps
There is something of a vicious circle as industry looks to government to take the lead, and government calls upon the private sector to initiate changes. For this reason, the Technology Research Project (TRP) at the University of Hong Kong has proposed a programme of public policy research into inter-modal transport sharing models. The proposal, which awaits approval by the Innovation & Technology Fund (ITF), aims to explore data-sharing models globally to understand their structure, assess their success, and determine how applicable they may be to Hong Kong. The research will last six months, with a month of preparation at the start and a month of consultations after the final report.

At this stage, it is unknown which business models, nor which technological architectures, will become most relevant to Hong Kong. Sharing international experience will certainly open the way to a more comprehensive understanding of the benefits that can accrue. Just as important is the need to balance the way data strengthens and supports Smart City initiatives with the ability to use data to better inform citizen-driven policies. Ultimately, data-sharing is a means to an end – making cities more liveable – and should always be judged in that light.

Photo by John-Paul Henry

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