BEIJING — China has been woefully behind its Western counterparts in the use and sharing of big data. A recent proposal by the government's State Council aims to make up lost ground, promoting the collectioin and sharing of data between government departments and a gradual opening up of public data resources to improve social governance, the economy, public services and innovation.
This would expand on efforts begun in 2008 for the government to provide access to more information, which has slowly become more intuitive and applicable for a variety of purposes. Many of China's main industries — electricity and telecommunications, for example — are largely controlled by the state, so their information is also in government hands.
As it stands, not only is the data that's available to the public very limited, but it's also not terribly useful either. Until very recently, for example, air quality index statistics were lacking, and data about traffic and demographics weren't made public. Though national air quality data is finally available, the historical data and current collection methods remain behind the current standards for research needs, which means the information ultimately does little to actually help governments tackle pollution.
The only law regulating government information disclosure was instituted in 2008, but it is aimed primarily at regulatory information. It has very rigid specifications about what kinds of disclosures are required, and there are so many exceptions involving confidentiality that the government can justify failing to release almost anything.
On the technical front, the data that is released is often done so in an unsophisticated, text-based way instead of with a database interface. Even worse, the most crucial information about government operations — including the budget, personnel, state-owned enterprises and real-time monitoring data for sectors — remains unavailable.
The undisclosed data often involves concerns such as government approvals and public oversight, so the authorities are reluctant to make it public. Government departments are so-called "information silos," closed off from materials and statistics from other departments that could be helpful to them.
Information is power, and the government knows that. If transport experts were able to access all the information about traffic volume and car accidents, they'd be able to critique urban planning, new road construction projects, and commercial and residential zoning. The authorities obviously don't want that.
The state council's new proposal includes welcome new access to commercial data, but excludes the disclosure of financial information, apparently for fear that research based on such data can easily lead to public criticism of the government's spending policy.
Since the government's money comes from the taxpayers, data should be made open to the people. But no less important is the need for governmental agencies to break down those silos and share each other's data; only then can experts conduct research based on the most thorough information available, and help pave the way for better government policy, smarter urban planning, and the most efficient investment of public resources.
*Nie Riming is a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law.ã€€ã€€ã€€ã€€