Open Data in China Will Increase Efficiency, Not Democracy (Yet)

How “open” can or should a non-democratic government make itself? Chinese authorities have begun embracing global trends to make government data more open, but this is the same country that actively censors information. For businesses, these policies on open data in China could create immensely valuable information, but questions remain about whether or how that might happen.

Opening the Gates

How polluted are the waterways? And the air? How much is real estate worth? How are governments investing their budgets? Answering these questions would become substantially easier and more accurate if governments make available all the data they already collect. China took the first step in that direction in September 2011, when the municipal government of Shanghai opened its Internal Data Directory. Following Shanghai’s lead, Beijing opened its Open Data Portal in October 2012 and China’s National Bureau of Statistics created a portal of its own. Now, internet users can tap into these databases to monitor, analyze, and visualize anything from water quality to value of new construction.

Government 2.0

Just like the Web 2.0 movement exponentially increased value created online by treating the internet like a platform, emphasizing user-generated content, and applying robust data analytics, proponents of Government 2.0 (Gov 2.0) advocate that government data can be used in the same way. Currently, many government organizations collect and store data in silos, using that information to create limited and dated analyses. Tim O’Reilly, a leader of both the Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 movements, argues that putting that data online in user-friendly format would allow governments to measure efficiency and open a huge market for public-facing applications. US President Barack Obama has embraced this policy during his entire tenure – as demonstrated by the launch of the US government’s open data portal in 2009 – and signed an executive order in 2013 mandating that all federal government data should be open and machine-readable. On the local level, cities from New York to New Orleans have also been opening up their data, cooperating with each other, and embracing user-generated apps.

Digitizing the Dragon

Considering that Chinese entities like Alibaba have revolutionized Web 2.0, huge potential exists for China to bring tremendous value to Gov 2.0 strategy and applications. Leaders in Chinese government such as Vice Premier Wang Yang have advocated this policy. He embraced Gov 2.0 as Guangdong Committee Secretary in 2012 and has risen to become the third-ranked Vice Premier. If one thinks about the grand scale, planning, and execution of Chinese infrastructure projects, and then applies that to this topic, the potential should become more clear. Not only could the entire government more easily collaborate to find solutions, but the entire Chinese and global population. The Chinese blogosphere already does tremendous work uncovering scandals. Given better tools, those millions of people could help the government learn from its data and improve its policies, demonstrating the lessons of massive-scale online collaboration discussed by tech pioneers like Luis von Ahn.

Where Do We Go From Here?

That involvement raises the initial question in this article: How open can or should China make itself? Businesses and other interested parties will have to follow government policy on access to data. Government organizations might restrict access to certain data or release unreliable data that undermines the value of the entire data population. The government will likely remain risk-averse to sharing data that results in criticism of itself, using a similar policy that has resulted in crackdowns on bloggers. Those questions might be premature, though, because for now, China and interested data scientists are simply focusing on getting anything of value online. Data scientist Clement Renaud describes the current status of Gov2.0 data in China as “too big, with no granularity” and “lots of holes.”  That being said, once data becomes open and machine-readable, change and development can come fast. 

As Gov2.0 policies continue to develop in China and valuable data becomes available, businesses will gain access to some of the world’s largest marketing databases, cities will collaborate on policies that spur economic growth, and citizens will be able to engage and facilitate this value creation. As the Chinese government makes its data open, outsiders should expect an emphasis on efficiency rather than transparency, but that balancing act will prove difficult. It should also be fascinating, as Gov2.0 could combine the impressive skill and capacity of Chinese industries such as infrastructure and e-commerce.

Jevon Gibb
Tulane MBA Candidate, 2016