Big Data in (not so) little China

September 1, 2016

Movement Strategies supports their clients to operate in China, building in-country Big Data capabilities and supporting the delivery of projects. When Movement Strategies first worked in China, the focus was on Big Infrastructure; it’s now Big Data.

China is the most populous country, recently estimated at 1.38 billion. Data collection has traditionally been a problem for the Chinese, often relying on manual approaches and a focus on the easy to collect, as opposed to the value adding. An example of this is the transport data traditionally collected in Chinese cities, which entailed collecting data about assets, rather than the passengers using the system e.g. bus kilometres operated and average speed of buses. The data was so high level, it was practically worthless for operational or strategic planners.

The 13th Five-Year Plan was launched earlier this year, which sets out the Government’s objectives and plans. The 12th Year-Plan was all about implementing infrastructure projects, encouraging the growth of the service sector and reducing the country’s reliance on the export markets. The term Big Data appears many times in the 13th Year-Plan – there’s a recognition that there’s a huge opportunity in this area, however, there’s no real attempt at capturing what or where the value is.

A ‘Big Data pilot zone’ has been proposed in Guizhou, the provincial capital of Guiyang, one of the least developed provinces in China. What the Government really wants is for everyone to invest in Guizhou by locating their data centres there. It is ideally suited for this; a cool climate, plenty of available land, huge population seeking employment and significant rainfall which can be used to cool the energy hungry facilities. Guizhou hosts the now annual and since 2016 the International Big Data Conference. This was opened by the Premier in May 2016, which is a demonstration of the Government’s intent, to support Guiyang. The conference was dominated by Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (BAT), updating the nation on their plans to further dominate the sector. The exhibition was full of private enterprises demonstrating how they can collect data and store it, preferably in Guizhou.

A key component of the China Big Data strategy is to share Government data sets, creating open data sets, encouraging the private sector to innovate. The Shanghai Government, traditionally the most ‘internationalised’ and forward thinking, has recently launched an open data competition called Shanghai Open Data Apps (SODA). As many Cities and organisations in the west have found out, this is a low cost, low risk and PR rich approach to engaging with the private sector. The organisers are making a number of public data sets available to the competition entrants and are targeting international as well as national participation. The open data sets include crime data, traffic accident data, pollution data and some more obscure data sets including rubbish collection truck location data and restaurant hygiene/inspection data. The focus is on public safety and healthcare, two key priority areas for city Governments across the country.

The key missing piece of the China Big Data strategy is the lack of definition of the value chain, aside from the data storage element. The really interesting area is the analytics space; how can the huge amount of data now being collected in Chinese cities start to be used to help Cities make better decisions, both operationally and strategically. There’s an opportunity here for UK businesses, to influence the roadmap and to deliver some early use cases, establishing an early position for themselves in the market. The SODA competition is an example of the type of activity that will be required by the Government before senior decision makers are able to recognise the opportunity to transition from the current ‘Big Data Centre’ strategy to a real value adding and exciting ‘Big Data’ Strategy.