Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Why big data must be shared to realise Hong Kong’s smart city vision

CommentInsight & Opinion

Christine Loh says data transparency across government departments and access to information from private companies providing public services are needed to create a smart, sustainable city

Experts have warned that Hong Kong could slip behind in the use of big data. The challenge requires data sharing across government departments, so they can compare information and assess correlations for Hong Kong to function better across the board. Being a smart, sustainable city is all about maximising efficiency by saving as well as sharing resources.

Managing a city in the age of the internet of things requires governments to have the relevant data in the first place. In some cases, authorities have the data because essential services, such as electricity, water and transport, are provided by the public sector.

There are cases where all or some of those services are in private hands. Unless there are arrangements whereby private operators are required to provide the data to the authorities, accessing it is not easy.

In Hong Kong, electricity data belongs to private companies as power generation and supply are in private hands. While the electricity companies provide excellent services at a reasonable cost to users, they are not obliged to share all their data with the government. Now that energy saving has become a major part of the city’s climate-change efforts and creating a smart city is another policy objective, not having the data is an obvious hindrance.

The new schemes of control reached last year for the two electricity companies are more data transparent than before but there is room for improvement. Data for individual buildings would enable the government to draft sharper policies and help occupants be more energy efficient.

This contrasts with freshwater supply, which is provided by the Water Supplies Department, where the government has the full range of data to consider what it can do to save water. While it uses technology to identify leaks and get public water pipes fixed quickly, the department only stepped up dealing with private water pipe leaks after a highly critical Ombudsman report in 2015.

Another problem is the inability to raise water tariffs. The government is fully aware Hong Kong’s cheap water encourages wastage but fears legislators will object to any increase. So, the challenge in this case has not been the lack of data for analysis but the lack of will to deal with problems.

Mobility data presents other challenges. While the government is the largest shareholder of the MTR Corporation and can presumably access the data it needs, this is not the case for all other trips. Buses, minibuses, taxis and ferries are all operated by private companies. Small providers, such as minibus owners, may only collect minimal data.

Private companies providing public services say they can’t share data because of privacy issues or because it is commercially privileged information. In the case of water supplies, no one has complained about the government knowing how much water users consume or indeed waste. It is hard for the energy companies to make a case on privacy grounds. As regards whether releasing the data would lead to unfair competition between the two electricity providers, there could be arrangements whereby the full data could be given to the government on a confidential basis, which the government could then release publicly in a form that avoids unfair competition.

Transport data is mostly anonymous, although new services such as Uber don’t want anyone to access their personal ride histories. Even here, the companies can provide data without showing details about riders.

Data is king and it is a major policy issue for the government to work out with the private sector.

Christine Loh is chief development strategist and adjunct professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Division of Environment and Sustainability


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Singapore’s embarrassing metro disruptions offer a salutary lesson for Hong Kong

CommentInsight & Opinion
Bernard Chan says the problems afflicting a major transport network in a city known for its efficiency bring home the fact we must never take the quality of our services for granted

It is not only Singaporeans who generally think their city is better than Hong Kong; many Hong Kong people believe Singapore’s image as a clean, efficient and modern city. They must have been shocked last week to read a Post story about how Singapore’s MRT mass transit rail network has been hit by major delays and breakdowns in recent years.

Obviously, no metro system in the world has a perfect performance record. But, in Singapore, the rail system has developed serious reliability problems.

According to the story, Singapore’s MRT network is somewhat smaller than ours, at 198.6km versus the MTR’s 230.9km. Passenger load is lighter, at some2 millionper day versus 5.6 million here. The Singapore network first opened in the 1980s, roughly a decade after our MTR started – so both are far more modern than the century-old systems of London and New York. However, Singapore’s trains suffer one five-minutes-plus delay every 174,000km, against one every 360,000km in Hong Kong. This omits the less dense West Rail and East Rail lines, which make our numbers look even better. MTR can claim a world-leading 99.9 per cent reliability rate.

Compensation for affected passengers is a hot topic in Singapore, and the media publish advice on being prepared for a delay (go to the toilet before you travel, and make sure your phone is charged). There is even a Wikipedia page listing serious MRT disruptions.

This is embarrassing for Singapore. And it is not simply about image but practicalities: if commuters lose confidence in the trains, they will use cars and taxis more, and the whole transport and environmental situation will get worse.

There has been a significant increase in the number of passengers, reflecting a rise in Singapore’s population. But inevitably, responsibility must come down to management.

I am not writing this to score points for Hong Kong over Singapore. Most of us here would accept that Singapore beats Hong Kong in some ways – such as housing policy outcomes, and some would say in health care, urban planning and other areas.

Many people in Hong Kong will say the MTR’s performance has declined in recent years. The system has definitely become more crowded as passenger numbers have risen. And there are growing complaints about delays. (In fairness to rail operators, essential upgrades to tracks and signals are difficult without causing delays – and both the MRT and MTR face this problem right now.)

However, Hong Kong’s MTR is genuinely an outstanding rail system and a bigger international success than many of us realise. The MTR has been designing, building and operating our metro system from the start (in many cities, responsibilities are divided among different agencies). Over the years, it has acquired huge technical expertise, and it exports it to cities around the world. The MTR is involved in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shenzhen, and in the UK, Sweden and Australia. In fact, it is the biggest rail operator by passenger volume in Sweden. Profits earned outside Hong Kong also bring benefits to MTR shareholders as well as Hong Kong customers.

We expect very high standards, and our media reflect this in their coverage of MTR disruptions. On top of that, our legislators – from both pro-establishment and opposition camps – are very critical any time they feel the MTR has failed in any way.

Although the MTR is publicly listed, the community sees it as a vital public service. It is under constant pressure from society to deliver reliable, quality transport as well as profits.

However, the Singapore experience should be a warning for us. If a previously efficient service can deteriorate in Singapore, it could happen here.

It does not have to be the rail network, or any transport system. Macau’s experience with Typhoon Hato in August was a reminder of how much we rely on specialised infrastructure, and dedicated professionals who plan and operate it. It could be health care, food safety, air traffic control or dozens of other areas.

Our politicians and media watchdogs are right not to take the quality of these services for granted.

Bernard Chan is convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council

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澳門軟硬件朽壞 解放軍救不了


十八世紀俄國女皇凱薩琳大帝(Catherine the Great)的大臣波特金(Potemkin)深通阿諛奉承之道,每次女皇出巡,他都會預先到當地粉飾一番,製造繁榮富庶的假象以討女皇歡心;惟當女皇離開後,這些裝飾的門面就會被拆走,村落回復殘舊破落。西諺就常以「波特金村落」、「波特金經濟」形容金玉其外敗絮其中的物事。今次「天鴿」風災後的澳門就有點「波特金城市」的味道。在無情巨風下,這個原來五光十色、繁華勝過拉斯維加斯的名城恍若鉛華盡洗,變成斷水斷電、垃圾充斥、道路阻塞、居民惶惶不可終日的第三世界小城。










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Eight routes to better typhoon management in Macau, as Pakhar response reveals crisis lessons learnt from Hato

CommentInsight & Opinion
Sonny Lo calls for proactive action to protect Macau against the kind of devastation left by Typhoon Hato, from an independent power supply to reinforced emergency services and better urban planning

Judging by the way the Macau government handled severe tropical storm Pakhar, it seems to have learnt quickly from its errors with Typhoon Hato.

The devastating impact of Hato on Macau was obvious and plunged the administration of Fernando Chui Sai-on into an unprecedented crisis. The deployment of the People’s Liberation Army to help clean up the garbage and debris left by Hato was necessary, to prevent further damage being inflicted by Pakhar, which followed close behind.

In 2012, when invited to train a group of upper-middle-level civil servants, my topic was crisis management. I asked for opinions on how Macau should cope with a crisis like the 2011 tsunami in Japan. The answers were disappointing, including the view that such a crisis was impossible, and that a higher-level emergency unit would tackle it. The only more proactive answer was that residents should be evacuated to higher ground and inner mainland areas. The lack of crisis consciousness was evident.

Judging from the reactions of Macau’s Civil Protection Action Centre, which dealt with Pakhar, the city’s leadership has learnt a bitter lesson from its failure to take effective precautionary measures against Hato. The following are further lessons that can be learnt in the aftermath of Hato and Pakhar.

Firstly, Macau should develop its own electricity supply and be less dependent on Zhuhai. Without an independent power supply and sufficient reserves, any powerful typhoon could well leave life paralysed.

Second, a large wall to the west of Macau could be built to protect from flooding caused by any future typhoon. At the very least, such a protective wall would minimise the serious flooding that often takes place during typhoon season.

Third, the size of Macau’s disciplined forces, including the police and fire services, will have to be enhanced, and stricter controls imposed to prevent unscrupulous taxi drivers charging exorbitant rates during typhoons, as they did during Pakhar.

Fourth, operational procedures of the observatory must be improved. Hato tracked closer to Macau than Hong Kong, and it is curious why the Macau observatory did not trigger typhoon signals eight and 10 much earlier, unlike Hong Kong, where the observatory reacted far more swiftly. Macau must gather meteorological data on typhoons from the Hong Kong and Guangdong weather stations, to be able to make more accurate predictions and initiate the necessary precautionary measures.

Fifth, Macau’s water supply system will have to be strengthened. The lack of water supply, in some areas for days, not only led to public complaints and discontent, but increased the risk of public health crises. Fortunately, the PLA soldiers were mobilised to sterilise the streets piled high with destroyed construction material, garbage, mud and sand.

Sixth, crisis governance embraces public-private partnership, which could be improved. While Macau’s uniformed services tried their best to restore normality, the private sector, including citizens and interest groups, mobilised to clean up garbage on the streets, supply bottled water and share information. The swiftness of the private sector was impressive. If Macau is regarded as a city full of interest groups, they could be brought under the umbrella of crisis management in a more coordinated and mobilised manner in the future.

Seventh, a blemish in Macau’s typhoon management was its curious reaction to deny entry to a few Hong Kong reporters. Open governments can deal with natural disasters more effectively than closed ones. Following the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in mainland China, the government welcomed local and foreign reporters to cover the tragedy.

Eighth, a rethink of urban planning is necessary. In the past two decades, urban development in Macau has focused on megaprojects, without sufficient flood prevention measures. The local drainage system will need a complete overhaul. Underground car parks will have to be avoided and more high-rise buildings dedicated to parking will have to be built.

Proactive typhoon management measurements will see Macau’s legitimacy strengthened rather than weakened, as was seen after Hato hit the city.

Sonny Lo is a professor of politics at HKU SPACE