Big data is watching

Updated: 2015-12-17 09:50

By Sylvia Chang(HK Edition)

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Privacy is dead, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg reportedly said. The unanswered question is whether big data means society will become interconnected like a beehive, or will it open the age of Big Brother? Sylvia Chang reports.

On a Friday evening, Herbert Chia is left wondering how he might worm his way through the traffic nightmare and be able to make it home before 7:30 pm, in the most convenient, cheapest and safest way possible.

He needs to check the number and exact locations of taxi stands near his workplace, the number of people waiting in queue, and the frequency of taxi arrivals. Big data could help him access the information he needs. Even if he misses his target time, other routes to go home could be provided, in an advanced stage of big data analysis.

Chia is the executive president of Hong Kong's Chinese Big Data Society, a newly formed organization led by heavyweights from Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei and others. The society's "mission" is to create a "smart city" through application of big data. Chia is also the head of Data Committee and a vice-president at Alibaba Group, China's leading e-commerce company.

A big data pioneer, Chia says the concerns about his trip home from work point to the core requirements of a smart city. He adds this can be achieved through big data - huge volumes of online data, correlated to reveal critical business insights about trends, business risks and even identifying the causes of failure.

In the future residents of a smart city would be able to start their cars while still lying in bed, use sound to open e-mails, prepare daily itineraries and call an assistant to arrive at work. All of these could be done using a single device. The most convenient route to the office is mapped, and at the same time, if the nearest parking lot is full already, other options are listed as well, according to Louise Wong, who is in charge of advanced analytics and big data of the Greater China region at the Microsoft Corporation.

"You don't really need to engage in physical activities in your environment to do these things," Wong says.

In this data-overwhelmed age, tons of things happen every second on the Internet. Millions of e-mails are sent. Thousands of millions of searches are made on Google alone. There is so much data that it is impossible to manage it by using conventional means. Yet, once processed and correlated, big data can be widely used in industry and commerce. The retail industry uses big data to manage customer relationships; the finance industry uses it to identify risk and fraudulent activity; educators use it to analyze teaching performances and the quality of the learning experience for students; the list could go on and on.

Everybody in

Chia's concerns about traffic could be resolved through analysis of historical data showing local traffic patterns; assessment of the weather conditions; and incidental events within the field of probability.

If data on the traffic flow at a specific time, the weather conditions that may affect the traffic, and the possibility of accidents at specific locations are interconnected and made available in real time, it would help a person arrive at his destination at the required time.

Interconnectedness, Chia emphasizes, was one of his major reasons for creating the Chinese Big Data Society. He has put together a creative assembly of professionals, highly skilled in diverse fields of data analysis, product marketing and funding. The aim is to create a platform for sharing ideas drawn from different industries, and analyze the application potential for data in the shortest possible time.

Chia is acclaimed as a forecaster, a man who sees the future. A plump figure in a loose sports shirt and baggy trousers, Chia brings to mind the Japanese manga cartoon character Doraemon who carries different tools in his pocket to help channel people back to the future.

His tools are based on big data, collected from a number of sources - government data, the private sector, numerous industries, and even postings by the general public.

When analyzing street traffic, historical data on traffic flow may come from companies running digital maps, mobile operators, passengers with mobile phones traveling through traffic, and the Transport Department. Weather-related data may come from the Hong Kong Observatory and information on traffic incidents from the Police Force.

The chain, in Chia's words, has "everybody engaged in big data". "Whether you like it or not, data will enter our lives. Data increases exponentially, instead of in a linear manner," he said.

Wong of Microsoft says it is not necessarily the physical mobile device that allows a person to analyze data. "It's actually about how you interact with different touch points," she says. In the "smart city" she foresees, a sales person in a shopping mall would be able to gauge a customer's preferences by comparing his body language with data compiled on the subject.

Public ownership

Chia says in a smart city where big data is extensively used, the onus is on the government to introduce a set of data-related regulations and make sure the data belongs to the people. "Data has much more to it than just being an innovative issue. It is transforming the society in a huge way."

In the United States, the government and scholars have reached a consensus, he says. They agree that data belongs to the people. In Hong Kong, much government data is not publicly accessible. In the US, by contrast, the government must seek approval for concealing data and give reasons for wanting to do so.

On the flip side, if big data reveals all information to everybody with access to it, it could damage the social fabric of the community. The conversation on big data in the US has expanded into areas of law and regulation in matters related to social equality and racial discrimination, among other social issues.

For example, an advertising company in the US trying to promote products on the basis of gender or racial differences, based on big data revelations, may be violating the law.

Unscrupulous data usage may also lead to social injustice. Chia says a disclosure of forecasts based on big data on an individual - for example, whether or not he was likely to commit a crime - could lead to termination of employment. On the other hand, gathering of data on that person might break the law.

He anticipates a climate of "opened closure" in the future - a balance between application and regulation. "To regulate data without limiting its accessibility," he explains.

Yang Qiang, chair professor and head of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), has joined Chia's team as chairman of the Chinese Big Data Society. At the launch, Yang said his role was to develop big data scientists and connect them with companies, similar to Silicon Valley operating in the backyard of Stanford University. Chia expects Shenzhen to have a similar relationship with Hong Kong.

In October, HKUST launched the city's first master's program on big data technology. The first course will start in September next year, with 60 students selected from more than 1,000 candidates. Students in this program, Yang said, will be required to take internships at technology companies, such as Huawei and Tencent, as a way to earn credits for graduation.

Chia, an initiator of this big data campaign, is brimming with entrepreneurial spirit. "It might be right. It might be wrong. Let's give a try," he says, optimistically.

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Big data is watching

Big data is watching