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Urban Futures

The potential for smart cities to drive Chinese economic and social growth is huge, despite criticisms of their slow responses to Covid-19

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

Since April, many Chinese cities have made returning to work a priority, and pandemic control measures based on big data have played an important role. On April 17, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) held a seminar on digital infrastructure, vowing to speed up 5G technology and its applications in “smart city” projects across the country. 

A string of policies released by the central government sent a clear signal that the coronavirus outbreak has made both the government and enterprises aware of the potential for big data in the handling of public health emergencies. 

According to Chen Dongping, president of the Shenzhen Institute of Smart City and Big Data, smart cities in China were passive and slow to respond to the pandemic. He argued that in early January, city employees nationwide were still filling out forms by hand to track residents and that big data failed to play a crucial role. 

Alibaba Vice President Liu Song told NewsChina that the pandemic was a test for China’s smart cities, with areas such as Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces and Shanghai performing relatively better. 
Sharing Information
Since the Covid-19 outbreak began in January 2020, Li Deren, an expert in remote sensing and photogrammetry - use of photography in surveying and mapping - at Wuhan University, has been observing the city’s responses to the disease. He told our reporter that China locked down Wuhan largely because it was incapable of tracking the growing number of asymptomatic virus carriers. 

Li said that the country’s three main telcos (China Unicom, China Mobile and China Telecom) had location and movement data, but data about patients and virus carriers were in the hands of health commissions and hospitals. 

According to a senior government official responsible for big data in a city in the Yangtze River Delta, many local governments did not distribute their health code apps, which use color codes to rate users’ health status and travel history, until mid-February because mobile carriers refused to share information with local governments. Through MIIT coordination, the companies shared partial data with local governments. 

Since April, major ports of entry like Beijing and Shanghai have prioritized monitoring for coronavirus carriers reentering the country. Qiu Wei, director of the IT Promotion Office of the Shanghai Economy and Information Technology Commission, told NewsChina that customs authorities own their data, as do airline companies. This lack of information sharing mechanisms forced institutions to collect and verify data about airline travelers on their own.  

The pandemic exposed another glaring issue: information sharing between the central and local governments. In May 2017, the State Council, China’s cabinet, ordered the sharing of data between departments, except for classified information. 

But Qiu pointed out that local governments have to apply case by case to access data, and a systematic data sharing mechanism is still not in place.  

“Efficiency is very low,” she said. “If there are no specific standards, each government department will have their own concerns such as accountability over leaked information.” 

City Brain
While information sharing between the central and local governments may be lacking, Zhejiang, Guangdong and Shanghai are developing smart city projects that ease information sharing between governmental departments and agencies. 

Alibaba Group Vice President Liu Song told our reporter that Zhejiang, where the company is headquartered, released its health code app quickly because the province had already set up a big data platform where more than 20 government bureaus could share and access data easily. 

The city of Shenzhen established a complete data sharing mechanism for 74 government departments and 11 districts. Each year, data sharing has become an important factor in evaluating local governments. Nearly 18 million pieces of information are shared on the platform daily. 

Liu added that providing regular people and end-users with access to big data during the pandemic is just as important.  

He argued that a key reason behind the steady improvement in Zhejiang’s pandemic controls is the government’s internet-oriented policies. During the peak of the outbreak, more than 90 percent of public servants in 11 cities and 90 counties could work from their mobile phones. 

When the coronavirus erupted in Wuhan in early January, its direct reporting system for contagious diseases failed to work, sparking public outcry. Chen Dongping said the national public opinion system also failed to respond and governments were not very vigilant about sharing sensitive data that may lead to a public health emergency. 

Chen argued that while smart city systems were in place, they did not play a proper role, adding that policymakers seem to lack awareness of the uses of big data. 

In September 2016, Alibaba launched its “City Brain” project. Implemented in 11 cities worldwide as of late 2019, the project aims to use real-time data collection to optimize city governance by connecting with systems including emergency dispatch, ambulances and traffic light control.  

Le Wenzhong, director of the Longgang District big data center in Shenzhen, told NewsChina that City Brains merely render data visualizations and have a long way to go before they can manage cities directly. He argued that instead, City Brains should serve as command centers for urban governance, service centers to store offline data, and centers of policy making. 

Chen said an urban governance system’s modernity depends on both technology and the people who use it. In the digital age, he added, pandemic controls should focus on precise and differentiated strategies based on big data and 3D mapping, but “some government officials think the more people involved, the better.” 

Challenges Ahead
According to the Chinese Smart Cities Development Report 2020 which was released by Qianzhan Industry Research Institute, a private Chinese research firm, city governments invested about US$22.9 billion in smart city projects in 2019, an increase of 14 percent year-on-year.  

To date, there are 749 pilot cities with smart city projects in development across the country that use advanced information technologies and the Internet of Things to integrate municipal services. 

But over the years, Qiu said she found that local governments lack a clear understanding of what problems big data can solve. “E-governance is not the same as a smart city,” she said. 

Guo Renzhong, dean of the Research Institute for Smart Cities, Shenzhen University, argued that smart cities still lack sustainable top-level design and planning. Each government department operates independently, a shortcoming that became clearer during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The pandemic also exposed weaknesses in emergency management. In its early stages, population flow was monitored mainly through surveillance cameras and verbal accounts from confirmed Covid-19 carriers. It was difficult to identify close contacts in a timely and precise manner. 

“Precise management hinges on precise data,” he said. “Data should be able to pinpoint each residential community, ride-sharing vehicle and individual.” 

Since late February, the central government has pledged to enhance the development of digital infrastructure including 5G, industrial internet, data centers and cloud computing - new areas of growth as the economy adjusts to the pandemic’s impact.  

Ren Zeping, chief economist of real estate developer Evergrande, predicted that smart cities would be a major area for China’s latest round of infrastructure building.  

“Smart cities are the largest application of 5G and AI technologies,” he said. “They will drive hundreds of billions of yuan in investment.”