Three innovative data projects from China

By Medha Basu

Cities in China are using data to discourage jaywalking, run municipalities and verify digital identities.

China is a global laboratory for smart city technology. With fast-growing tech companies, a technocratic government, and a willingness to push the boundaries of what is possible, it is rapidly showcasing the potential of new tools.

These approaches have obvious privacy questions, and push the limits of citizen trust. But they demonstrate how governments can use smart city technologies to manage efficiencies, adapt to migration flows, and nudge citizen behaviour.

Here are three cutting-edge projects:

1. The city brain

Hangzhou, a city of 9 million people, has built a “city brain” which runs the government on a huge amount of data. Using analytics and artificial intelligence, it has helped cut traffic congestion, road accidents and crime, according to China Daily.

It can predict traffic flows 10 minutes in advance with 90% accuracy, it reports, and traffic speeds have increased by 11% as a result in one district. Cameras across the city monitor the traffic conditions at all times. About 600,000 vehicles travel on the city’s highways daily, and the city brain has reduced the time taken by 10% for these travellers, according to Alibaba - the company that built the system.

A similar system is being used in nearby Suzhou city to encourage people to take public transport and reroute buses.

Meanwhile, Xi’an city is using data analytics to track migration from the countryside, including where people are coming from and moving to, what kind of jobs they have, and what services the city needs to provide for them.

2. Shaming jaywalkers

Fujian, Jiangsu, Guangdong, and Shandong are using facial recognition technology to report jaywalkers publicly. Within 20 minutes, their photographs and personal information, including their personal IDs and home addresses, are displayed on public screens at junctions, state-run Xinhua news reported.

In the first month after it was installed in the city of Jinan in Shandong province, 6,000 cases of jaywalking were detected at traffic lights. Jaywalking has reduced from 200 to 20 cases a day at major intersections, a police officer in Jinan told Xinhua.

Facial recognition is also being used in China to predict orders at KFC and prevent toilet paper thefts from public facilities.

3. Digital identity

Chancheng district in southern China is using Blockchain to verify citizens’ identity before they access public services online.

The “intelligent multifunctional identity” uses paired encryption keys to verify identities on their smartphones, without needing to visit any physical offices, according to Coin Desk. The digital identity allows them to access personal insurance certificates, tax payments, pensions and disability allowances through a mobile app, China Daily reported. It can also be used to access services at local hospitals and libraries.

“The data collected through IMI is unalterable and safe when transmitted. The accuracy of the data is secured by mutual verification of separate data collectors,” Lui Donghao, the district’s Party secretary told China Daily.

Meanwhile, Guangzhou has outsourced digital identity verification to WeChat, China’s most popular chat app. Residents use WeChat ID cards as official identification to access public services, and other services like buying tickets and booking hotel rooms. Following the trial in Guangzhou, the central government may expand it to the rest of the country.