Geographic information system crucial to smart-city development - China Daily



Geographic information system crucial to smart-city development

During the past 25 years, information technology has made rapid progress in Hong Kong. For example, the proportion of households with internet access has increased from about 30 percent in 1997 to more than 94 percent last year, while mobile phones have evolved from 2G to 5G. Among the changes, there is one that many are not fully aware of but has an extensive impact on everyday life — digitization of urban planning. In simple terms, it is the transformation of paper maps to digital versions on the computer to enable processing of the increasing volume of data and making informed decisions.

As a result, people's livelihoods have been improved in many aspects, including mobility (the routing and alignment design of the West Rail Line, and the Transport Department's Intelligent Road Network), housing and urban renewal (the Urban Renewal Authority's renewal of old districts, and the location and orientation of public housing estates), and natural-disaster prevention and rescue (the joint operation platform connects multiple departments for flood control and disaster relief, and real-time monitoring of tunnel water levels). These have brought unprecedented benefits to society. Behind these is the use of the geographic information system (GIS), which has also been widely deployed in various areas, from identifying the best route for firetrucks to rush to the scene, to designing routing of refuse-collection vehicles to reduce contact with the public, to assisting the Environmental Protection Department in investigating pollution complaints. It has also been used in the daily release of epidemic information to the public on an interactive map dashboard since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, and the planning of the sewage inspection and enforcement of restriction-testing declaration operations since the fourth wave of the outbreak. The advanced technology applications have also made Hong Kong one of the top smart cities in the world.

The core value of a smart city is people-oriented, promoting people-to-people connections through the application of technologies. The spatial layout of a city is particularly important as it not only affects people's lives and behavior, but also affects social mobility. A comparison of two new towns, Tin Shui Wai and Sha Tin, is an example.

Hong Kong pioneered the use of advanced technologies such as GIS 25 years ago. The city acted as a leader among its Asian peers in promoting the development of the smart city and the use of innovative technology. However, in the past decades, Singapore, South Korea, and some mainland cities have made a great deal of progress with smart cities. Hong Kong, on the contrary, appears to lag behind the prevailing global trends.

If we want to break through geographic boundaries, strengthen integration with the rest of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, and formulate long-term solutions for housing supply, the application of innovative technologies such as GIS is indispensable. GIS is strong in sorting and analyzing huge amounts of data, and its visualizing function makes it easier for us to identify the problems, discover hidden trends and identify solutions.

However, not only government officials, but the general public is also not familiar with the GIS technology. Therefore, I started to promote it to local young people eight years ago. I encouraged them to identify problems and use this software to incorporate social conditions while finding suitable solutions. Since 2015, a program called Map in Learning has allowed all primary and secondary students in Hong Kong to use professional GIS software ArcGIS Online for free. Up to this year, more than 220 schools have participated in the program, and over 1,700 students and teachers have been trained to use the software. Since 2017, the annual Esri Young Scholars Award (Esri Award) has been organized, aiming to encourage university students to analyze their chosen topics and make practical recommendations.

Looking back at the winning works of the Esri Award in the past six years, most of them focus on two areas: optimizing planning to improve economy and living, and tackling various travel problems.

The former includes how to make good use of brownfield sites in the New Territories to develop modern logistics (2022), assessing the potential of Kowloon East to become a commercial center (2019), identifying 19 pieces of government land that are far away from residential areas but with convenient transportation to build 1 million columbarium niches (2020), solving traffic-noise problems in old districts (2017), how public medical services in Sham Shui Po can be made more accessible to the elderly (2018), identifying the districts where public transport and land use are not yet maximized (2021), and more.

The research on mobility is also very relevant. Subjects studied include improving the existing traffic accident black spots by the Transport Department (2020), identifying the lack of interdistrict bus routes in the New Territories West (such as Tuen Mun), connecting industrial and commercial districts (2018), and reviewing road obstacles that make it time-consuming for wheelchair users to travel in Kwun Tong compared with normal pedestrians (2022).

Although the authors are young people, their broad visions, concern for society and innovative thinking are encouraging. I hope to further consolidate these research results and enrich the local GIS talent pool. This is the reason I have founded GIS Academy — a platform to gather and cultivate talents in Hong Kong.

The GIS Academy is a one-stop platform for uplifting young people's problem-solving skills and employability through enhanced geospatial knowledge. Through classroom teaching, seminars and internships, students can deepen their understanding of the GIS advanced technology, providing them a chance to join this emerging industry in the future, thereby driving Hong Kong to enhance its competitiveness and improve our quality of life.

President Xi Jinping pointed out at the assembly celebrating the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the motherland, "Hong Kong will prosper only when its young people thrive." The GIS Academy aims to promote the spatial understanding and the diverse development of local young people, help build a sustainable and smarter Hong Kong, and allow the city to be well prepared for the development of innovative technology in the Greater Bay Area.




Dr. Winnie Tang

Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong