Covid-19 has prompted a significant scale-up in the development of smart governance technology in Mainland China. Within only a few months of the outbreak, the great Covid-19 Hackathon, a mix of public and private initiatives to curb the pandemic, is accelerating Beijing’s long-term plans in social governance. Big data integration pilot zones, smart city projects, and the social credit system are among the schemes that cover every aspect of domestic economy, society, and local governance. Beijing’s apparent aim is to optimize local government’s resource allocation, but first it faces a number of challenges, both technical and societal.
Imagine you are setting off to visit a friend across town and the local authorities can already predict where you are going, when you are going to get there, and who you are going to meet. This is the ambition of the technologists and technocrats of the near future. Predictive algorithms coupled with big data gathered from telecommunication operators, internet companies, and transportation authorities will soon be able to predict the pathways of a citizen’s commute and the point of social contact, according to a report from CAICT – a research institute at China’s Ministry of Information and Industrial Technology (MIIT).
As President Xi encouraged the Chinese people to harness the power of big data, AI and cloud computing in the fight against the virus on February 14, tech companies, local city governments and grassroots civic-hackers on Github, an online community of computer programmers, came together to solve the biggest health crisis in China’s modern history. Information about hospitals, hotels and factories was collected and shared among local authorities to improve the way essential public resources were allocated and optimize local supply chains. Out of 200 Covid-19 tech projects initiated in this period, a majority was focused on applications for improving the efficiency of local government management services, according to a CAICT survey.
Among the private companies that came to the aid of local governments was the Huaneng Shanghai E-commerce Company. It helped the city of Wuhan with big data supply chain and logistics platforms to optimize the scheduling and delivery of construction materials needed to rapidly build new hospitals. As part of the emergency response, smart supply chain and logistics systems were used to monitor and optimize the supply and distribution of livelihood goods and medical resources. In Guangdong province’s Huangpu District, the local authority teamed up with Alibaba Cloud to track the health status of more than 6,000 laid-off workers and allocate them to new jobs. Meanwhile Jingdong (京东)’s social management system – a cloud epidemic communication product with data dashboards regarding people, property, materials, and organizations – provided municipal resource managers with the ability to “achieve the data fusion of various government departments, enterprises, and events management” with insights that could potentially inform local authorities on the allocation of social benefits packages and wealth redistribution for at-risk populations.
What has become clear from this Covid-19 Hackathon is that the value of these smart governance products is in their modularization, meaning the efficient transferability of the AI technologies to other similar use cases scaled across government functions. What this involves is the exchange of massive datasets between government and big tech firms. This creates a symbiotic relationship: the tech firms need the data provided by government to stay competitive in their respective markets (the more data, the more intelligent the AI, and the better the predictions), and the government needs the intelligence from the tech services to stay in power and maintain order.