Societal issues have begun to emerge in social media around concerns about false-positive predictions and algorithmic biases. Some netizens have raised questions about the leakage of personal data through health QR code monitoring technology. Picture by microgen via 123rf.
Short analysis
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How Covid-19 has boosted smart governance in China

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

Public-private symbiosis 

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. 

Ethical concerns 

Aside from technical challenges like lack of data collection standardization, data integrity, and data quality, wider societal issues have begun to emerge in social media around concerns about false-positive predictions and algorithmic biases

Some netizens have raised questions about the leakage of personal data through health QR code (健康码) monitoring technology. The recent backlash against Hangzhou’s implementation of the “Virtual Health Passport” raised awareness of health discrimination in institutional settings and aroused concerns about data ethics. Tencent Thinktank shares these data privacy concerns, arguing that government health QR code initiatives give data controllers (the government) more power over data processors (the companies). Moreover, the increasing “misinformation crackdown” on data sharing in grassroot online communities is evidence that the central authorities are not only interested in maintaining the fight against Covid-19 but also in nipping perceived online activism in the bud. 

A balancing act 

While many aspects of China’s application of smart government are at odds with core Western values, the EU should nevertheless study China’s data empowerment initiatives – including, for example, the central plan to re-spark digital economies for medium-small enterprises, as well as smart-democracy models such as Taiwan’s digital democracy initiative.  

Learning from China’s strengths in digital economic recovery and innovation capacity and borrowing Digital Taiwan’s open platforms idea for civic technology engagements, EU member states can improve current municipal resource management. For example, establishing a Digital Ministry with the role of collecting proposals, and linking government departments to the general public through digital platforms to jointly discuss new policies, would be a good first step. Allowing grassroot civic-hackers to build data-driven platforms to audit the government’s budget spending is another useful application. As Audrey Tang, the digital minister of Taiwan, says, today’s governments “can serve as a demonstration of new forms of citizen and state co-operation and dialogue for the 21st century”, as well as “experiment with new modes of democracy”. For the EU the biggest challenge is to ensure it does not get left behind in the adoption of new smart government technologies while ensuring that these advances comply with the European legal framework of the General Data Protection Regulation.