Counting crowds

By Shan Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2016-3-29 18:23:01

Big data may be able to prevent deadly crushes in the future

People check out gadgets at a digital expo in Guiyang, Southwest China's Guizhou Province that was held in May 2015 to display the latest big data technologies. Photo: IC

Baidu's Big Data Lab (BDL) recently revealed that it is developing a system that will give advance warning of large crowds developing in public spaces through aggregating people's queries to its widely-used map app.

Experts say such utilization of big data - which is being advocated by the central government - will improve public safety, but others are worrying about  information security.

Baidu's approach

In a report published on March 22, the BDL said it analyzed the 2014 Shanghai stampede, in which 36 people were killed and 49 injured during New Year's Eve celebrations in the city's riverside Bund area.

According to the report, the appearance of dangerous crowds is hard to predict as the movement of individuals is "random and complex."

However, the BDL approach may be able to warn of the appearance of a crowd up to three hours in advance.

The report says that Baidu map users often use the app for directions, which means that if query data is gathered and analyzed in real time, it is possible to tell which areas large numbers of people are heading toward.

The early-warning system constructed by BDL will work on analyzing this data and measuring potential crowd risks.

"Having more than 70 percent of the market share overall in China, Baidu maps has an innate advantage in tackling this problem," the reports reads.

Big data

According to Baidu, crowd-analysis technology is still being studied, but in future the approach may be shared with local governments and stadium operators, China National Radio reported Saturday.

"If we can protect the privacy of users, big data is definitely helpful for public safety and anti-terrorism work," Fang Xingdong, founder of and cyber-security expert, told the Global Times Monday.

According to Fang, governments can deal with terrorists by monitoring certain key words using big data.

"The traditional methods of protecting public safety, which relied on manpower, were not comprehensive, and were unpredictable," Qin An, a cyber-security expert at the Chinese Institute for Innovation and Development, told the Global Times.

"Nowadays, everyone owns a mobile phone, therefore in the time of big data, given the proper approaches and  the good combination of data, it will likely be successful in providing an early warning," Fang said.

The State Council, China's cabinet, has issued guidelines to boost the development of big data, an official statement said on August 31, 2015.

The action framework for promoting big data, ratified by Premier Li Keqiang, aims to forge a new model for social governance in the coming 5 to 10 years, highlighting accurate management and multi-dimensional cooperation, the Xinhua News Agency reported in September 2015.

Southwest China's Guizhou Province has put been developing its big data industry since 2014, establishing a province-level big data agglomeration system and which aims to contain two million servers.

Problems and solutions

While big data is to play a significant role in protecting public safety, there are still problems yet to be solved.

"Cyber security risks arising from the use of big data have appeared," said Wang Biao, a security expert from, a public third-party platform through which hackers can bring security problems to the attention of website owners.

According to Wang, in the context of the digitalization of government, some public services collect far too detailed and complete information from users, which is usually very convenient for hackers to steal as government systems usually have no powerful defensive measures to secure  information.

 "When we found loopholes, we reported them to the National Computer Network Emergency Response Technology Team/Coordination Center of China immediately, and the bugs are usually fixed after a short time," Wang said, "but we can't guarantee they [the websites] will not make the same mistake again."

"As big data is so new, it is still not clear which is the public area and which is the private one," Qin said.

"Users are sensitive to big data, as it is related to their privacy," Fang said, "An internationally-recognized and clear rule to balance privacy and safety should be introduced, which can also avoid the abuse of big data."

In addition to security concerns, Fang argued that the  divisions between government departments mean it is very difficult to make broad plans regarding the use of big data as they often struggle to cooperate with each other.

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