China sitting on data goldmine

Source:Global Times Published: 2016-5-26 23:38:01

Nation should capitalize on vast resources: expert

An interior view of the Big Data center in Guiyang, Southwest China's Guizhou Province Photo: CFP

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

Editor's Note: At the ongoing China Big Data Industry Summit, also known as Big Data Expo 2016, held in Guiyang, Southwest China's Guizhou Province, the Global Times (GT) interviewed Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, co-author of bestseller Big Data, published in 2013. He talked about the potential importance of big data in China. The expo runs from Wednesday to Sunday.

GT: Do you think there is a gap between China and Western countries such as the US in exploring big data?

Schonberger: Absolutely. There is clearly a gap between the US and the rest of the world with respect to big data. To me, though, the important comparison is not between China and the US, but between, say, China and Europe.

Europe is very well developed economically, has a high Internet penetration rate and high literacy rates, so everything is there in order to make big data a success. But in Europe, big data is not a success.

So compared to Europe, for example, China is doing very well. Canada and Australia are also developed countries that have yet to embrace big data. In that context, China is doing much better. 

GT: Some experts have said that all countries are in the early stages of exploring big data. Does China still have big opportunities in this regard?

Schonberger: That's right. I think the US is a little further; not all of the US, mostly the West Coast. Silicon Valley, Seattle and Los Angeles are doing great work. There is a huge opportunity out there, because the currency that defines success or failure is the ability of a country to actually collect the data in the first place before analyzing it.

You can analyze as much as you want but if you don't have the data, you don't have anything to analyze.

So if you look at a small country such as Luxemburg - they could have the best data analysts in the world, but they don't have the scale, they don't have the amount of data needed to be successful.

The beauty of China is scale. If China decides to collect data comprehensively about a particular topic - whether it's electricity consumption, the environment, mobility, or transportation - overnight it will become a leader in the field because of the scale of the data.

GT: But how about the second step: the country's ability to analyze the data?

Schonberger: There, I am quite hopeful because China has very good data analysts, very good statisticians, and many universities educate very good data analysts. I am not worried about the ability to analyze. I am more worried about Chinese companies collecting the data in the first place. If you are a company in China and you have grown 7 percent to 10 percent a year, you are just scrambling to grow and you might not invest enough money in the data collection infrastructure. So what's important for companies is to understand the best big data analysis is useless if you don't have the data.

GT: In China, the government controls 80 percent of the data, and big companies like "BAT" (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) have much of the rest and may not be willing to share it. What is your comment on this?

Schonberger: If we look at the US, some of the very large companies there, the equivalents of BAT like Facebook and Twitter, or Google and Amazon, they are willing to share some of their data with others, not with their direct competitors, but with some startup companies, or firms in other sectors.

It's clear to me that Baidu doesn't want to share with Alibaba, but Baidu may want to share with Haier; or Alibaba may want to share with China Eastern or Air China.

Sharing is not a zero-sum game. I could share with some people but not with others. That's the kind of mentality, I think, that BAT and China need to develop. Not everybody out there is a potential competitor.

With respect to the government, Premier Li Keqiang has been adamant and direct in saying the data in the hands of the government needs to be opened up and made available. I think that is absolutely the right approach. I wish that some Western leaders would be as proactive as he has been. I am sure this will further enhance and improve economic development in China. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Posted in: Economy

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