Why we need to rethink open data in Asia during Covid-19


In Asia, the pandemic has accelerated efforts to keep citizens informed through prompt and extensive data sharing. However, this new openness has also led to concerns regarding transparency, data protection, and democratic participation.

Teaser Image Caption
Venn diagram showing various concepts regarding data.

Asia, home to nearly a quarter of the global population, is responsible for only 2 percent of Covid-19 cases, according to the World Health Organisation. The West Pacific region – which covers most Asian countries with the exceptions of India, Indonesia, and Thailand –  and Oceania have recorded the fewest cases worldwide. In other words, Asia has contained the pandemic better than other regions.

Some of this success can be attributed to the decision by Asian authorities to promptly and extensively share data to keep citizens informed. Alerting residents to the situation of their neighbourhood during the pandemic has motivated them to take precautions such as social distancing, wearing masks, and constantly sanitising their hands. In other cases, data-sharing efforts have even helped governments maintain supplies of personal protective equipment. For example, the government of Taiwan released real-time data of the mask stockpiles of more than 6000 pharmacies. Using such data, civil society organisations and tech companies developed more than 100 applications to help Taiwanese people locate nearby pharmacies with masks available for sale.

More than ever, Asian countries are embracing the open data movement, which was first developed in the West with the goal of making government data freely available to anyone via the internet. However, privacy issues have also emerged, especially when more invasive technologies such as contact tracing and health codes are involved. It is necessary to question whether the original values of open data are still intact when these ideas are adopted in Asia.

Extensive Data Sharing

From the beginning of the pandemic, Covid-19 data has been in high demand. Many portals – such as one hosted by Johns Hopkins University – have been created to present this data, typically using government sources to ensure credibility. When compared with other official datasets from around the world, those from advanced economies in Asia are usually more accurate and are updated quickly.

They reveal more information, too. Governments, responding to demands from those who fear the disease’s spread, have released many details from infected cases (though after de-identification). For example, you can find the age, gender, date of onset, and hospital of a Covid-19 patient in Hong Kong. Similar information can be found in the official coronavirus data portals of Singapore and Japan. The government website of Seoul, the capital of South Korea, shows the whereabouts of a patient a few days before they were diagnosed and admitted to the hospital, with specific time slots for each location they had visited.

Civil society organisations have also used government data and other sources to create tools to inform citizens. In Hong Kong, for instance, civic groups developed a website to flag high-risk areas. Other commonly found details in civil society datasets include the occupancy of each quarantine centre and the list of buildings where some residents are under mandatory home quarantine.

Regional Covid Figures
Covid situations by WHO regions (Jan-Aug 2020), “Western Pacific” includes Oceania but excludes Indonesia, Thailand and India. Source data from https://covid19.who.int/

Embracing Open Data

Extensive data-sharing in Asia during the pandemic is not a coincidence. Rather, it is part of a recent wave of Asian authorities embracing open data. For years, governments in the region have invested immensely in information infrastructure –  usually in the name of “smart nation” or “smart city” – that improves their capacity to collect, process, and share public data.

As a result, these Asian jurisdictions have been climbing the ladders of global rankings on open data. (Unfortunately none of these rankings are still active.) Taiwan jumped from the 36th position to the top of the Global Open Data Index, which covers around 100 jurisdictions operating between 2013 and 2017. In the same index, Singapore jumped from 47th to 17th and Hong Kong from 56th to 24th. Another ranking, the Open Data Barometer, elevated South Korea from 18th to 5th and Japan from 19th to 7th. In China, too, open data has recently become a popular policy agenda, in particular among local governments. The country’s prestigious Fudan University rolled out the first assessment of open data – titled China Open Data Index – in 2017 and Shanghai enacted the first open data regulation among all the provincial governments of China in 2019.

These new open data measures have indeed enhanced information-sharing by the governments with the public, and citizens can potentially make use of it to hold their governments accountable.

Privacy and Value Concerns

However, researchers have also observed unintended side effects of data-sharing that confirm concerns raised by privacy advocates.

From the perspective of open data doctrines, disclosing individual cases is a good idea. It conforms with the primary or raw data requirement, which advocates against the practice of only sharing aggregated statistics. This rule is to ensure that citizens can make their own analysis based on authentic data instead of using data that has been massaged by the authorities. But when data is shared with many details – for example, showing where a man of a particular age was during a specific time and location – it is not difficult for acquaintances to re-identify the person, even though the government has removed their real name and home address from the publicly available datasets.

The use of contact tracing technology by the government to find close contacts of the confirmed cases and inform them in a targeted manner – such as short messages by cell phone – also makes the patient easy to identify and stigmatise. In South Korea, the fear of being stigmatised has prevented people from being tested and has therefore thwarted government measures to control the transmission. In May, this was exemplified by a cluster of cases involving more than 1,500 people. Local media highlighted that the spread occurred at a gay nightclub – and since people who are gay face widespread prejudice in South Korea, many may have avoided testing in order to preserve their privacy. This may be one reason why other leading economies are not as passionate about opening up detailed COVID-19 data.

Another concern is that the new data-sharing initiatives do not uphold the democratic values of the original movement. In Asia, governments’ newfound enthusiasm toward open data is mostly driven by its economic value. Buzzwords such as “innovation”, “technology”, and “digital economy” are emerging in the government papers, whereas words like “transparency” and “accountability” are found less frequently.

Research into Singapore’s open data portal reveals that the portal is “likely to further undergird and entrench, rather than transform social values, political structures and institutional frameworks.” For example, Singaporean authorities used public data to build an application to help citizens report stray cats. In reality, the app promotes self-policing and community surveillance, according to the research, because some of the data reported by users to the app could be used against those who violate the ban on raising pets in public housing estates.

The Hong Kong Open Data Index, newly published by the non-government organisation Internet Society Hong Kong, contains a similar observation. It finds that there is a lack of democratic participation in decision-making around issues such as what data should be opened up and how. The report recommended that the Hong Kong government establish an online participation platform to allow stakeholders to openly debate the priority of data publication.

Implementing values – such as governmental transparency and improving well-being – is an on-going process, and different authorities may believe that these values might conflict with each other. When open data is embraced and redeveloped in a different cultural and political context than Western-style democracy, as we have witnessed in some of the jurisdictions in Asia, we should watch its evolution carefully and be ready to sound the alert.

(Note: The author is the researcher for the Hong Kong Open Data Index, a research and advocacy initiative by the Internet Society Hong Kong. Built on 19 sets of international open data standards, the Index was launched in May 2020, and is now seeking partners to promote open data in and outside of Hong Kong.)