Hong Kong leading the way on digital government

The Hong Kong government is on the forefront of digital government, backing its push into apps, IoT, and digital IDs with a modernised legal framework.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Hong Kong has been staying ahead of the technology curve by working on digitising its departments and agencies since the 1990s, according to former CIO of the Hong Kong government Daniel Lai, with the government now focusing on apps, digital IDs, e-health, city-wide free Wi-Fi, the Internet of Things (IoT), digital open data, and digital inclusion.

Speaking at Telstra's Vantage 2015 conference in Melbourne on Wednesday, Lai, now the interim vice president (administration) at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said the government's digital strategy involved initially building out infrastructure, then adapting to internet usage, and most recently staying abreast of trends in mobility and cloud computing.

"In the earlier days, in 1998, it very much focused on building and introducing the ICT infrastructure necessary to support a digital city. Then, in the early 2000s, it was a matter of using internet to support government services to deliver public services through internet," he said.

"And, of course, more recently, it's a matter of looking at mobility, looking at social media, looking at the multimedia platform, and also driving the digital inclusion program."

Lai, who was CIO of the government for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People's Republic of China from 2012 to 2015, said the city is a very digitally focused environment. With a mobile penetration rate of 239 percent, statistically, every person in Hong Kong owns more than two SIM cards.

Hong Kong has 83 percent broadband penetration and broadband coverage of 97 percent. Its average peak internet connection speed is 68Mbps, making it the fastest in the world, according to Lai, and its average internet connection speed is 12.2Mbps, the fourth fastest in the world.

Various departments and agencies in Hong Kong began introducing mobile apps several years ago, but recently unified them under a single government-run app store, which now houses more than 80 apps for such uses as postal tracking, traffic reporting, public events, and Wi-Fi location.

GovHK Notifications is one of its most-used applications, Lai said, which pushes alerts and warnings on such topics as traffic, food, travel, health, and weather to the end user's mobile devices.

"The individual needs to register the type of alerts they would like to receive -- whether it's traffic, whether it's for food safety, or whether it's related to health -- so they can choose the type of information or alerts they receive, and whenever there's some adverse weather or a typhoon, it can actually notify individuals instantly," explained Lai.

Hong Kong also launched an e-health record sharing system, which took more than three years to develop -- although Lai said the accompanying laws governing privacy and security are yet to be passed.

"This is a large database, where both public and private medical practitioners will keep all the medical records of every patient," he said.

"This has been a huge undertaking; it took us three and a half years to develop. The system is now ready for implementation -- in fact, it's being adopted at public hospitals, but we also face the challenge of having the right legislation in place, the right access controls."

The HK government has been pushing the advancement of an entire digital identity, going so far as to draft and enact a legal framework to enable citizens to create and lodge forms for e-health, statutory e-submissions, e-government services, and e-cheques online -- which has also had the effect of advancing e-commerce.

"We introduced the Electronic Transaction Ordinance, giving digital certificates the same level of rights as a physical signature, and that's actually helped e-commerce, and also helped the submission of legal documents," said Lai.

A physically held Digital ID card with embedded information is also used in conjunction with fingerprint scanners during immigration and border control on entry to Hong Kong, similar to the roll out of e-passports and SmartGates in Australia -- though this has recently experienced technical problems in the latter country.

The Hong Kong SAR, which is ever aiming to become a fully smart city, is currently looking into implementing IoT for such initiatives as soil monitoring in order to predict landslides, as well as smart luggage tags within airports, intelligent traffic management, and detecting leakages in water pipes.

Lai said, however, that one of the most important aspects of implementing e-government services is ensuring equal access. Digital inclusion for the underprivileged -- the elderly, low-income earners, and those with special needs -- is integral.

"We also believe that when we introduce electronic services, the underprivileged group also should be addressed, so we also have a comprehensive digital inclusion program to help the elderly for use of PCs, internet, and so on.

"We're also helping students from low-income families, so that they can do much more internet learning; we assist them financially on access to internet.

"Also, persons with special needs, for instance the visually impaired, we can support the development of our text-to-speech software, which can be downloaded on phone or PC."

According to Lai, the other challenges involved in transitioning to a digital government include ensuring ease of use by citizens; shifting cultural norms from submitting forms in hard copy to online; carefully forming the framework for any collaboration with carriers, hardware vendors, and software services providers; promoting and publicising initiatives so that knowledge of projects reaches critical mass; legislating for privacy for such issues as e-health; ensuring that all government departments and agencies are forthcoming and cooperative with their information; and comprehensively planning and integrating all services from end to end.

"From our journey in digitisation, we have been facing significant challenges," he acknowledged.

The backbone to digitising government, Lai said, is ubiquitous reliable internet connectivity.

"The availability of the infrastructure, the connectivity, is very important. Otherwise, we do not have connected services."

As such, rolling out a free Wi-Fi network for the entire city has been on the government's radar for some time. It now has more than 20,000 hotspots across the city, and is also beginning to collaborate with telecommunications providers.

"Initially, it was a government-funded project, [but] two years ago, we started involving the carriers, so it's now a much more collaborative project, where some of the carriers provide free Wi-Fi up to a limited time, most of them two hours, but in a couple of public locations and government buildings we provide free Wi-Fi 24 hours there. No registration is required," Lai said.

The government is also looking to make its data available publicly, arguing that this is "in demand by the public in most cities and economies", and provides collaboration opportunities that benefit all.

"Today, we have 18 different types of categories; over 3,000 data sets that are available for access. Some of them are real time, some of them are more static data, and through the collaboration and creativity of the community, over 70 applications have been developed by the public or third parties, and this has actually created a lot of business opportunity."

By comparison, Australia has only recently been making recent efforts to digitise its government, with then-Communications Minister and now-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in January announcing the formation of the Digital Transformation Office (DTO).

The DTO resides within the Department of Communications, works across all government agencies in collaboration with businesses and universities, and was tasked primarily with creating a single online myGov portal for dozens of government-related services.

"Interacting with government should be as easy as internet banking or ordering a taxi through an app," Turnbull said in January. "This will enable the government to deliver high-quality services more consistently using a common 'look and feel', with users always at the centre of the digital transformation."

The office was launched in March, despite not receiving funding for its set-up until the government allocated it AU$95.4 million over the next four years in the 2015-16 Budget in May.

Paul Shetler, who was previously the director of the United Kingdom's Government Digital Service, was appointed as CEO of the DTO in July for the next five years.

Shetler said the DTO would be sharing its processes, platforms, apps, and inner workings with other similar agencies and organisations; under the program, the federal, state, and territory governments will all gain access to the system to use as a platform for their own online services.

"We could also be looking across all tiers of government, not only at the federal level, but also the state and local level," Shetler said.

"Seamless service across all levels of government, and across all different channels for everyone."

Shetler last month argued that poor IT systems have hampered agencies and departments for years, slowing progress and reducing the government's effectiveness, and pointed to research conducted by Deloitte arguing that improved digital interaction between citizens and government could translate into cost savings of AU$20.5 billion.

Australia has also been working on its electronic health record system, this week renaming the project and beginning to automatically assign accounts to individuals. The system has been struggling since its introduction in 2012, but has continually received funding in each year's Budget.

In regards to connectivity, the National Broadband Network (NBN) is expected to be completed by 2020, and will cover 20 percent of the Australian population with fibre to the premises; 38 percent with fibre to the node and fibre to the building; 34 percent with hybrid fibre-coaxial; 5 percent with fixed wireless; and 3 percent with satellite services.

Australia has been floundering when it comes to updating laws to make way for the digital frontier; however, the Australian government is still debating making amendments to the Copyright Act in order to adapt to the digital world.

The government has instead made it a priority to respond to online piracy by passing piracy site-blocking legislation in mid June and working to introduce a three-strikes policy for Australians who are caught downloading copyrighted material.

Security of information held digitally has also been lax, with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection last year accidentally publishing the details of almost 10,000 asylum seekers and then accidentally emailing the passport numbers, dates of birth, and visa information of world leaders attending last year's G20 summit in Brisbane -- including those of US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin -- to a member of the Asian Cup Local Organising Committee.

The new prime minister, however, has assured that technology innovations will be an important part of the government's ongoing strategy.

"There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian than today, and I believe that today, I've announced the team, the government, the ministry, a 21st century government," Turnbull said as he announced his new front bench on Sunday.

"A ministry that is ready to engage the future."

Disclosure: Corinne Reichert travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Telstra

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