Why I Code… In China.

I live in China and I’m SUPER optimistic about open data and civic engagement.


For the last five years I worked for the City of Houston. Among the many projects I worked on, I was part of the city/community team that launched Houston’s open data and open innovation hackathon initiatives. I worked with really awesome people and had transformative leaders in Mayor Annise Parker and CFO Kelly Dowe. Not everything worked out well, but we were able to ask why we did things, to experiment, and to empower people to make a difference. I coded to empower others and to make things better.

Now I’m in China, Chengdu specifically. It’s a “small city” in western China with 14-16 million people. It’s the capital of the Sichuan Province famous for pandas and the best damn food in the world. Westerners are just now starting to take notice.


Some people told me that I shouldn’t mention open data or civic engagement once I got here. Luckily, there were just as many others who said otherwise. The idea of connecting citizens with government in order to improve public services is very real in China. I’m excited because of the people I talk to along with the work I see civic technologists and the government performing.

Not surprisingly, I see many of the same opportunities I saw in the U.S., except with more scale. I also see the problems, and they are also familiar. Below are things I’ve literally seen written or said about open data in China that explain why China and open data could never get along with one another.” Perhaps you’ll recognize some themes:

  • “The government doesn’t promote or put any real effort into open data.”
  • “The government data is not trustworthy or accurate.”
  • “The government doesn’t release information that could make it look bad.”
  • “The data isn’t available, isn’t in one place, isn’t defined, and isn’t machine readable.”
  • “The government subject matter experts cannot be found. No one can answer questions.”
  • “The government doesn’t like the term ‘hackers’, which has a serious negative connotation here.”

All these comments resonate with my experience in Houston. I’ve also seen and heard them from most of my peers in government and civic tech circles in the U.S. The west may be further ahead in terms of open data and civic tech, but not that far ahead and we also still have a lot of work to be done.

So what IS happening in China then?

For starters, as Andy Liu commented in the talk Exploring Open Data in China, maybe they already have open data but they call it something different? Perhaps there is open data in China, but it’s in a bunch of different places and it’s just not easy to find.

The Sichuan Province Fact Book is a good example, which has enormous amounts of useful commercial information. It’s not machine readable, and not super accessible, but it’s not hidden. There is more information like this published online too, although none of it is easy for westerners to understand since it’s in Chinese. Naturally, we have lots of information published this way as well.

PLUS, there are data portals!

Believe it or not, the Chinese National Government, along with Provincial and Municipal governments, are launching data portals. Two national sites I found are the National Bureau of Statistics and Public Information Online. They’re tougher to navigate, but it’s a start. There are also the city data portals: Beijing Data, Data Shanghai, and Hong Kong’s Open Gov Project are the standouts I found. Once again, not perfect, but a good start.

China’s Smart City Open Data Platform is also very interesting. They rolled out their Love City Platform to a handful of municipalities, including Qingdao and its nine million residents, and are planning implementation in ~30 more cities. That’s BIG initiative, especially if it can be done successfully across jurisdictions.

These activities are supported by conversations I’ve personally had with Chinese government delegations in the U.S. who were looking to better understand open data and how it ties to innovation. I’m more bullish than OKFN’s Feng Gao. I see iterative progress that can be built upon, and China’s reasons to support open data are the same powerful arguments that convinced my government colleagues in the U.S. — it goes beyond transparency.

Community Interest > Data.

However, open data alone is not enough. There must be civic and business interest in the data, and there must be mutual value for the government and external parties.

In China there is absolutely external interest. As reported by Rebecca Chao in The Hunt for Open Data in China, open data and civic tech has really been led by the community. Community members, businesses and developers are requesting the data they need. When they don’t get it, they’re finding innovative ways to obtain the data, like Cui Anyang scraping JPEG’s to get water quality data (kudos).

Open data is also generating goodwill. Bu Shujian learned that available Chinese government data was not necessarily inaccurate or fake. As Chao reported, she was interested in comparing air quality reporting by the Chinese and U.S. Governments, and was skeptical of the data from the Chinese. Interestingly, she found the differences were due to different calculations and the Chinese Government’s use of more data points from across the city (which could mean their reporting was more accurate).

Of course there are hackathons too! The community and the value is there, and people are rallying together over weekends on projects just like we do. At one of my first dinners in China, a friend in Beijing told me about the Cleanweb Hackathon they hosted just months before I arrived. There are many, many hackathons in China.

cleanwebhackathonSimilar to what we see in the U.S., the value of open data in China will result from the merger of the government’s open data with the community and business world’s ability to deliver impact and mutual value with it.

Why I Code in China.

I believed in Code for America and Open Houston because we could engage government with citizens and businesses to make a real difference in terms of services and dollars. People and organizations could be empowered to work together toward building better lives.

From the people to the government, I think there’s no reason not to Code for China and many are doing it already (albeit without CfA track jackets). Importantly, it’s a different language and a very different culture that takes time to understand.

I believe we should be very excited about what’s happening here. In the meantime… I’m off to learning more of a new language and it’s not for programming! 我住在中国。我喜欢学韩语。我爱吃中餐。再见!

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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