The Bigger Picture
Challenges lie ahead as China is set to become the world's biggest source of data by 2020
By Wang Jun  ·  2018-02-11  ·   Source: | NO.8-9 FEBRUARY 22, 2018

An interactive "time tunnel" at a big data pilot zone in Guiyang, capital of southwest China's Guizhou province on May 25, 2017 (XINHUA)

A series of policies are being issued to create the necessary environment to facilitate the rapid growth of the big data industry in China. On January 5, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) jointly issued a scheme for the initiation of a public information resource-sharing pilot program in Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Fujian and Guizhou. According to the scheme, the above provinces and municipalities must establish their respective pilot programs by the end of this year.

"Top-level designs for the country's big data industry keep getting better, while the policies and institutions are also improving. An inter-ministerial system of meetings for the promotion of big data development has been established by 46 ministries and commissions such as the NDRC, the MIIT and the CAC, while almost all the country's provincial-level governments have formulated policies on big data," said Li Guanyu, deputy director of the MIIT's department of information and software services.

By 2020, the size of China's big data market is expected to reach 800 billion yuan ($127.39 billion), and in the future, the country will become a global center for the industry. Innovations in information technology are hastening the arrival of a big data era, with data set to become a key factor for production.

It is estimated that in 2020, the global volume of data will reach 40 trillion gigabytes, of which data produced in China will account for 20 percent, making the country the biggest source of data in the world, according to a report from Economic Information Daily.

Gerry Pennell, Chief Information and Technology Officer of the International Olympic Committee, speaks at the Computing Conference 2017 in Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province on October 11, 2017 (XINHUA)

Industrial leaders

Chen Xinhe, Deputy Secretary General of the Zhongguancun Big Data Industry Alliance, said the government and industrial corporations are cooperating over the development of the big data industry, with a number of big data firms having emerged in recent years, showing the consistent momentum of growth.

Gridsum Holding Inc. is the first Chinese big data firm to be listed on NASDAQ. According to the company's financial report, the growth of Gridsum's net income is double the industry average, with its sales revenue expected to reach 1 billion yuan ($159.24 million) this year.

Gridsum provides big data analysis services for more than 3,000 government websites such as and the websites of the NDRC, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Beijing Municipal Government, in addition to supplying Internet-based big data analysis to the NDRC, the State Forestry Administration, the State Administration of Taxation and several other government agencies for decision making purposes. Gridsum also offers comprehensive big data solutions for businesses in tourism, investment, local industrial promotion and e-commerce.

Baifendian Corp. is another industry leader in big data that provides artificial intelligence solutions, especially for industries and government affairs.

Gao Tiwei, Senior Vice President of Baifendian, said that the intelligent manufacturing value chain integration platform developed by the company has been applied in the production of automobiles, consumer electronics and other consumer products, and is aimed at assisting corporate transformation in production, management and marketing.

Major challenges

While China's big data industry grows out of its start-up stage, issues such as a lack of data transparency, inadequate technology, a shortage of professionals and insufficient demand for industrial application require immediate solutions.

According to the Economic Information Daily report, 80 percent of China's information data resources are currently controlled by government departments at various levels. Since the development of China's big data is still in its nascent stage, a lot of fundamental data is neglected by government agencies and very few of these data resources are openly available.

An unnamed official from the Guizhou provincial administration for big data development told Economic Information Daily that without uniform standards on the collection of data by government departments, the quality of data will remain low and of little use even if the government has collected a lot of it.

While some data has been connected to open platforms, they have been classified as "dormant" because they are not readable by computers. According to a report on open data by Chinese local governments jointly issued by Fudan University and, of the 8,398 open pieces of data on 19 local government open data platforms in China, about 25 percent were unable to be read by computers as of April 2017.

"In theory there are large amounts of data in China, but in practice we have found it very difficult to use this data for analysis," said E Weinan, head of the Beijing Institute of Big Data Research.

The innovation of big data technology is also insufficient. Because of the inadequate technological ability of most domestic big data firms, users instead prefer foreign companies such as Google, IBM, Oracle and SAP.

How to process this mass of data is a major challenge for China's big data industry. "China has a huge amount of data, but it is very difficult to store, so when we come to use it, a lot of data has disappeared," said E.

"There is a huge gap between the underlying technology in China and the advanced levels worldwide. Most of the technology used by Chinese big data firms comes from Google and other foreign companies," said Li Guangqian, research division chief of the Information Center at the Development Research Center of the State Council. "Usually our business models are ahead of our technology, and we don't push forward innovations in this regard," Li said.

A lack of professionals has also restricted the development of the big data industry. Wu Yongwei, a professor of computer science at Tsinghua University, said that in the next three to five years, China will need 1.8 million big data professionals, but at present, only 300,000 are working in the industry.

Industrial applications of big data are not extensive enough. According to figures from the big data industry research center of CCID Consulting Co. Ltd., more than 70 percent of big data applications are in the Internet, finance and telecom sectors, while many new applications are being developed in healthcare and transport, but the size of big data usage in these industries remains small. In other sectors involving people's wellbeing, big data applications are largely superficial.

"Now in many industries, big data is not yet deeply integrated with businesses, its applications are not innovative enough, and industry professionals still need to improve their knowledge and experience," said Du Xiaomeng, chief data scientist of Baifendian Corp. Du said that many Chinese industries currently only use big data technology in certain businesses, but they must realize the thorough integration of technology and business if they are to fully tap the value of big data's application.

As for the openness and sharing of data, Pan Wen, deputy director of the software institute of the CCID Group under the MIIT, suggested that China establish and improve big data development mechanisms, accelerate the openness and sharing of government data, and steadily realize the openness of public data resources. In the meantime, the government must come up with an overall plan on big data infrastructure construction and strengthen top-down standardization.

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

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