Cedric Sam, an interactive graphic journalist at Bloomberg who was based in Hong Kong until recently, says what data the government does provide is insufficient and it is hard to ask for information from official sources.
Sam worked as a data journalist at the South China Morning Post from 2013 to 2015, and as a researcher in the University of Hong Kong (HKU) between 2010 and 2012. At HKU, he worked on projects about land use, planning and new housing estates. For the project, Sam and his colleagues at HKU created an online map showing the agricultural and other sites earmarked for redevelopment. In 2012, they requested raw data from the Town Planning Board (TPB) and received an excel version of the PDF files they needed from the TPB website.
However, the same request was made and declined in 2015 when Sam was working for the South China Morning Post. The reason given for the rejection was a “lack of spare capacity”.
In an interview conducted through email, Sam says: “Access to datasets of public interest is of great importance for citizens to participate in their society.” For him, data journalism is work that challenges authority. To be able to do this work well, he adds, we need to have legislation on freedom of information access and open data sets from financial and real estate sectors.
Mak Yin-ting, a former chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalist Association (HKJA), says the association and other journalists have been advocating for freedom of information legislation since the 1990s. The government enacted the Code of Access to Information in 1995 but it lacks the authority of a law and is of little use when it comes to requesting data from different government departments.
Even if the code were to be upgraded into a law, Mak says the presence of exemptions in the code would make it unacceptable. These include exemptions from disclosure of any information where disclosure would harm or prejudice the proper and efficient conduct of the operations of a department, information which could only be made available by unreasonable diversion of a department’s resources and information that involves external affairs, privacy concerns, defence and security.
“Our stance on legislation is to maximise data disclosure, and minimise the exceptional conditions and scopes, and an appeal system is compulsory,” says Mak. An appeal system would involve an independent party that could monitor the quantity and quality of data disclosure, and could act as a channel to resolve disputes.
The candidates for the Chief Executive election in 2012 all signed the HKJA’s charter promising to support legislation on freedom of information during their campaigns but, to date, the government has not taken any initiative to do so.
Mak says the only reason she can see for the government’s inaction is “that they do not want the public to access the data, so that they have the ability to hide.” She adds legislation for freedom of information access is crucial to safeguard the public’s right to know about the internal decisions made by the government.
“If we do not have access to this data, we could be easily fooled by what the government says; but if we get the data, we can figure things out for ourselves.”
According to the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Global Open Data Index, Hong Kong is currently listed 37 among 97 countries in terms of the openness of data, while Taiwan is on the top of the list. Despite promoting the development of a “smart city” and “open city”, Hong Kong has yet to be seen as really “open” in terms of the disclosure and utilisation of data.
Edited by Maggie Suen