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Datasets’ release drives creative apps

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Quick fix:  University student Wing Poon recommends the “Sick Bird” app to her friends, after she used it to find a nearby clinic when she fell ill.

Datasets’ release drives creative apps

September 30, 2012
Savvy software programmers are putting public sector information to good use since the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer made it available for free on its Data.One portal in March 2011.

Mobile application designer Alex Hung is one of them. He has more than 18 years of experience in designing software programmes, but regularly encounters a roadblock: It is difficult to find comprehensive and up-to-date databases as their foundation. While he is a skilled programmer, he does not have the time or money for the research required to amass databases.

A year ago, he learned of the launch of the Government’s Data.One portal, which aimed to facilitate the wider dissemination of public sector information for value-added re-use. Mr Hung discovered there was useful data he was free to download - such as details of all government clinics and hospitals in Hong Kong. So he set about to develop an app to present it in a friendly format.

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Creativity takes flight
The raw data - basic lists of phone numbers, addresses and opening hours - was dull and not easy to navigate. So he decided to introduce digital maps, a GPS function, and an endearing cartoon character, to help people under the weather find the clinic or hospital nearest them.

“How can we make it more interesting?” he asked. “We have a home-made design for a bird which is called ‘Sick Bird’. We have a simple story talking about how the bird finds the clinics by using the app. And finally the bird can be cured by taking medicines. We can make it more interesting by using the maps; you can know where you are and which hospitals or clinics are close to you.”

University student Wing Poon used to live in the New Territories, and recently moved to a hostel on Hong Kong Island. When she fell ill in this unfamiliar locale, she found it difficult to locate a nearby clinic. Then she downloaded the “Sick Bird” app, which quickly and conveniently pointed her in the right direction. She has high praise for the app, and has recommended it to her classmates.

Time saver
Application designer George So is an expert in developing traffic apps. In the past, though, he needed to gather data, and even purchased traffic databases and digital maps from companies or government departments. That cost him more than $100,000, and it wasn’t even real-time data. The Data.One portal’s release of real-time traffic information enabled Mr So to complete an advanced app called “Intelligent Transportation System HK.”

“It is quite amazing that the Government can share the real-time information with us so that we can build such a useful application,” Mr So said.

The vast amount of data was, at first, overwhelming. Mr So and his colleagues spent three weeks finding a way to associate the XML or spreadsheet format information with latitude and longitude points so they could map it.

Mr So refined the app by adding a user-friendly “point-to-point route-searching” function. It analyses the Government’s real-time data, to calculate the shortest and fastest route for users. It will show the total distance and the estimated time so that drivers can select the best route to save fuel and time.

Data driven
Since the Government first disseminated datasets through the Data.One portal in March 2011 - including real-time traffic data, weather data and Air Pollution Index levels - traffic data has had the biggest draw. There are up to 1.1 million traffic-snapshot downloads every day, and at least 13 mobile apps for iPhone and Android platforms now make use of the data.

In September, the Government posted three new datasets: results of the 2011 Population Census, information on premises licensed by the Food & Environmental Hygiene Department, and beach water quality. It will continue to make more datasets available to create business opportunities and spur growth in the information and communications technology industries.

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