The metaverse is here? HK spatial data infrastructure will be the key

    07/05/2022 - 11:05

    Authors: Ryan Ip, Head of Land and Housing Research, and Calvin Au, Assistant Researcher at Our Hong Kong Foundation

    The metaverse is here?  HK spatial data infrastructure will be the key

    Facebook was renamed Meta last year, symbolising the concept of the metaverse, originated from science-fiction, is catapulted into the mainstream at a breakneck speed. Instead of a mere movies or gaming theme, the metaverse is revamping our lifestyle, breaking the physical limits in all aspects, from recreation, entertainment, business to even city management, so that we can traverse effortlessly between reality and extended reality using various gadgets.

    Cities around the globe are gearing up for the metaverse race. The Seoul Metropolitan Government stole a march by announcing Metaverse Seoul to create a metaverse ecosystem for immersive virtual public services in the future. Though some people consider it merely a gimmick, the farsightedness of their government is to be applauded. Indeed, the popularisation of the metaverse in city management is nothing fanciful. The key lies in optimising spatial data infrastructure and creating application scenarios for the technology.

    Global cities vying to establish Digital Twins

    The metaverse can be broadly categorised into three types: (i) Digital Twins of the reality, (ii) augmented reality (AR) which superimposes the digital world on the physical one and combines them, and (iii) virtual reality (VR) which is an artificial simulation akin to or entirely different from the physical world. The values of the latter two types are mostly significant to the entertainment industry, so market-driven development will be more suitable for them. To governors and ordinary citizens, Digital Twins definitely have the most practical value. Governance can be enhanced by making use of real-time data analysis for urban development planning and by simulating policies for efficacy assessment.

    Compared to Seoul, Singapore is probably the most dedicated Asian city to build the metaverse. As early as 2014, the Singapore Land Authority intended to build a 3D digital model covering the whole city. However, conventional 3D models fail to keep up with the changes in the reality, and each update consumes mammoth resources. They then decided to replace it with a city Digital Twin and the project was completed in early 2022 for the government’s internal use. Singapore’s Digital Twin can integrate data from public departments, private enterprises and sensors into a Single Source of Truth to show the city’s physical, legal and design-related spatial information, hereby embracing the “capture once, used by many” concept of data sharing.

    Besides Singapore, cities such as Boston and San Francisco in the USA have likewise created their Digital Twins. The British government is even collaborating with the University of Cambridge to promote the National Digital Twin Programme (NDTp) in the creation of an ecosystem which connects various Digital Twins across the nation. It has promulgated the Gemini Principles to guide public and private organisations nationwide in creating Digital Twins.

    HK’s spatial data infrastructure lagging behind

    OHKF’s Science & Tech Innovation research team released a report in 2015, proposing the upgrading of spatial information infrastructure to pave the way for the city’s future development. Nevertheless, relevant work progress of the Government has not been satisfactory. The existing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) or digital maps of many departments rely on the data support from enterprises like Google and TomTom, reflecting the Government’s woeful inadequacy in spatial data infrastructure. 

    A handful of Government departments have separately explored GIS to provide public services related to spatial data. It was not until 2019 when the Development Bureau finally set up the Spatial Data Office (SDO) to coordinate the cross-bureau/departmental spatial data sharing project. In 2020, the LegCo earmarked $360 million for the development of Common Spatial Data Infrastructure (CSDI), aiming to (i) roll out a one-stop portal by the end of 2022 where citizens can freely download 320 spatial datasets from 30 Government departments, and (ii) complete a 3D digital map covering the whole Hong Kong by late 2023. In 2020, the Civil Engineering and Development Department also appointed a consultant to pilot a Building Information Modeling (BIM) Data Repository for Kwu Tung North / Fanling North New Development Areas Phase 1, which constitutes a “data foundation” for higher-level application including the city’s Digital Twin.

    Due to a lack of foresight neglecting the economic value of spatial data and public-private collaboration, Hong Kong’s spatial data infrastructure has long been falling behind Singapore’s. The authorities should learn from overseas experience. For instance, the high-level Geospatial Commission of the British government proactively studies the local spatial data market; the Singapore Land Authority founded GeoWorks to foster public-private cooperation and support start-ups, and the market scale of enterprises related to spatial data has doubled over the decade to 500 million Singapore dollars. Although the Hong Kong Government allocated resources to set up Geospatial Lab under the CSDI project in 2021 in the hope of encouraging the public to explore the value and application of spatial data, its actual efficacy is yet to be assessed.

    The Sustainable Development Goals 2030 of the United Nations also stress the importance of using spatial data in achieving the Goals. Thus, immature spatial data infrastructure can hinder Hong Kong’s development into a livable smart city.

    Prioritising data infrastructure to spur future development

    Hong Kong has long been beset by land and housing shortage and the sluggish development of the I&T sector. The Government has long advocated the infrastructure-led planning approach and decided to tackle the problems by prioritising “hardware” infrastructure (e.g. expediting the development of roads, railways and the I&T Park). Rarely does it mention “software” such as spatial data. While optimising spatial data infrastructure is the precondition of propelling the city’s future development, CSDI Portal, a 3D digital map of Hong Kong and the pilot BIM Data Repository are just the initial steps. The Government ought to encourage more private enterprises to participate in spatial data sharing so as to nurture the city’s Digital Twin and even establish a metaverse ecosystem to facilitate our digital transformation. Furthermore, the Northern Metropolis and Lantau Tomorrow will continue to be policy highlights. These two large-scale development projects are expected to effectively solve social and livelihood issues, and may also be the best springboard for “Metaverse Hong Kong”.