University of Tokyo opens center to promote use of big data from Japan’s public sector

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

The University of Tokyo has embarked on a quest to unearth Japan’s latent assets that could be worth more than ¥700 billion — big data held by the public sector.

The nation’s most prestigious school, also known as Todai, has opened what it claims is Japan’s first university research center specializing in studying open data — the concept of sharing data hitherto owned by the central and municipal governments, such as demographic statistics, geographical information and meteorological data that can be used freely by private companies.

Making public data available to the private sector is beneficial in that it provides transparency for public sector activities while giving more options for data sets to be seen by the public, said Noboru Koshizuka, director of University of Tokyo Open Data Center (UTODC), which opened this month in Bunkyo Ward.

People will also have wider and easier access to public data by using services created by industries, Koshizuka said.

Making vast amounts of data open to private companies eventually will benefit the public sector by saving taxes and the human resources needed for creating their own information channels, he said.

“It would cost a lot for bureaucrats to create an app to provide their public information,” Koshizuka said at UTODC’s opening ceremony. But private companies can find good business opportunities by creating such apps for commercial purposes.

“Different people have different needs. And it takes enormous effort for the government to deal with each of them. It’s better if they can work together with the private sector in this area,” he said.

For example, by combining demographic information about where children under 15 are living and about locations of child care facilities in a city, a third party can create a map that shows the area where such facilities are lacking. This information helps a local government when building a new facility.

Media organizations can also utilize the open data for data journalism — a style of analytical reporting based on a large set of data to glean facts.

Making such data open to the private sector could push up the nation’s gross domestic product by ¥158.6 billion to ¥701 billion, Koshizuka said.

The move by the nation’s most prestigious academic institution is in tandem with the government’s strategy to promote wider use of open data in society.

The government aims for all public bodies to open their data by 2020. Currently, only 18.5 percent, or 331 of the 1,788 municipal governments in Japan, had made their data available for public use as of Dec. 20, according to the Cabinet Secretariat.

The government has worked on promoting open data since 2013, when the Group of Eight advanced nations agreed to demand member countries make their data publicly available in order to provide greater transparency and promote innovation.

Another aim of UTODC is to produce data scientists who can analyze big data and promote open data movements at the municipal level, Koshizuka said.

Although there is an “unprecedented” need to analyze and interpret big data, the nation doesn’t have enough data scientists who can handle such information, said Osamu Sakura, a professor and dean of the University of Tokyo’s Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies, where UTODC belongs.

Specialists in such modern digital technologies as big data, the “internet of things” and artificial intelligence are expected to fall short by about 48,000 people by 2020, according to the economy ministry.

“Everywhere in society, people claim they don’t have enough data scientists who can analyze big data. And universities often get blamed for this,” Sakura said.

Although the University of Tokyo has produced many leading programmers and statisticians, having superior technical skills is “not enough” to lead the current movement, he said. “Many people say they need specialists who can also understand social norms and values (of information)” — the skill sets nurtured in arts and humanities, he said.