Is minimization of data possible? Photo: Wikimedia Commons
As the world turns toward big data, South Korea has big plans. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

SEOUL – As Seoul starts implementing its “Korean New Deal” post-pandemic stimulus project, the government Thursday unveiled an ambitious national strategy for big data. 

“Now is the time to prepare for a ‘Back to a Better Future’ by accelerating the transition to a data-based digital economy,” Yoon Sung-roh, the chairperson of the Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or PCFIR, said.

The PCFIR is a cross-agency body tasked with developing national strategies. Its members include 12 ministers, as well as 20 people from the private sector – both academia and corporate.

On the same day, the country announced its “Korea Data 119 Project.” Reporters were briefed on the aims, mechanisms and mechanics of this project by the PCFIR.

Big data and artificial intelligence, or AI, that mines it has application across all sectors – from defense to consumption, from mobility to finance, from logistics to health.

The potential for its use and misuse is mind-boggling.

Still, while South Korea has suffered a number of embarrassing data breaches – notably from North Korean hackers who have infiltrated financial and defense sector computer systems – Seoul also has a history of successful data policies.

The country began creating a national knowledge portal database in 1999, kick-started e-government in 2001 and set a nascent policy on big data and AI in 2018.

Most recently and most strikingly, the government – empowered by MERS-era laws that overrode the kind of privacy constraints that hampered the responses of Western governments – created a big data-based Covid-19 infection tracking system.

By bringing together the databases of CCTV cameras, public transport, credit card companies, telcos and others, and applying an AI solution to crunch these countless bytes, the time taken to contact-trace infected people was slashed from eight hours to 10 minutes. 

That achievement showcased the kind of power that the combination of AI and big data, operating on a firm legal foundation, can generate.

Here comes Data Sapiens

With a Covid-weary world in full-on vaccination mode, Seoul is at the early implementation phase of its “Korean New Deal,” under which a US$141 billion budget, matched by an as-yet-unknown amount of private funds, will be executed by 2025.

A key subset of the plan is the “Digital New Deal.” And in that, data is central.

“Effective data utilization will bring about the era of ‘Digital Sapiens’ where we will be able to enjoy a more convenient life and create added value from data,” Yoon claimed.

The PCFIR’s vision is to vitalize the digital economy by promoting the opening, distribution and utilization of public data, albeit safely and securely.

This, briefers said, would create a virtuous circle.

Government will work smarter and provide better services, the public will enjoy more conveniences, and will be able to exercise personal data sovereignty, and businesses will enhance productivity and create new value.

Big data, new services

Currently, briefers explained, there are three stumbling blocks hindering data collection and usage – and three plans to overcome them.

Firstly, the data market is held back by an insufficient data utilization environment that does not meet the needs of the private sector. The plan is to create a private sector-friendly ecosystem.

Secondly, there is decentralized data collection and usage by a range of government agencies. The plan is to establish a comprehensive data policy system that crosses all agency firewalls.

Thirdly, application of data is in its early phases. The goal is to provide data services that the public want, will use, and will then demand more of.

Multiple new services are forthcoming.

In the health sector, these services include putting all patients’ personal health information in one place. This will not only be convenient and accessible for individual patients to access via app, it will enable automated private insurance claims, via provision of all medical records to insurers.

In consumption, the release of related data from individuals’ shopping histories will create patterns and resultant conveniences for both shops and shoppers, while AI will be deployed in customs clearance to detect counterfeits.

Many industries will benefit from the new smart car strategy, including artificial intelligence chips, sensors, data and smart transport. Credit: CAR Magazine.

Smart ports, in which both public and private datasets are shared, will be implemented to improve the efficiency of import-export processes, as well as overall logistics.

In education, AI-learning will be instituted for elementary and middles school students, delivered via PC. There will even be a project to upgrade the national brand by collecting images and video footage of the country in one database.

There are also plans to forewarn against, and better manage emergencies, such as flooding, through the sharing and analysis of datasets.

Problems, solutions

Still, the problems to be overcome are significant, requiring technical, legal and bureaucratic solutions.

Complaints about data policy thus far include the lack of data standardization across agencies and ministries, its irregular supply and the fact that most of it is not machine-readable.

If new companies that build bridges between public organizations and the private sector are to operate effectively, new, digital service contracts will be required.

Data efficiency will be upgraded to meet the “once only” principle – ie, the government will only ask the public the same question one time. Once asked, the response is then databased, and easily accessible.

Naturally, there will be multiple safeguards in place to ensure data accuracy, data sovereignty and privacy.

Shanghai has half a million of CCTV cameras and sensors in operation all over the city. Photo: Weibo
CCTV camera databases will be added to the mix. Photo: Weibo

“We will not open all data to the public,” Bae Il-kwong Bae, the PCFIR’s data policy planning officer said. “Business regulators will provide services to certify if information is correct or not, to use medical data you will need to get individuals’ consent, and financial data will be de-identified,” before being shared.

To achieve all this, every ministry and agency will be required to fill a new position of chief data officer. Lower down the chain, systems and programs will be established to upgrade civil servants’ data-usage capabilities.

And in a “Matrix” type move, the government plans to create a vast, integrated data map. This would bring together public data portals, ministry and agencies data platforms, a private big data platform and an overall platform and AI hub.

Speed bumps

Tellingly, briefers did not put a timeline or budget on these multiple ambitions.

And clearly, South Korea continues to suffer from a hardware-software mismatch. The country has huge strengths in manufacturing – such as semiconductors, displays and devices – but fewer in platforms. It has a highly aggressive private sector, but an often bureaucratic and timid public sector.

These issues did not escape the attention of private-sector players on the PCFIR.

“In the past, when I had problems, I did not know who to talk to to overcome regulatory problems,” said Kim Jung-soon, the CEO of LENDIT Corp, a fintech firm. “Now, we have this committee.”

However, with a presidential election due in 2022, the committee’s future is not set in stone.

South Korea was the first to roll out a nationwide 5G network. Among other things, 5G enables autonomous driving and drone deliveries. The hardware for both systems exists, and South Koreans are keen early adopters of new technologies.

5G enables automated drone delivery. Photo: ST Engineering.

Hence, South Korea could be leading the world in implementation but is not. One reason is over-regulation.

“We are not really visible in drone delivery or autonomous driving yet as these have an impact on the public and there are heavy regulations,” said Yoon who in addition to chairing the committee, is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the elite Seoul National University. 

“In my lab we do research on drone control and the university is close to a mountain, and you need an approval to fly a drone and that takes a month,” he said. “It is not a research-friendly environment.”

Regulations are a particular minefield when it comes to AI.

“At the end of last year, AI ethical guidelines were announced but they are not laws with enforcement, they are guidelines for researchers and developers,” Yoon said. “We do not want to impose extra regulations.”

The broad, cross-sector application of the technology is a special problem as it makes regulatory overlap almost inevitable.

Take, for example, the vast differences between the entertainment industry – where some Kpop bands have already deployed AI-enabled avatars – and the defense industry – where AI can pilot autonomous drones.

“We have to have overarching guidelines,” Yoon admitted. “And there will be different guidelines for different sub sectors.”

Still one area where PCFIR members were bullish was the creative, rather than destructive, potential of AI and big data. The creation of new types of data companies are built into the plan, and though there are widespread global fears about AI replacing humans, speakers were upbeat on jobs.

“I believe that the work people want to avoid can be replaced by AI,” said PCFIR member Park Myung-soon, head of the AI Business Unit at SK Telecom, Korea’s leading telco said, referring to repetitive and boring tasks. “We call this a ‘job eraser’ in our company.”

She also made clear that “AI can compliment human employees” and said she believed that new jobs will be created in the long-term.