Simply Put: In China’s bikeshare success, peek into big data potential

Information such as which specific social groups are most likely to go where on their bikes is relevant to some arguments in current Indian privacy debates.

Written by Apurva | Updated: October 2, 2017 10:43 am
bikeshare china, china, data mgmt china, travel data, data privacy china, data sharing, bike hiring china, social media, how china uses pvt data, indian express Mobike (silver and orange bikes) and Ofo (yellow bikes) are the two biggest cyclesharing companies in China. (Apurva)

“Data”, Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani said at a gathering of the biggest names in Indian telecom last week, “is the new oil, which does not need to be imported. We have it in super-abundance”. Data has been at the centre of a landmark Supreme Court judgment — on privacy — and endless debates this month. Arguments on its use and abuse have driven the competing narratives on Aadhaar. The seriousness of the government’s data collection push is being brought home through frequent SMSes from banks and telecom service providers asking for Aadhaar linking of accounts and phone numbers.

While India debates privacy and the use of data, China, a comparable country on several counts, has moved to embrace — and regulate — it. The Chinese government has been looking to big data for solutions in areas ranging from policing to education and urban planning to traffic management; the optimal use of big data, it believes, can help foster higher economic growth.

According to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the full potential of big data remains unrealised due to “low-level sharing of resources”. The Ministry is, therefore, working on establishing industry standards and specifications, and will speed up the creation of a Chinese standard system. The aim, according to state-owned news agency Xinhua, is to more than “triple the scale of (China’s) big data industry by 2020 to foster new economic drivers”.

But big data is already at work in China.

Take, for example, the billion-dollar cyclesharing phenomenon that has taken the country by storm. Since the end of 2015, cyclesharing has grown exponentially, and recent data suggest China hosts 70 cyclesharing brands that include more than 16 million cycles and over 130 million users.

The Chinese model of cyclesharing differs from those across the world in that it requires no docking bays. In Beijing, starting a ride is as simple as finding a cycle parked anywhere, unlocking it using a smartphone QR code, and pedalling away. Rides start from as little as RMB 1 (about Rs 10) per hour, and rides from some brands are free over weekends. Delhi’s cyclesharing model, by contrast, requires users to start and end rides only at cycle docks across the city.

Among the largest share-cycle service providers is Mobike, an over $ 1 billion startup that is backed by the Chinese tech giant Tencent, which runs the country’s popular messenger app WeChat, and Foxconn, which manufactures devices for Apple. Mobike has released a white paper on its service, and the impact on traffic and urban transport — the “first comprehensive nationwide study on bikesharing in China”, developed with support from the China New Urbanisation Research Institute, established by the powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and Tsinghua University, and published in association with the Beijing Tsinghua Tong Heng Planning and Design Institute.

“Through quantitative and qualitative analysis of Mobike’s vast trove of travel data, as well as the results of a survey of 100,000 people across 36 cities in China, this report analyses how bikesharing is changing our cities. (It) examines bikesharing’s influence on the urban environment and on improving standards of living, and its role in curbing pollution and saving energy,” the white paper says.

The data in the white paper provide remarkable details of the living and commuting habits of the Chinese — which includes, among other things, information on which specific social groups are the most likely to go where on their shared bikes. A few key findings:
1. More than 70% users are aged between 20 and 40 years
2. One out of three users cycles for leisure and exercise
3. Users under 30 years most frequently use cycles to reach their workplaces and schools
4. Users in their 60s and 70s ride most often to restaurants and shops
5. Approximately one in five users uses cycles to complete subway and bus connections
6. Males take more trips than females
7. Male college students are more active on weekends
8. Female college students cycle the slowest
9. Male retirees ride the longest distances and cycle the fastest
10. Men under 32 are the largest user demographic
11. Female homemakers are the smallest user demographic
12. Female professionals take more trips on working days
13. Young working women travel the shortest distances
14. Before the sharing service, only 5.5% of the city used cycles. That number has now more than doubled to 11.6%
15. While share-cycles stood at 6.8%, owned cycles dropped to 4.8%
16. Users reported a 53% decline in autorickshaw trips
17. On average, 81% of trips start around a bus station; in Shanghai, that number is 90%
18. In Beijing, 44% of trips start near a subway station; in Shanghai it is 51%
19. In Beijing, for trips shorter than 5 km, 92.9% of trips are quicker by shared bike with public transport; for trips longer than 5 km, 23.7% of trips are faster by shared bike with public transport.

The white paper also shows that air pollution has no impact on rider activity. The average number of share-cycle trips remained the same even when Air Quality Index (AQI) parameters were low. On Mobike alone, users have travelled 2.5 billion km so far, which, according to the company, translated into saving 460 million litres of petroleum and 29 million tonnes of oil.

Apurva is currently on a media fellowship programme in China under the China Public Diplomacy Association

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