getting information out

October 7th, 2012

I found Matt’s take on Weibo’s place in Chinese civil society quite intriguing, but there’s one aspect he skips over, one way in which I’ve found Weibo really useful, and that is as a source of information from various government departments. No, seriously. No, really, stop laughing, it’s for real.

I follow a variety of Beijing government departments on Weibo, and although a lot of their posts are little feel-good stories, perhaps a kind of soft propaganda trying to create a tender, caring image of the various departments, many of their posts are useful and timely information that is actually really helpful. For example, @pinganbeijing (平安北京, official Weibo account of the Beijing Public Security Bureau (police, in other words)) has often posted reminders of upcoming rotations in Beijing’s traffic restrictions (next rotation starts tomorrow) or road closures or other temporary traffic management measures for big events like triathlons, marathons, or road cycling races with links to more detailed information. And over this Golden Week holiday period the Beijing Municipal Transport Commission has done a pretty good job of posting updates of traffic conditions on the expressways, warnings of accidents affecting traffic flows or queues forming at toll gates, and this morning even warnings of road closures and reopenings due to fog in Tianjin.

And it’s not just Weibo. Both the Transport Commission and the Beijing Municipal Traffic Management Bureau have frequently updated maps of traffic conditions, and Baidu Maps has a traffic conditions setting. Notice how I didn’t link to Baidu Maps? Well, despite the economic orthodoxy drilled into us for so many years now that private enterprise somehow magically does everything better than government just because it does, so shut up and obey, private enterprise magically good, government inherently evil, I’ve found the government maps actually more useful than Baidu’s. Baidu’s advantage is that you can zoom in to a very local level, while the two government maps only cover main thoroughfares. But at the start of the holiday we had to travel into The Place (and yes, I did shudder as I typed that) to collect some mooncakes (no, really, these ones are good – ice cream in a dark chocolate skin – off to pinch another one before I continue typing… ). I opened Baidu Maps, zoomed in to The Place, and groaned at all the roads highlighted in orange and red. Brilliant, holiday or not the traffic’s going to be as bad as always. But when we got there, there was hardly another car in sight. And of course, The Place opens at 10 am… So where did Baidu get its information from?! The Transport Commission’s map seems more accurate, so far, although I haven’t known about it for too long so I can’t be sure. But its big disadvantage is that it covers only the central city. The Traffic Management Bureau’s map, like the Transport Commission’s, only covers main thoroughfares, but it covers a much wider area – central city main roads, all the Ring Roads including the 6th, and expressways in some cases right out to the provincial border (although it only covers the G6 into Yanqing County and the two very limited sections of the G7 included are always grey, meaning it doesn’t yet have any information), and best of all, the information generally matches what I experience when I get out on the road.

But there, of course, lies a major problem. The information I check, whether on Weibo or the Transport Commission’s or Traffic Management Bureau’s websites is automatically out of date once I step out the door. I’m driving on a “last I heard” basis, and traffic is a very dynamic beast. There are the large electronic signs along the Ring Road and Expressway networks, but no matter how timely their updates they’re just as prone to the situation changing as I pass them as Weibo and the official websites. Sure, Weibo can be checked via cellphone, and the Transport Commission has apps for those with iPhones or Android phones (I have neither), but they’re no good unless I have a navigator to keep an eye on the phone or I’m irresponsible enough to use a phone while driving. No, I’m not that irresponsible, and I only sometimes have somebody capable of acting as navigator.

So, none of this is perfect, and it does nothing to fix the myriad other problems with governance in China, but it is nice to be able to step out the door with information up to date at that moment on traffic conditions I’m likely to face. Any information is better than no information, and more information is better than less information. This holiday I was able to plan our journeys to and from the village based on experience of the roads twixt here and there and logic (tourists will be heading out in the morning, back in the afternoon, so we’ll head out in the afternoon and back in the morning) backed up with near-real time monitoring of the road network in the days, hours and minutes leading up to each journey. Had an accident occurred on one of the roads I planned to take and reported by the Transport Commission on Weibo before I set out, I would have been able to plan a detour around the problem before setting out. I’m pretty confident in my navigational skills, but this extra information was a nice extra boost.

I’ve noticed a lot of government departments at provincial, municipal, and even district and county level have official Weibo accounts, with the ones I follow at least being quite proactive at getting information out and dealing with netizen enquiries. I’m not saying they’re perfect, and of course, Weibo provides a new platform for the old practices of ‘information management’, obfuscation, and worse just as much as it provides a platform for openness and transparency, but they’re there, proactive, and frequently useful. And Weibo now seems to be running ‘provincial theme days’ featuring a selection of official Weibo accounts from different provinces each day. They certainly involve a few steps sideways, perhaps even backwards, but there are areas in which they’re making definite steps forward, and that I am liking.

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