The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Submission to the Provisional Legislative Council Panel on Information Policy
Response to the Chief Executive's Policy Address on Information Technology Policy
1. As correctly pointed out in the Chief Executive's Policy Address, the main components in IT development consists of establishing the necessary hardware and software, the provision of training and education, and also the nourishment of an IT culture. These three major aspects of IT development will be focused in the following discussion.
Current Problems in Hong Kong for IT Development
2. Hong Kong currently does not have any large software development laboratories being set up here for the research and development of software products. Instead, major software vendors are just establishing themselves in Hong Kong as a front-end office for marketing their products. Under these circumstances, current and future graduates in the Information Technology field lack opportunities to further develop themselves and apply what they have learnt into their professions. It will in the long run enlarge the "technology gap" between Hong Kong and the outside world.
3. Companies are not developing their industries here because they consider it not cost- effective. The high manpower and rental cost hinder the development of the industry here.
4. In general, Hong Kong people have many other opportunities where people can make quick/huge profit. To achieve the objective of establishing a cultural environment that stimulates creativity and welcomes advances in the use of information technology, it is envisaged that there will be some obstacles in changing the mindset of the general public. Potential investors need to be educated that software developments could also generate great wealth for the society in the long run.
Hardware and Software for Information Highways:
5. As for hardware development, Hong Kong should continue to develop reliable high-speed digital connections. In the process of developing such connections, caution must be exercised to avoid redundancy which may lead to complexity in management and inefficient use of resources. The SAR Government should make careful plans in the infrastructural development. Such plans include the choice of the right technology and standards, drafting of appropriate policies related to service provision, monitoring of the quality of service provided by network providers, etc.
6. With respect to the technology and standards, optic-fibre-based broadband integrated services digital networks (B-ISDN) would be the main technology on which to construct our information highways. These networks may be built and operated by commercial providers such as HK Telecom. They are the main information arteries through which a variety of information and services are transported from one place to another. For example, computer networks such as INTERNET, cable TV broadcast (in digital form), video telephony, etc., can all be carried in the same high-speed network.
7. At this stage, it seems possible that more than one network providers operate in Hong Kong. They can be competitors of one another, or be providers of services for different technical requirements. In the latter case, for instance, critical applications initiated from the Police, the Fire Services Department, hospitals and clinics, can use one network, while other commercial applications can use other networks. Of course, there must be appropriate switching arrangements between the different networks in the case where multiple network providers exist. Thus, the networks are not mutually exclusive, and connection between a point on a network and a point in a different network is always possible.
8. The other aspect of connection deals with the transportation of information into and out of Hong Kong, i.e., connectivity with overseas networks. It seems that telecommunications through satellite links will be among the most feasible solutions for long distance transportation of information. Wired connections are also feasible means of connecting Hong Kong's information infrastructure with other countries. Probably, the Government has limited role to play in the development of global connection technology. Nonetheless, the Government must employ the best possible technology to establish reliable global connections.
9. The next issue is the development of supporting softwares. This aspect of the IT development includes, at the lowest level, the standardization of software platforms for transporting information on the hardware networks. At the next level up, exchange of information from different groups of users should be facilitated through the standardization of protocols. Hence, heterogeneous computing environments are permitted in the networks. For instance, electronic mails can be sent from a cc:MAIL system of a commercial establishment to a UNIX mail system in an academic institution. As another example, the broadcasting of TELETEXT can be made standardized so that only standard software is needed in home TV sets to retrieve information like stock price, typhoon signal, etc. from the networks.
10. Needless to say, the Government will play an extremely important role in the process of establishing the information infrastructure for Hong Kong, in both hardware and software aspects. Specifically, the Government must set up expert groups to review network plannings, topologies, standards, quality assurance issues, priorities of services in the use of networks, and global connections.
11. Hong Kong has its own strengths and attractiveness in IT development. Hong Kong is a business and financial centre which should be a good test-bed for developing different software packages to be applicable to the business and financial world. Also, Hong Kong is a bilingual city which has strong communication networks in the East-Asian Region, China and other parts of the world. To attract international companies for realization of such objectives, the Government could give incentive by relaxing the tax, ..., etc. Local companies might also be supported by providing some start-up funds.
12. The Government should take initiatives to build up a high-tech infrastructure through which strategic projects similar to that of the multimedia corridor in Malaysia could be launched. This can reflect the Government's commitment to developing Information Technology in the long run and by employing local expertise in doing such projects, it can help train the local top-level expertise required for the future development of the industry. In addition, we can by this way convince international corporations that Hong Kong does possess the expertise required in the field.
13. In addition, the Government can, at this initial stage, invite some large and well- established companies to set up Research and Development Centres to be located in applied research oriented tertiary institutions to focus on specific areas of development that have great potentials. The Government may give incentive to such companies by providing space for the research and/or some resources for hiring local graduates and the front-loading costs. It can help to build up internationally the image of Hong Kong as an IT city, which supports IT developments and in the long run trains expertise to further develop in the industry.
14. The Hong Kong Government could also establish a software research & development (R&D) centre to focus on research in issues related to software development and to initiate and finance software development projects. It will also provide training beds for IT graduates.
15. To facilitate R&D, the Industry Support Fund should be reviewed so that the results of the previous funding should be summarised and the Fund's effectiveness be evaluated. In addition, the evaluation criteria for the Fund should be explicit. It could also give preference to projects that involve collaboration between academics and the industry, ..., etc. Regarding the Applied Research Fund, the amount that is currently available for each project is too minimal and the scheme should be expanded.
16. Even if funding ($500 million) is injected to develop marketable IT products or prototypes, if the products are not manufactured and marketed, the commercialization process is incomplete. It will be desirable to have special funding to support the establishment of new companies to assist IT professionals, in cooperation with marketing and management professionals, to develop, manufacture and market new products.
17. To make Hong Kong a leader in the information world, we offer the following suggestions in response to the four "things" raised in the policy speech:
a) High capacity communication system
Hong Kong should join the US initiative to set up the second Internet which provides much wider bandwidth.
b) A common software interface
Obviously, the web browser is the appropriate common interface. Web browsers
with plug-ins can be used as universal client and communication tool. Extranet
would be built among corporations and Government.
Before we have trained sufficient IT professionals, we can recruit overseas experts to take part in setting up and using the new technologies.
d) A cultural environment
Organize competitions to award new ways of doing things that improve productivity and making the most out of the technology.
18. In coordinating the overall IT development in Hong Kong, the following steps are highly advisable:
- Commitment to join the second Internet which is an open, common interface information infrastructure.
- Follow the standard protocol of Internet as an appropriate regulatory framework to interconnection between networks within or outside SAR.
- The Government could encourage the development of web-based applications by setting up resource centres and gather a central team of experts to provide consultancy services in this area. This employment of the World Wide Web as a common interface in the public and private sectors will no doubt accelerate the use of IT in Hong Kong.
- The experience and knowledge of the pilot project teams should be transferred to other people in the field.
19. The second aspect of IT development in Hong Kong is education. As rightly pointed out in the Chief Executive's policy address, people are an important factor that determines whether Hong Kong is to lead or to follow. In the part of the Chief Executive's Policy Address on IT education strategy, some preliminary plans are mentioned. For instance, 25% of curriculum will be supported by IT in five years time, more personal computers will be provided for use in secondary schools, training programmes will be provided for teachers, all schools will be connected to the Internet, etc.
20. However, what the Policy Address lacks is the most important question of HOW all these are to be done. To probe further, it should be pointed out that buying new computers for schools can help only if the schools are capable of putting these computers to good use. Personal computers can be outdated very quickly and many functions can become obsolete in a relatively short period of time. The Government must therefore also provide the necessary curriculum support for schools to make good use of the computers.
21. New curricula must be developed ahead of the arrival of computers in schools in order to ensure proper utilization of the resources. The development of new IT-based curricula is an area in which local universities can actively contribute. To this end, part of the research efforts in universities should be directed to the development of new IT-based curricula for primary and secondary schools.
22. Clearly, much coordination is required to ensure that the curricula are of high quality, suit the local needs, and are delivered on time. Perhaps the biggest problem that can be anticipated at this stage is related to the training of teachers in IT use. Teachers cannot be trained overnight to acquire the necessary level of proficiency in IT use. A special training centre must be established to provide effective training programmes for school teachers who are not versed in IT. Perhaps the function of the IT Education Resource Centre mentioned in the Chief Executive's Address should be extended to include the institution of effective training programmes for teachers. Alternatively, instead of trying to train all teachers?IT skills in a short period of five years, the Government could employ part-time instructors with IT expertise to train the students. Many outstanding students in the universities are capable of doing this.
23. In that respect, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) can play a significant role in helping the Government to do the training by providing short term or one year part-time course for the eligible teachers. Besides, PolyU can also develop some CAL packages, to help self-learning by dedicated teachers, who would be backed up by a resource centre, where they could seek help for any queries/difficulties encountered.
24. Regional computer centres staffed with IT consultants could be established in different districts of Hong Kong to allow secondary students to use computing facilities after school. All computers in schools should be connected to Internet so that students could access the information highway for instructional activities. It will be desirable to set up a local mega mirror site of educational resources so that most multimedia enhanced web pages are available locally and the access time will be substantially reduced.
25. There is an important aspect of IT education which is totally ignored in the Chief Executive's Address. In order for Hong Kong to lead, rather than to follow, we must have an appropriate higher education policy that addresses the training of IT professionals. We need the best engineers who are able to understand IT and create new innovations in IT. This will require formal training programmes in universities covering fundamental theory of information processing and the enabling electronic technologies. Without proper tertiary programmes in IT, our future IT professionals will make very limited contributions in the creation of innovative technologies and will hardly be leading the IT development. The Government should also consider expanding IT education programmes in universities.
26. Finally, it is important to nourish an IT culture in Hong Kong. Already the young students are browsing through the Internet, seeing pictures and movies at remote web sites, shopping around for their favourite sport shoes, etc. But what we need, in addition, is the appreciation of the use of IT in everyday life and the general understanding of the basic operations and limitations.
27. In a healthy IT cultural environment, people should be able to identify IT as a general tool for a variety of activities. For instance, in business, IT is used to facilitate accounting, inter-department communication, electronic mailing, conferencing, etc. At homes, people may use IT for receiving TV broadcast, Government notices, commercial advertisements, or even emergency connections to clinics, etc. On the road, IT helps monitor traffic conditions, collect tolls, etc. Only with a broad understanding and exposure to IT will people be able to effectively utilize the technology, and with proper education will people be able to contribute to the art and create new possibilities.
28. On behalf of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, I hope we have provided some thoughts in the IT development for the future of Hong Kong.
Director of Information Technology Services
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
5 November 1997
Last Updated on 7 December 1997