Backwater s Province's Big Bet on Big Data

Big data is a big deal in China, and nowhere is this truer than in Guizhou, a remote, impoverished province in southwestern China where the provincial government is trying to build a big data industry from scratch.


Backwater s Province's Big Bet on Big Data

As He Yuan — a manager at the Shanghai-based company Beige Big Data, which has an office in Guizhou — put it to me in a recent visit to the province: “Everyone wants a piece of big data … Many still haven’t figured out what the term means, exactly”.

Despite this lingering confusion, the Chinese government seems fully invested in what The New York Times columnist David Brooks refers to as “data-ism” — the belief that “everything that can be measured should be measured; that data is a transparent and reliable lens that allows us to filter out emotionalism and ideology; that data will help us do remarkable things — like foretell the future.” And Guizhou — a province less commonly associated with cutting-edge technology and more often with rugged mountains, poor soil, and extreme poverty — is trying to position itself at the forefront of this nationwide push. Yet for all its leaders’ grand ambitions, several hurdles remain to be overcome. In particular, if the province hopes to train or attract skilled talent, it needs to first revamp its public image.

There are signs of the government’s drive all over Guizhou. At a newly constructed plaza in Gui’an New Area — located outside the provincial capital of Guiyang — construction workers smoke on public benches designed to spell out “BIG DATA” in English. In Guiyang itself, the new high-rises lining one of its main thoroughfares, South Changling Road, are all plastered with big data company logos.

The province’s embrace of big data dates back to 2014. Tang Chen, the director of marketing at the data-trade startup Global Big Data Exchange, says the provincial authorities’ proactive approach to the industry has played a big role in convincing many big data technology companies to relocate their headquarters to the region. Founded in 2015, GBDE — which claims to have registered over 2,000 members and processed more than 300 million yuan ($43.1 million) in transactions — is an example of the kind of businesses now setting up shop in the province.


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