In an effort to improve services for its rapidly growing elderly population, China is digitally tracking people over the age of 80 every time they take a bus, go shopping or see a doctor.
The data collected with each swipe of the multi-purpose "Beijing Connect" old person's card goes into a database and can help authorities in many ways. China is already trying to cope with its burgeoning population of over-60s, which stands at 3 million. This initiative also demonstrates China’s ability to use big data to better direct the use of government resources for the country's 1.4 billion people.
The government wants to use new technology and its heavily censored internet to innovate and propel the transformation to a services-based economy. It's a strategy that Premier Li Keqiang believes "will trigger a new Industrial Revolution."
The Beijing Connect card functions as an ID and gives free access to public transport and public parks. The government also tops up the card with 100 yuan ($15) each month, and cardholders can activate an additional function to enable them to use it as a bank card onto which money can be transferred from an account. Family members of card users say the card is accepted in select shops and restaurants and can also be used to hire services, such as cleaning, and take out a newspaper subscription.
The Beijing municipal government is collecting the data on the elderly in order to make sure that it has the necessary budget and services in place for the future, taking into account people's decreasing mobility, said Bai Qiang, vice president of Beijing Community Service Association, a city government agency.
"All of the data we are collecting now, including visits to parks, the use of public transport and (numbers of) shopping trips, will help us to predict whether the elderly will become disabled in the future," Bai said.
If an elderly man is paying fewer visits to parks or taking fewer bus rides this will show up in the data. With the help of this data the government will be able to predict the disability rate in the future and prepare a budget plan accordingly in advance, Bai said.
A violation of privacy?
Cardholders interviewed by the Associated Press said they were not concerned about the loss of privacy. They praised the programme as being far more convenient than the coupons the government used to give them for the same services.
"I've no worries. Elderly people don't have any secrets," said Liu Huizhen, 84, who was using her card to buy steamed bread in a small supermarket.
"It's hard for elderly people to count coin-by-coin," Liu said. "And when you take the bus you just swipe the card, it's very simple and convenient."
Bai says the data is confidential and cannot be accessed or distributed by anyone without government approval.
"What we are doing is not monitoring, but collecting the data," he said. "All the data we collect aims to enable the government to provide better services to the elderly. For example, if we detected that a type of service was in great demand, we would get in touch with the relevant companies to request a discount."
A step towards good governance
In an effort to promote big data, China's Cabinet issued a plan in August, calling for allowing greater access and sharing of government data in a step which it is believed would also improve governance.
The southern province of Guangdong was the first to respond the call. On April 25 the province announced a strategy to promote the collection and use of big data. This data sharing includes the integration of air and water monitoring information with pollution forecasting, the creation of electronic medical records and the sharing of information on tourists travelling to scenic spots to better manage traffic.
The Guangdong plan also called for the collection of population data on the elderly and a "comprehensive analysis" of their service needs, similar to what Beijing is now offering.
Development of big data infrastructure
While China is still behind countries such as the United States, Britain and Germany in terms of the development of big data infrastructure, it is unique in its commitment to the project and the speed with which it is progressing, said Zhang Yue, managing director of The Boston Consulting Group in China.
Although China's national and local governments, ministries and departments are the owners of a large quantity of financial, residential and other data, they have yet to share the information among themselves, Zhang said.
"The government has realised that if they want to really take full advantage of (what is in) their possession they need to integrate those, otherwise the value of the data is quite limited," she added.
At the same time, China needs to deal with the needs of a rapidly aging population, the result of rapid economic development, longer lifespans and a strict, 35-year-long family planning policy that limited births, creating a shrinking working-age population.
Other regional authorities are also using data-gathering to help the elderly. The northeastern city of Shenyang is trying to use the information on the 1.6 million older residents in its database to better match them up with its more than 160 old people's homes.
Beijing's database, set up last year, aims to improve home-based care. It includes information on the numbers of elderly living alone, their incomes, and those requiring meal deliveries or simply someone to talk to. Elderly people applying for the card fill out registration forms with government offices found in every neighbourhood.
Why is demography so important to China?
China's Government expects 30 percent of the city's population to be aged 60 or above by 2030.
By the end of 2015, the elderly accounted for 23.4 percent of the city's registered population, Li Hongbing, deputy head of the Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau, told the Beijing Daily.
Li said one in three registered Beijing citizens will be over 60 in 2050. He added that in 2020, the city will pay out 200 billion yuan in old-age pensions and the amount is expected to surge to 670 billion in 2030.
End of China's one-child policy
January 1, 2016 marked the end of China's 40-year-long one-child policy. However, families will still need government-issued birth permits. Couples in China can now request to have two children. Those breaking the law have been penalised with losing state benefits.
The country's ageing population, coupled with one of the lowest birth rates in the world, prompted the change in policy.