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Mona's Musings : Public database and public interest

【明報專訊】Last Thursday, RTHK's freelance journalist Bao Choy was found guilty of violating the Traffic Ordinance because she searched the vehicle registration database while producing the documentary "Hong Kong Connection: 7.21 Who Owns the Truth". At that time, the vehicle in question was suspected to have carried weapons that fuelled that much-traumatising 7.21 attack, where gangsters descended upon the Yuen Long MTR station and attacked commuters indiscriminately. Magistrate Ivy Chui agreed with the prosecutors that the database should only be used for "transport-related matters".

My question is, shouldn't public databases exist first and foremost for the public interest? While the data is entrusted to the government, gatekeeping and the genuine will to enhance the public interest should be balanced, in order not to let the data go to waste. In the case of Bao, the database would allow her to learn about the weapons in the attack — a matter that urgently involved public safety. Transporting weapons, in itself, is clearly a transport-related crime, or "matter", in the Magistrate's words. As for how Choy uses her retrieved data, it should have been governed by the code of conduct of journalism, itself a recognised profession with a clear set of guidelines.

Accessing public databases has never been an easy task. Sometimes, I cannot help but wonder how much innovation, justice, safety and convenience have we lost because of the rigidity around them. I recall a conversation with a purposeful programmer friend some years ago. At that time, he was trying to lobby the government to grant him the usage right of the database showing the length of queues at emergency units in hospitals across Hong Kong at any given point of time.

"The occupancy of emergency units differs day by day. Knowing the situation on ground will allow users to pick the right hospital and shorten waiting time. It also reduces wastage of manpower. Imagine you have an emergency medical case at home. Even if the situation isn't fatal, having access to such information will greatly reduce your discomfort during the wait," he enthused. Sadly, permission was never granted. Needless to say, any discussion on balancing privacy and the public good wasn't necessary either. Of course, no ordinance was allegedly violated in this case. But how much lives we have failed to help was immeasurable.

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Mona C. has a strong appetite for stories. Feed her enough.

Email:monafpchu@gmail.com

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