SOGO crossing, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong at night
Sogo Junction in Causeway Bay, where ambient noise levels can reach 118 decibels. Photo by James Shandlon
After Karl Sluis’ richly-detailed map of New York City noise complaints was featured on The Atlantic Cities, my editor at the South China Morning Post got in touch about making a similar map for Hong Kong.
Hong Kong can be an intensely noisy place: roaring buses, skull-shattering pile-driving, incessant jackhammers, video billboards set to max volume. Ambient noise levels in Causeway Bay can reach 118 decibels — equivalent to sandblasting or a rock concert. Paradoxically, the noisiness of everyday life here seems to have made people less tolerant of things like outdoor concerts, which are always plagued by noise complaints. Just as Sluis did in New York, mapping those noise complaints would provide insight into Hong Kong’s geography of noise.
But we failed. That’s because every attempt I made to extract precise data on noise complaints from the Hong Kong government were met by obfuscation and outright refusal. Not only does this point to the government’s lack of transparency, it raises questions about how seriously it is committed to handling Hong Kong’s noise problem.
The problem is that, when it comes to noise, the government just doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. “There are not any comprehensive and detailed noise pollution surveys and studies in Hong Kong,” says Yip Yan-yan, chief operating officer of think tank Civic Exchange. The only way to reduce noise pollution is to analyse it — and to make those findings available to the public.
Most noise complaints are dealt with by the Environmental Protection Department and the police. When I requested specific information on the dates, locations and nature of recent complaints, a spokeswoman for the EPD said she could only provide me with district-level information. At the same time, a duty officer for the police said the number of noise complaints received by the force would have to be individually tallied by district commanders and they were “too busy” to provide precise information; only numbers for five central districts were provided.
The numbers the EPD and police did provide me shows that noise pollution remains a persistent problem in Hong Kong. Last year, 15,692 noise complaints were received by the police and EPD in the four central districts of Hong Kong, including Central, Wan Chai, Yau Tsim Mong and Sham Shui Po.
The EPD “does register and maintain precise location data of premises being complained,” the spokeswoman told me, but it will not release it to the public because it “does not provide much useful information on the actual noise climate or the nature of noise problems in individual areas.” In other words, the government is deciding on the public’s behalf that it doesn’t have any use for precise information on noise complaints.
By contrast, New York City releases all noise complaint data on its Open Data website, which provides raw, open-source data to the public. That’s how Karl Sluis was able to make his map. “What got me excited was the combination of geolocation data, time data, and, particularly, the metadata on what type of complaint had been filed,” he says.
That treasure trove of data helped Sluis chart New York noise with more nuance than anyone before. Among his map’s more remarkable revelations was a striking disparity between rich and poor neighbourhoods: upper-middle-class areas like the Upper West Side saw relatively few noise complaints, but working-class neighbourhoods like East Harlem reported nearly as many noise problems as Times Square, suggesting authorities deal with noise more seriously in rich parts of town.
It’s possible a similar situation exists in Hong Kong, but without open-source data, there’s no way to know. “There’s potential for the government to be embarrassed – it’s like having an auditor, and that’s why they drag their feet on releasing information,” says Darcy Wade Christ, a researcher for the University of Hong Kong Journalism and Media Studies Centre’s Open Government initiative, which is pushing for more transparency in the Hong Kong government.
Although the Hong Kong government does have an open-data initiative, Data One, which was set up three years ago, it has released only a small amount of information to the public. The EPD says it cannot provide open-source data on noise complaints because it would need to “reengineer our operation system in order to provide the service.”
The police didn’t even bother replying to my questions about their data collection practices — each of the duty officers I spoke to made it clear that they didn’t think it was worth their time.
“This is standard practice – everyone gives reasons why they can’t do it,” says Christ. “It’s hard for the government to say whether the information is useful or not. Show us the data and we’ll tell you if it’s useful.”
Last year, the EPD spent about HK$100 million to fight noise pollution — 4 percent of its annual budget, according to a report submitted to a Legco panel on pollution by the Environment Bureau. The EPD regulates noise from construction work and commercial and industrial activities; neighbourhood noise is dealt with by the police, which did not disclose its expenditures.
In a submission this week to the Legco pollution panel, Civic Exchange says the government is not doing enough to stop noise pollution at its source, arguing that — rather than waiting for complaints — it should take a “proactive stance on investigating and controlling noise sources.”
In the meantime, the buses will continue to roar, jackhammers will keep drilling and loudspeakers will squawk as loudly as ever.
Another version of this story appeared in the Sunday Morning Post on June 2, 2013.