17th April 2024 – (Hong Kong) Hong Kong’s ambitious drive to become a smart city has seen the implementation of several electronic systems aimed at streamlining services and enhancing efficiency. From the SmartPLAY sports system to the HKeToll road payment service, these initiatives promise a future where daily activities are more convenient and less time-consuming. However, the journey has not been without its challenges, as recent events have shown the vulnerability of these systems to technical issues, causing not just inconvenience but also significant legal and financial repercussions for the users.

The vision of a seamless digital experience was momentarily tarnished when systems like the SmartPLAY and the electronic voter register for district council elections experienced disruptions. More recently, during the crucial Diploma of Secondary Education examinations, the Check-in Smart (HKDSE) and i-Invigilation (HKDSE) platforms suffered glitches that potentially compromised the fairness and integrity of this academic milestone.

Moreover, the HKeToll system, which was designed to eliminate the need for stopping at toll booths thus easing traffic congestion significantly, faced its own set of teething problems. Within its first month of operation, there was a flurry of complaints, and one particular case saw a vehicle owner slapped with a hefty fine of over HK$170,000 for unpaid tolls, turning the promise of ‘easy passage’ into a veritable nightmare.

The frequent breakdowns and glitches raise important questions about the readiness and reliability of Hong Kong’s digital infrastructure. It is essential to inquire whether these systems were rushed into operation without adequate trials or whether the oversight mechanisms in place are sufficient to foresee and forestall such issues.

The Transport Department, in addressing the Legislative Council’s Finance Committee, noted that since the implementation of HKeToll in May last year, there have been over 20,376 inquiries or complaints related to toll fees, which translates to an average of about 68 cases daily. This figure, though representing a minuscule percentage of the total traffic, highlights the significant impact on those affected.

In response to the growing discontent, service providers have taken steps to enhance system recognition capabilities and improve frontline staff training. Additionally, comprehensive guides and tutorial videos on proper installation of vehicle tags and driver cards have been made available. These are positive steps, but they come after the fact and serve more as damage control rather than preventive measures.

The essence of smart city initiatives should be not just about implementing cutting-edge technology but also about foreseeing potential challenges and preparing for them. The government and service providers must adopt a more proactive approach. This includes extensive system testing, more robust public education campaigns on new systems, and perhaps most importantly, a feedback mechanism that is swift and effective in addressing the concerns of the public.

The case with the HKeToll system where a significant number of complaints were initially dismissed as user errors highlights a broader issue of accountability. It is crucial that when systems fail, there is clarity on the part of the authorities in acknowledging these failures and a clear path to remediation.

As Hong Kong continues to push forward with its smart city ambitions, it is imperative that these technological advancements are matched with an equally advanced approach to public communication, system testing, and user support. The goal should be to create systems that not only enhance the efficiency of services but also earn the trust and confidence of the public.