Feature – GIS in China: State Sanctioned Location and Data Sharing

Photo Credit: Flickr

There are some startling similarities between the US and China: a rising middle class is looking for the same lifestyle as their western counterparts, and that means demand for some of the same goods.

For many in China, these objects serve as status symbols. Smartwatches are an exploding market, but the elite sport the Apple Watch rather than the less expensive but arguably just as functional knock-offs.

But following the Apple Event 2016, another difference was highlighted, or perhaps at least brought some attention to itself. Despite the addition of Pokemon Go support to the Apple Watch 2 and the large Pokemon fan base in China, the app has yet to be released there, and it may never be.

Photo Credit: Flickr

The Google Problem

The root of the issue is that the location based augmented reality game has at its heart Google Maps. Google and China don’t play well together, in fact they don’t play at all. The two sides could not come to an agreement about privacy issues and the release of user information including their search history, and so parted ways. Google is banned in China: ergo, so is Pokemon Go.

In fact, any app must be approved by the Chinese government before it can be offered for sale, and few of those that utilize location data, especially if it is posted in any way publicly, ever make it through the process without a demand for modification.

Illegal Gaming

Gamers are still determined to play though, and while there are few holes in the Great Firewall, many still manage to use virtual private network (VPN) spoofers to play the game. It’s reached the point that neighboring countries like Japan have complained of Chinese gamers setting up gyms and catching Pokemon at places like shrines and other inappropriate locations.

If these individuals get caught, the penalties are high. China has the second highest prison population in the world, behind the United States, and violations like these are not taken lightly. The government fears gamers will give away the location of government agencies and other top secret location. There is a small contingent of conspiracy theorists who believe Pokemon Go was created by the US and Japan to spy on China.

Despite the fact that a movie studio the Chinese purchased will be releasing the first live action Pokemon movie ever, it is unlikely the government will cave to the pressure of gamers, and although they have worked with Apple in the past, the two have a strained relationship at the moment.


The Leading Edge

The Chinese citizens like to be on the leading edge, but the government often prevents this. In the area of investment, the government controls many opportunities while many citizens relish the opportunity to make something with the money they are earning. Online gambling is big in China as a result.

As is investment in Bitcoin, the digital currency based on the Block Chain model that can either be traded for goods and services online just like other currency, but can also be mined. Bitcoin mining takes a lot of computing power like banks of cooled servers, and those servers need, well, power.

Photo Courtesy Tech in Asia

“Miners’ have taken advantage of Chinese power stations created for projects that never happened and other locations where cheap power is available, and now a large percentage of the Bitcoin transactions worldwide start and stop in China. Bitcoin advocates and users fear one thing: centralization of a currency based the principle of decentralization and government regulation.

This is the same kind of censorship and regulation that has kept GIS from being the game changer in China that it has been elsewhere. Apps like Pokemon Go and other phenomena based on location data and GIS remain beyond the reach of the masses.

The Chinese government controls most things within its borders, from investments to location data of all kinds to the majority of communications from news to movies and entertainment. Millions have been invested by companies eager for a piece of this growing market segment.

Real breakthroughs in data and location sharing in China will be difficult as long as the government continues to control them. But maybe someday the citizens of Shanghai will be free to wander around the city catching Pokemon while staring at their wrists.


Troy Lambert is a freelance writer, editor, and non-profit consultant by day, and a suspense thriller author by night. He learned about the power of GIS while working as a researcher at a museum, and is always looking for ways to apply this technology and big data in new and innovative ways. Troy is an avid cyclist, skier, and hiker. He lives, works, and plays in Boise, Idaho. His work can be found at troylambertwrites.com, and you can connect with him on Twitter @tlambertwrites.

Author: GISuser

GISuser, founded by Spatial Media (2003), is the leading online technology, news resource for GIS and mapping professionals

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