Public departments accumulate huge amounts of data every day. Cai Tianji, associate dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences (FSS) and head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Macau (UM), says this data, most of which was formerly archived, can now be transformed into valuable social insights. These insights not only enhance public services, but may also facilitate in-depth and far-reaching academic research.

Demonstrating the Predictive Power of Social Sciences
In recent years, the Macao SAR Government has been improving its integrated service applications, and has launched an open data platform. Such initiatives show the government’s effort to consolidate data from different departments and an emphasis on the rising importance of data science in public service delivery. According to Prof Cai, the government can extract valuable information from the vast amounts of data by leveraging big data technologies, thus gaining a clearer understanding of societal needs and enabling more efficient public services. For instance, by analysing pedestrian and vehicular traffic data, the government can provide more accurate and detailed traffic information, in addition to enhancing the planning of transport infrastructure. Furthermore, the adoption of natural language processing technology enables accurate analysis of public opinion concerning policies and legislation. As a computational social science scholar, Prof Cai notes that a growing number of scholars are exploring social issues through technologies such as text mining, image analysis, and network analysis. ‘The integration of the traditional narrative approach in social sciences with the predictive capabilities of data science is pushing the frontiers of academic research,’ he says.

Nurturing Talent for Government Innovations
From the 2021/2022 academic year, UM’s Institute of Collaborative Innovation, in collaboration with FSS, has introduced a Smart Governance specialisation under its Master of Science in Data Science programme. As the coordinator of this specialisation, Prof Cai says, ‘Students will acquire a comprehensive skill set about data collection, text analysis and data visualisation, enabling them to handle different data types such as policy documents, media reports, public opinion, and records of public sector activities.’ Over the past two years, Prof Cai and his colleagues have mentored students in a series of quantitative social science research projects, topics of which include analysing the government’s response to citizens’ online appeals to evaluate service quality, and using machine learning models to predict the growth of solid waste in Macao. ‘Macao has one of the world’s highest per capita solid waste generation rates,’ says Prof Cai. ‘Along with a rebound in tourist numbers this year, the challenges of waste management are intensifying. Accurate prediction of waste volumes is indispensable for long-term policy formulation and infrastructure planning.’

Prof Cai says that if Macao wants to have more intelligent public services, it is necessary to have data science professionals who have a deep understanding of social dynamics. The Smart Governance specialisation is tailored to meet this need. ‘Our graduates are proficient in big data technologies, which they can apply in different work settings including government departments, research institutes, and social service organisations. Moreover, they are capable of conducting frontier academic research to address social issues,’ he says.