A well-made map not only helps users navigate the world, but also includes an array of useful geographical information. To a professional surveyor like VTC alumna Winnie Shiu, a map is a useful tool to combat the pandemic, or even a basis for building a smart city. Having been a civil servant for almost 30 years, Winnie has facilitated many breakthroughs and innovations in her professional endeavours. Early on, she was involved in the making of a pioneering online street map known as CentaMap. She then served as the inaugural Head of Spatial Data Office, driving the sharing of spatial data resources among all government departments. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she proposed an interactive map dashboard for the public to combat the virus. She was even invited to be a principal adviser for the former Food and Health Bureau. Though she was retired from civil service in 2022, Winnie remains active in the surveying industry, while contributing her extensive experiences to nurture new generations of professional talent through the International Federation of Surveyors.
Leveraging professional knowledge to fight pandemic
Throughout her 30-year career in the government, Winnie remembers most vividly an episode in the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. In January 2020, she was on vacation overseas when she came across a TV news report on Hong Kong’s first imported case which worried her deeply. In the following days, the number of positive cases soared alarmingly. At that time, she was the Head of Spatial Data Office under the Development Bureau. Although she was on vacation, her sense of responsibility urged her to contribute her professional knowledge in dire straits. She had a map dashboard on her mind, using Geographic Information System (GIS) to track confirmed cases and monitor the spread. On the other hand, the platform would also help the public keep abreast of the latest status of the pandemic.
After studying the situation, she informed her supervisors of her idea. On the day after she returned to Hong Kong, she held a meeting with several government departments and community organisations, who jointly decided to work on an interactive map dashboard in full swing. In just 3 days, Hong Kong’s first ever GIS-enabled platform for the provision of pandemic information to the general public was launched in early February. By the Q3 of 2022, the dashboard has attracted more than 88 million views.
Passion lays foundation for career to take off
Winnie has always been passionate about her profession, curious about the unknown, and courageous to take on challenges. When asked how she got into the surveying profession, she said it was simply out of curiosity. Back then, it was quite common to see workers operating surveying instruments on tripod on the streets. Winnie was desperate to know the mechanism behind those instruments. So she enrolled in the diploma programme in Building Studies at Morrison Hill Technical Institute, the predecessor of IVE (Morrison Hill). Throughout the programme, she fell in love with surveying subjects which were also the subjects she got the highest scores. Upon graduation, she pursued further education at North East London Polytechnic (now known as University of East London, or UEL in short) in the U.K. for a bachelor’s degree in surveying and mapping sciences. According to Winnie, there were only two institutes in the U.K. offering related programmes at the point. Besides UEL, the other one was the Royal Military School. Thus, the competition for places at UEL was very intense.
After graduating from UEL, Winnie stayed in the U.K. to accumulate experiences. It was the 1980s when generating maps with computer technologies became popular in the surveying industry. In order to acquire the status of a chartered surveyor, she took on the tough challenge of writing computer codes for a surveying programme that processed and analysed data for the best surveying solutions. With this programme, she was granted her chartered status in 1989 and her programme was picked up by her employer at the time right away.
Timely mastering of new technologies; rising to the occasion
Later on, she changed jobs and joined another company to work on GIS-related projects. In the 1990s, GIS was still a relatively new technology not many were familiar with. Her daily routine was to explain to the upper management from various sectors, such as real estate developers and oil companies, how GIS was relevant to their trades and persuade them to adopt GIS solutions. In the process, she earned much insight on the needs of different industries and it was truly an eye-opener for her.
After staying in the U.K. for 10 years, Winnie returned to Hong Kong at the request of her family. She decided to write to Lands Department of the Hong Kong Government to recommend herself for the position of land surveyor. At that time, most land surveyors in the civil service started out as assistants first. Some of them were recommended for admission to schools in the U.K. before they could be chartered. Winnie became one of the few land surveyors in the government, who had acquired professional qualifications, chartered status and practical experiences before joining the civil service. After she assumed duty, she was posted to various departments, including Housing Department, Civil Engineering and Development Department, Lands Department, Development Bureau and Health Bureau. As time goes by, she climbed the hierarchal ladder steadily.
During her tenure with the government, Winnie was part of the team in charge of creating CentaMap, a free web map jointly produced by the government and a private company. CentaMap was launched in November 1999 and is still running at present. Winnie remarked that it was the time when the internet started to gain popularity. The government wishes the community to experience the convenience of using online map data. That was why the government pursued this public-private partnership which became the pioneer of web-based street map in Hong Kong. “The role played by the government at that time was to provide public information, such as traffic data, which was not accessible by private companies.” Many Hong Kong people still use this map till this day.
Promoting data sharing; building a smart city
Winnie believes that the combination of map and data would propel Hong Kong’s transformation into a smart city. The Development Bureau established the Spatial Data Office in 2019 to promote the sharing of spatial data between government departments and public organisations. Winnie was appointed the inaugural Head of the Office so that she had the chance to put her philosophy in practice. In the West, much public data is available for people to access and such practice helps governments improve urban governance. But in Hong Kong, the concept was just emerging and rather unheard-of. It was quite a big challenge for her.
Another tough task was to persuade various government departments to standardise and upload data to the platform for public access. A myriad of departments were involved, and each of them had different concerns, such as how much data should be disclosed and why they need to share such data with other departments. As Winnie recalled, the lobbying process was not easy because “it was a new concept and I got a lot of explaining to do to let them know the rationale behind and the advantages of making spatial data public.” A trial is currently underway among government departments for internal use, with the target to open the first Common Spatial Data Infrastructure for public access by the end of 2022. The platform is expected to provide more than 500 spatial datasets from over 50 government departments, covering town planning, land administration, building, engineering, population, transportation etc.
Treading new ground on the path of professionalism
Winnie has always been enthusiastic about giving back to her professional community, and was elected the President of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors from 2019 to 2020. Though she left the government in recent months, she has no plans to retire yet. Instead, she keeps taking on new challenges and devotes her time and energy on supporting the surveying profession internationally. She was also elected Vice President of the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) for the next term from 2023-2026, being the first Asian woman to hold this position. She will strive to support and promote international collaborations among surveyors from around the world for the progress of surveying in all its fields and applications.
Winnie believes GIS technology has become the professional strength of land surveyors. In future, GIS will be combined with Building Information Modelling (BIM) for wider applications, and instead of just collecting data by measuring distances and angles, the role played by surveyors will be a lot more diversified. She referred to her own experience as an example and encouraged young surveyors to pursue their dreams. “Land surveyors’ strength lies in location-based services, which are highly useful in different contexts and the society can benefit from our expertise.” She believes young people should dare to dream, dare to be, pursue lifelong learning, never stay still, and always equip themselves in anticipation of the future.