Japan has built the world’s largest national economic data viz tool

The 'RESAS' system should help regional government plan and enact better policy

Japan’s national government is shaping city and prefectural level cooperation to enhance the competitive strength of regions toward “win-win” outcomes. Key to this management is Japan’s new purpose-tailored database, RESAS, the Regional Economy Society Analysing System.

The project is being led by Japan’s Cabinet Secretariat Headquarters for Overcoming Population Decline and Vitalising Local Economy, which seeks to use data and information technology to tackle the challenges of an ageing population, the low national birth rate, overall population decline, emptying of rural areas, and declining regional economies.

The government aims to achieve regional revitalisation, creating autonomous, sustainable communities based on unique local characteristics.

Bird’s eye to granular

Takram, a design innovation firm with studios in Tokyo and London, helped to design and implement RESAS. They describe it as “the world’s largest visualisation system for a nation’s economic big data” and that “it allows users to have both an overview and specific insights to improve decision making”.

The system gives the user “two viewpoints: a geographical bird’s eye view and an analytical breakdown. These two viewpoints interact with each other — users can manipulate the map and the resulting datasets are examined in the analysis view in real time.”

RESAS has been populating its databanks for over two years now, aggregating and charting public and private data on industrial structure and population dynamics, and in 2017 issued its RESAS Utilization Case Study Collection, a compendium of thirty-one cases where RESAS data was assessed and used as a cornerstone for planning solutions.

Participation in RESAS has been robust, with 1,728 municipalities out of 1,788 local governments (including 47 prefectures, 1,718 municipalities, and Tokyo’s 23 wards) filing data used for examining policy planning and policy effectiveness verification.

The data is also being accessed by financial institutions and chambers of commerce, as well as industrial and educational institutions.

Sukehiro Hosono, professor of Public Policy at Tokyo’s Chuo University, is a former president of the Japan Public Policy Association. He detailed how RESAS represents a departure from the normal form-filling data dumps of the past.

“Local governments have been forced to report the population and demography, economic performance, etc., by the central government, but they have hardly known the use and meaning [(of this data]),” he said.

Hosono believes that the “comparative studies between local regions provided by RESAS are very essential” for improving local governance measures.

He said that one key advantage of RESAS is “the opportunity for statistical comparative study at round tables composed of local government officers, socio-economic groups, industrialists, NPOs/NGOs, and ordinary residents.”

RESAS in action

Some 31 cases that have resulted in formal planning are included in the 2017 RESAS Utilization Case Study Collection.

For the Fukuoka Prefectural Government, RESAS has provided access to a wide variety of data that now allows staff members to plot the types of comprehensive regional strategies formerly contracted to outside consulting firms.

Numerous examples of RESAS being used by local planning groups can be viewed here.

Professor Hosono characterizes RESAS as part of a cooperative development solution to Japan’s downhill demographics: “Japan’s population is declining [due to the] low birth rate,” he said. “The population size of Japan is not sustainable. And, [domestic internal] population migration with this tendency toward decline invites zero-sum gamesmanship between local areas.”

Professor Hosono enthusiastically commented that “SWOT procedures [analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats] with numbers are very effective using RESAS data.”

However, he noted that this remains a best case scenario, and that the massive data load that RESAS provides can frequently be overwhelming. “The competence of local office level staff (is such that they) can hardly use the RESAS system in order to effectively utilise SWOT strategic analysis based upon statistical data,” Hosono said.

Autonomy is an important aspect of the RESAS project; that is, giving local governments the tools needed to conceive and implement revitalization efforts of their own. “The main role of local governments is making strategy with RESAS data and systems to be a sustainable local society which can supply public services, especially welfare and medical policy and support, and adequate industrial policy,” Professor HOSONO said.

One RESAS visualisation project assisting decision making is a hospital and welfare analysis site that can provide a quick understanding of the average patient load of area hospitals throughout the country.

RESAS administrators describe the database’s strength as helping “to promote the [individual] region’s analysis of its own strengths, weaknesses and issues and to examine the solution, promote EBPM [Evidence-Based Policy Making] instead of [just] intuition, experience and belief.”

The RESAS administrators explained, “As an ‘entrance’ to the utilization of rural [policy] creation, RESAS is a system which makes publicly visible various data of the public and private sectors concerning the regional economy in an easy to understand manner by maps and graphs.”

The RESAS digestible data and graphics are a departure from the common Japanese word processor generated data dumps.

RESAS is part of the Japanese government’s actions following the promulgation of the “Act on Overcoming Population Decline and Vitalizing Local Economy in Japan” in 2014.

Hosono reflected on some of the RESAS success stories to date: “We have…[success] cases in Japan from the point of population and the job market. If success means the formation of alliances or cooperation beyond local specific interests, Mid-Hokkaido, and the nine local governments’ summit in the Tama Area [west of Tokyo] are [example] cases to improve low growth population and local economy.”

RESAS is still a work in progress, and Professor Hosono acknowledges that it may be able to widen its scope to include data input currently in development: “The data contents are partially not up to date and inadequate. IoT (data would) suggest the imperfection of the RESAS system and [the need for] quick responses to users’ requests,” he said. — Steve Ross

(Picture Credit: MaxPixel)

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