Big-data gurus such as Wu are providing a sharper picture of China's economy than government statistics, which can be twisted to fit the state’s agenda or remain frustratingly incomplete. "We were running around pointing a flashlight at various things like labor or ports," says Jeffrey Towson, a professor of investment at Guanghua School of Management at Peking University. "This new information is like turning on the lights, and you see everything."
Baidu handles 6 billion searches a day and dominates mobile mapping. The data show, for example, how many people visit Apple's Chinese stores, which can signal interest in the next iPhone. Wu used the search and map data to find so-called ghost cities - where dozens of new apartment and commercial buildings stand empty - betrayed by a lack of mobile phone activity. He and his team have devised gauges of mall traffic, tourism and industrial and high-tech employment.
“We didn’t know if there was any commercial value,” Wu says at Baidu’s campus in northwest Beijing. It didn’t take long to find out: Institutional investors quickly discovered Wu’s gauges after they were released in June. Baidu has rivals as well. Alibaba reported 3.1tr yuan ($450bn) of online shopping in the last fiscal year, almost equal to Sweden’s gross domestic product. Cheng Xin, who works at Alibaba’s research arm, is developing a measure of the overall economy based on readings from its Taobao e-commerce platform and data it buys from other companies, such as transaction figures from Soufun.com, China’s biggest real estate web portal.
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