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Karsts, kiwifruit and big data

By Erik Nilsson | China Daily | Updated: 2018-12-29 08:00
A bird's-eye view of Shuicheng, Guizhou province. [Photo/China Daily New Media Center]

Guizhou has transformed its notoriously juddering terrain from a bane into a boon. Turns out, tricky geology can advance technology, Erik Nilsson discovers.

Editor's Note: This is Part 3 of the six-part Yangtze diaries series based on journalist Erik Nilsson's recent 35-day, 2,000-kilometer journey to 11 cities to discover how the Yangtze River Economic Belt has transformed over the 40 years since the reform and opening-up. Scan the code to watch the video.

I recently used an app to water a mountainside kiwi field in Guizhou's Shuicheng. A few taps on a phone and the taps of the sprinkler systems started spurting.

It was one of several experiences that showed me how topographically treacherous Guizhou - one of China's poorest provinces for time immemorial - is turning its geological disadvantages into technological advantages.

Turns out, big data has climate preferences - cool and stable - and is averse to seismic twitchiness.

And Guizhou's karsts, which have long stood as obstacles to its development, sire ideal conditions for data storage.

Much of this is concentrated around the capital, Guiyang - aka, the "city of eternal spring". The city has an average temperature of 22 C and rarely registers anything beyond magnitude-3 tremors.

So, China selected Guizhou as the site of the country's first comprehensive big data experimental zone.

Big data has contributed over 20 percent of Guizhou's annual growth from 2014 to the end of 2017.

I visited a park with 29 buildings that house 60,000 cabinets and 800,000 servers. It hosts data centers for such telecom giants as China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom. Huawei's data center is under construction.

The porous, melted-limestone landscapes are pocked with a honeycomb of caves particularly ideal for data hardware.

One of the centers is contained in a man-made tunnel connecting two mountains. Its natural ventilation saves energy, my guide told me.

The park includes a district in which the province has concentrated its major universities to cultivate talent for the industry.

It's also producing the semiconductors used to store and process big data - "like the neurons in a giant brain", as one producer put it.

Thus, Guizhou's otherwise-hazardous topography has led to an explosion of big data's development in the province and throughout the country.

The app I used at the 400-hectare agricultural-technology-demonstration park built in Shuicheng six years ago operates according to a big data system adopted last year.

Sensors monitor such conditions as sunlight, moisture, nutrition, temperature and pests, and relay the information to the app.

The app can perform such actions as watering and fertilizing fields according to the data. This reduces human labor - and error.

"It requires electricity", agronomist Zhang Rongquan told me, "which comes from that", he said, pointing to a waterfall blasting down a mountainside

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