By Peter Magni, with thanks to Miriam Maina
We live in an era of abundant data, but inequities and asymmetries in accessing this data have considerably stunted the collective capability to apply and re-use it for positive change. In this blog, we explore developments in Johannesburg and South Africa relating to the use, re-use, and application of urban data.
In previous blogs, we demonstrated how urban data is generated, utilised and shared internally in the City of Johannesburg to support planning, investment, and decision making, as well as for reporting and documenting impact. The South African data ecosystem also comprises private-sector data suppliers. These often provide data, analytics and information in cases where the public sector does not provide data, or when the data requires specialist analysis. Examples of commonly used private data and analytics companies include: GeoterraImage, IHS Markit, Lightstone, Quantec and Municipal IQ. Certain research institutes such as the South African Cities Network (SACN) and the Gauteng City Region Observatory (GCRO), especially its Quality of Life surveys, also provide high-level urban data to city governments.
Open Data Developments in South Africa
City governments around the world have implemented the principle of sharing city data as a civil right through online open data platforms, with varying success e.g. New York, Raleigh NC, Nairobi. Where stable open data platforms and communities have been established, the successful use and re-use of public (and private) data have produced collaborative data partnerships and communities. These have been able to extract insights, analysis and value from data, and develop new products, technologies and insights.¹ South African cities and municipalities, however, have been relatively slow to embrace open data.
In 2015, the South African Cities Network (SACN) developed the South African Cities Open Data Almanac (SCODA) with the open data advocacy NPO Open Data Durban, now known as Open City Labs (OCL). SCODA was intended to be a website where city municipalities could contribute data either as a regular data dump or in real time. This did not happen as planned, and the platform today primarily maintains SACN generated data and reports.
Some reasons for the platform’s limited use include it being external to municipal control; the lack of defined objectives to host specific datasets; and concerns that data would be misused or used for commercial purposes. Without the support of participating municipalities, the two NPOs did not have the financial resources or buy-in to realise SCODA’s initial intent. Additional reasons for the reluctance to adopt open data at the time included political considerations, concerns over the government’s data liability, the existing relations between the private and public sector concerning data, and distrust of big data techniques because of a dearth of related skills and fear of redundancies. Furthermore, as open data in South Africa has been championed by NPOs there is an idealistic bent to existing initiatives, such that they have not explored the commercial potential of open data and how the private sector might derive benefit from such initiatives.
There have been subsequent metro-led open data initiatives since, though the scope and impact of these have remained limited. Examples include eThekwini Municipality’s Durban Edge Open Data Platform. Established in 2011 by the City’s Economic Development Unit, this platform provides datasets, economic and multi-sectoral analysis and insights in publications and through interactive, analytical dashboards.
Arguably a more successful open data platform is the City of Cape Town’s open data portal. The portal currently offers 146 datasets; primarily spatial data, but also data relating to such diverse topics as air quality, budgets, business licenses and wastewater discharge. The platform’s success can be attributed to the City has taking responsibility for the data that is accessible on the platform. The data is also regularly updated and has continued to improve over time, creating a portal that is trusted, internally and externally accessible, and easy to use.
Similar factors have contributed to the success of other South African open data platforms such as Municipal Money, a National Treasury Website providing Treasury data concerning municipal finances and the South Africa Data Portal by Statistics South Africa, which also provides high-level data sets.
It can be argued that despite the abundance and availability of data, there remains a reluctance to adopt and embrace open-data platforms in South Africa, particularly at the municipal level. An initiative by the South African Cities Network (SACN) and the South African Council on City Data (SACCD) to identify and map actors, initiatives, and stakeholders in urban data presents a picture that is mainly dominated by government agencies, and a few established private sector and academic data providers.
The open data movement has progressed from a first wave, which focused on securing the freedom of information; through a second wave, within which governments and organisations provided open data, deepening transparency. In the current ‘third wave’, focus has shifted to greater collaboration, sharing and re-use of both public and private-sector data for ‘evidence-based policy making, innovation, and value creation’.² This requires data stewardship within organisations, concerted capacity building, legislative and regulatory shifts, and the establishment of technologies and systems that allow for data use and re-use within an environment of responsible and ethical data use.
There have been considerable shifts in South Africa, most recently with the production of the National Data and Cloud Policy which promises the development of a National Open Data Strategy. The continued development and establishment of open data portals within national and local government departments is also encouraging.
The Open Data South Africa Toolkit provides a comprehensive database of data resources in the country.
- A good example of this can be found on the New York City open data platform, which provides links to projects that have been developed from their data by companies, citizens, NPOs, school groups and private citizens.
- Verhulst, S. G., Young, A., Zahuranec, A. J., Aaronson, S. A., Calderon, a., & Gee, M. (2020). The Emergence of a Third Wave of Open Data. New York: Open Data Policy Lab.