Urban Data Trends, Challenges and Opportunities in Johannesburg

OneCity
6 min readMay 12, 2021

By Peter Magni, with thanks to Miriam Maina

How the City generates and manages data

Managing a large city such as Johannesburg requires a significant volume of data and subsequent analysis of this data, for the coordination and management of land use, and the provision and operation of public infrastructure. Some data is needed to manage specific tasks, such as running a wastewater treatment plant. Some is necessary for long-term city planning; for example, population change and gross value added. The city needs urban data at varying degrees of detail and it must be collected longitudinally, to monitor and analyze trends over time. To obtain, manage, and extract value from this data, the City deploys multiple strategies.

The city generates the bulk of urban data internally, through its day-to-day activities. In some instances, the data is collected manually and then transferred to digital databases. In the majority of cases, the city data is generated and stored internally on internet-accessed operating systems designed specifically to fit each purpose. Johannesburg’s municipal-owned entities, including City Power, Joburg Water and the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department also run real-time monitoring systems and technologies within their specific mandates. These systems generate data that requires specialist knowledge to offer general and specific analysis. Over the last twenty years, the trend has been to facilitate immediate capture and sharing of data within departments.

What the City does with data

This section describes some existing ways that City data is used internally in the City of Johannesburg (CoJ) to drive policy and decision making and so sets us up to consider some of the emerging opportunities and challenges for data collection and use in the City.

Data generated and managed by the CoJ is used to inform policy, decision making, and investment within and across departments. Examples include the Johannesburg Strategic Infrastructure Platform (JSIP) which supports the prioritisation and coordination of capital investment in the city, a SAP-based system of financial management and reporting, and the Land Information System (LIS) which tracks property information, development applications, and investments, and which underpins strategic spatial planning.

Strategic spatial planning

Johannesburg’s Spatial Development Framework (SDF) sets out the spatial policies for the metropolitan region, identifying strategies through which these spatial visions could be met. These policies are detailed in Regional Spatial Development Frameworks (RSDF) and precinct plans at the sub-metropolitan level. The city’s current SDF aspires to create a ‘spatially just city’ which is envisioned as a ‘compact polycentric city with a dense urban core linked by efficient public transport networks to dense, mixed-use, complimentary sub-centres, situated within a protected and integrated natural environment.

This spatial framework defines and identifies priority transformation areas which, when linked to the City’s capital investment prioritisation model (JSIP), would promote, prioritise and target public and private sector capital investment into these areas.

Capital investment planning and prioritisation

The existing system of capital investment prioritisation and management is the Johannesburg Strategic Infrastructure Plan (JSIP), which is managed by contracted private sector consultants. The platform is a web-based tool that allows staff responsible for infrastructure projects across the city to capture their capital needs and locate the project on a geographical information system. Projects are prioritised based on this information through a series of interdepartmental meetings, through which the city’s capital budget is finalised.

Another aspect of capital budgeting and investment in the city relates to the refurbishment and replacement of existing infrastructure. This is outlined in the City’s infrastructure asset management plans which are maintained by each of the departments and municipal-owned entities. The sophistication of the information systems underlying these management plans varies from department to department. However, with increased emphasis on the need to increase maintenance budgets and the influence of National Treasury’s City Infrastructure Delivery Management System (CIDMS), which seeks to rationalise urban services provision and optimise performance across the urban infrastructure value chain, there has been greater consideration of infrastructure asset management over strategic spatial targeting in the City.

Photo by Steffen Lemmerzahl

Financial investment management and reporting

Although strategic spatial planning and infrastructure asset management are critical, it is the City of Johannesburg’s financial system that ultimately determines how investment occurs. This constitutional mandate is provided in the Municipal Finance Management Act, which lays out the norms and standards for financial management and reporting. Johannesburg’s financial management system is coordinated through a SAP-based information system, which manages revenues, expenditure, and reporting. This platform is highly sophisticated, although it is limited by cost, and by the complexity of the metropolitan administration.

The platform has been refined over the last two decades, and has therefore developed its own robustness, familiarity and inertia. And though it allows for limited public scrutiny and input, it is also prone to political influence both from elected and administrative officials. Aggregated data generated from this city’s finance system can be publicly accessed via Municipal Money, an open data initiative from South Africa’s National Treasury, which allows review and analysis of Municipal financial data over time.

Trends, challenges, and opportunities

The previous section presented some of the existing systems through which City data is used internally in the City of Johannesburg to guide spatial, infrastructure, and financial analysis, prioritisation, investment decision making, and reporting. Though this list is not comprehensive, it shows how urban data is used internally to drive policy and decision making. This section identifies some of the emerging opportunities and challenges that currently exist.

A first concern is that the various systems and technologies developed for the city to collect, manage, and utilise its data are developed by private consultants, hosted through proprietary platforms, and operated by the City’s staff. Over time, these could prove expensive to run and upgrade; becoming obsolete quickly as new technologies keep being developed. This approach nonetheless ensures a sense of security, reliability and quality of service.

An emerging trend in the last decade that has affected urban data use in the city has been the outsourcing of policy and planning work to private companies. This has removed the internal incentive to develop and maintain data systems. The continued outsourcing of operational and capital projects has meant that less of the primary data is engaged directly by city employees, with the effect of ‘hollowing out’ the City’s own data management and analysis capacity. This could prove challenging, with increased reliance on complex and data-informed decision-making processes.

Integrated planning and investment requires the sharing of data and information across departments. While collaborative data sharing and decision making have been achieved internally, this information is not unreservedly shared with the public, or private sector agencies. This is because data is still viewed as being personal to departments or sensitive to specific networks' functioning. This sensitivity to share data can be seen as the reason for the persistent reluctance to facilitate an open data portal.

Making data available to the public goes hand-to-hand with democratic principles of planning, according to which decisions are made with wide participation of stakeholders and local communities. When decisions are made internally, based on data available exclusively to city administrations, it inevitably creates tensions and inefficiencies when those decisions are finally presented (if presented) for consultation. Therefore, the future of a fast-growing, just and resilient city is bound with learning how to use, present and most importantly share data in simple and understandable ways with the people who will follow decisions and policies and ultimately make the city prosper.

This blog highlights the developments in the collection, management, and use of urban data in the City of Johannesburg in the last few decades, presenting some of the existing data-driven platforms and processes. This data is used internally for planning, policymaking, and investment coordination, and externally, for reporting to the public and in compliance with National government departments. There still remains considerable potential that this City data could be shared and used by a wider range of stakeholders, and for the development of analytical tools, systems and platforms in the private sector, and for the public domain.

In the next blog, we will explore how municipal and other urban data in Johannesburg and South Africa has been shared and used in the private sector, by NGOs and the general public.

  1. Ahmad, P., & Pienaar, H. (2014). Tracking changes in the urban built environment: An emerging perspective from the City of Johannesburg. In P. Harrison, G. Gotz, A. Todes, & C. Wray, Changing Space, Changing City: Johannesburg after Apartheid (pp. 101–116). Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
  2. City of Johannesburg (2016) Spatial Development Framework 2040, City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality. Johannesburg. South Africa.

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