We need to build data capability in South Africa

​​The Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg, Prof Tshilidzi Marwala recently penned an opinion article published by the Mail & Guardian on 20 March 2020.

n New Year’s Eve in 2016, a fire engulfed part of the Address Downtown hotel in Dubai, close to where revellers had gathered to watch a spectacular fireworks display. The incident was picked up by Pacific Controls, a data centre for buildings and infrastructure projects that had tied with the Dubai Civil Defence for real-time monitoring of buildings in the United Arab Emirates for any emergency alarms. In peak traffic, the blaze was put out in a couple of hours, and no fatalities were recorded.

The Pacific Controls company can monitor any alarm, from those for fires to those in elevators. A message is immediately sent to a command centre and a team is deployed. The system taps into the network of telecommunications company Etisalat, which provides a real-time tracker of any crises. Their track record is impressive. This is part of Dubai’s drive towards a smart city, which has seen the city push for real-time data for services across different departments. Data is stored on a cloud service, which is either a physical or virtual server. This is then controlled by a cloud-computing provider, such as Pacific Controls.
Many countries have followed suit with digital blueprints for government services. South Africa’s E-Government makes “government services more accessible online, reduces the cost of using those services, streamlines administrative processes, improves turnaround times and strengthens accountability and responsiveness”, according to the State Information Technology Agency. It is a given that efficient service delivery stands to benefit all of society. But South Africa’s e-government functions are currently quite limited.
In Singapore, for instance, networks, digital services and mobile devices are used to deliver better public services. This includes electronic payment and digital signature options for all government services and services that are prefilled with government verified data. A 2017 study by Deloitte projected “that automation could save United States government employees between 96.7-million to 1.2-billion hours a year, resulting in potential savings of between $3.3-billion to $41.1-billion a year”.
Service delivery has become somewhat of a tainted phrase in South Africa and evokes feelings of frustration and hopelessness. But there is a move to implement more efficient e-services. Last year, for instance, the department of trade and industry launched the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission website, where companies can register online without having to go into the office with paperwork.
In 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa pronounced that through the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (PC4IR), technologies would be used to supplement South Africa’s competitiveness by using data. The PC4IR has made eight recommendations that put South Africa’s fortunes on the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).
In the past three weeks, I have addressed three of these recommendations on the Mail & Guardian website. The first is to build human capacity in the area of the 4IR; the second is to establish the National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Institute; the third is to create the Advanced Manufacturing Institute. This week I address the fourth recommendation, which is the establishment of a national data centre that will build e-government services.
It is essential to secure and avail data to enable innovation. This is critical for building e-government services across sectors such as health, transport and justice. This could be achieved through creating a centre, which will become the national data repository. For instance, we could build AI systems to use in our hospitals from this stored data. This will aid in reducing the waiting times for patients, improve efficiencies in the health system and predict an individual’s risk of certain diseases and suggest a course of treatment.
Similarly, traffic data could be used by municipal governments to plan roads and monitor traffic patterns. This is quite a simple concept. Traffic systems can optimise traffic lights and reduce waiting time at intersections, for instance. This makes use of an AI system that detects vehicles in images from traffic cameras. Much like the example of Dubai’s fire alarms, the information can be sent to a control centre, where algorithms analyse traffic density. If the system detects congestion, it can direct traffic lights to re-route traffic, based on real-time data. As AI advances, it could also pre-empt accidents.
There are a few steps to make a national data centre a possibility. First, we would need to place a chief data scientist at the helm of this centre. A chief data scientist oversees a range of data-related functions, including data sovereignty, data management, ensuring the standardisation of data and creating a data security strategy. Second, this would need to be done in collaboration with the private sector, which could provide input on crucial datasets required for innovation and service delivery collaboration and, perhaps, share their own data sets with the government. A national data centre can be created alongside existing data centre companies.
How do we establish a data storage and processing system in South Africa? We could tap into technology from companies such as Amazon Web Services for cloud services or any other viable, cost-effective and secure alternative. Now, there is difficulty in building our systems given the efficiency, electricity requirements, and competitive prices of the cloud services. South Africa fundamentally lacks the support to compete with global services.
To achieve this, cybersecurity needs to be bolstered to safeguard the public. Most sectors have moved towards the digitisation of information, but cybercrime and targeted attacks breach security and have the potential to negatively affect society. Although digitalisation has created effective and efficient integrated systems, the onus is on protecting these systems from attack. For instance, in October last year, the City of Johannesburg reported a breach of its network that shut down its website and all e-services, after receiving a bitcoin ransom note from a group called the Shadow Kill Hackers. In minutes, the city was paralysed. The government has a cybersecurity company called Comsec, linked to the National Intelligence Agency, which was established in 2003 and secures government’s communications against any unauthorised access and from technical, electronic or any other related threats. To be competitive in the 4IR, the government would need to strengthen Comsec’s mandate to include cybersecurity.
The above illustrates South Africa’s capacity and gaps, for thriving e-government ecosystems. There is a need to bolster infrastructure, explore intelligent collection and use of data and invest in cybersecurity. Service delivery can be optimised to improve efficiency and effectiveness.
prof tshilidzi marwala
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg
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