There is a growing world-wide focus on smart cities, and both big and open data, as a means to address the challenges of rapid urbanisation and enhance the lives of citizens. Smart cities and city-regions are driven by data. However, despite numerous data policies and much legislation, such as the Promotion of Access to Information Act and South African Spatial Data Infrastructure (SASDI) Act, spatial data is generally not easily or openly accessible in the Gauteng City-Region (GCR).
At a provincial level within Gauteng, there are no publicly accessible data portals or websites and data are only obtainable through personally knowing the right official. If you manage to get the data the data disclaimer form to be completed before the data is released is so restrictive that you actually can’t do much with the data. The Gauteng Planning Division, with one of its key responsibilities to provide long-term integrated city-region planning, currently does not have a functioning GIS or geodatabase. The result is a city-region with limited technical resources, disparate and non-integrated planning systems, and inaccessible spatial data. This is not an ideal situation for an area that has experienced dramatic population and urban growth over the past two decades, and needs to plan for and accommodate a further 10-12 million people by the year 2055.
In an attempt to address the debilitating impact of limited data access, the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) is currently researching how the GCR can become ‘data smart’. With the SASDI Act failing to have any impact within the GCR, there is perhaps a need for a regional SDI within Gauteng to realise SASDI’s objectives of promoting the use and sharing of spatial information in support of spatial planning, social-economic development and related activities. This would certainly be a step in the right direction from a policy point of view but internationally there has been a shift more recently towards open data initiatives as a complimentary means to address access to data.
The Open Data Institute in the UK defines open data as data that is made available by organisations, businesses and individuals for “anyone to access, use and share.” Importantly, access is without restrictions or cost. According to Sui (2014:3)1, the new open data initiative aims to not only make data open legally, but also technically in a variety of formats, so that open data are useful, usable, and actually used. At the 2013 G8 conference, the importance of open data was recognised through the signing of an Open Data Charter, which sets out to make government data accessible by committing to the following five principles:
- Open data by default
- Quality and quantity
- Useable by all
- Releasing data for improved governance
- Releasing data for innovation
Other international initiatives include the Open Data Now and the Centre for Open Data Enterprise, which is developing the first global view of the uses and impact of open data. Fortunately, the idea of open data is starting to take hold in South Africa at a local level with an open data policy approved by the City of Cape Town in September 2014 and an open data portal for the city launched earlier this year.
To summarise, “Open data can be used by businesses, nonprofits, governments and citizens to launch new initiatives and ventures, analyze trends, make data-driven decisions, and solve complex problems in all sectors of the economy,” according to the Centre for Open Data Enterprise.
GCRO’s vision is for a city-region that is competitive, spatially integrated, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive. Quality free, accurate and up-to-date data have a critical role to play in achieving this vision and it is vital that government data is made openly accessible to other government departments, the private sector and general public.
GCRO has been instrumental in demonstrating the policy value of open data and data visualisation, something that the ‘National Spatial data Observatory’, envisioned in the National Development Plan, is meant to do nationally – but this does not yet exist. Given that GCRO’s work is used nationally, not just in the GCR, we have laid a strong foundation for at least the Gauteng Planning Division to implement a central GeoGCR database, regional SDI and open data policy. A city-region of this size, economic centrality and complexity, simply cannot afford to wait for the bureaucratic processes to play themselves out. It’s time to become data smart and join the open data revolution.
Chris Wray is a senior systems analyst/manager at the Gauteng City-Region Observatory. His research interests include: urban spatial analysis, modelling and visualisation; spatial statistics; Web GIS and g-government.
1 Sui, D. 2014. Opportunities and Impediments for Open GIS, Transactions in GIS, 18(1), pp. 1-24.
Main image courtesy GCRO.
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