Clare van ZwietenRevolution is in the air, and it has nothing to do with President Zuma.  Industry disruptors are continuing to head our way in a series of waves; transforming the business world and rocking the comfort zones of established, successful organisations across all business sectors. No-one is immune.

Following the enthusiastic embracing of Uber and Airbnb by consumers, traditional industries are re-examining their organisations and attempting to identify vulnerabilities to technological disruptors as well as opportunities to become their own disruptors.

Fuelled by innovative digital technologies in conjunction with machine-learning capabilities, new ground is being broken every day, creating opportunities for entrepreneurial individuals to carve a niche for themselves in the world of business. Attending the MTN Business Digital Entrepreneur Masterclass recently, it was eye-opening to see how many people, from all walks of life, are ready to embrace this opportunity.

The delegates came in their hundreds to learn from industry experts how to harness the digital industrial revolution and stimulate the growth of their businesses. They were urged to embrace technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine-learning, augmented reality, and big data analytics, in order to ensure that they would remain relevant in this evolving world. They were not worried about losing their jobs; far from it. They were concerned with growing their businesses and identifying opportunities to get ahead of competitors.

Geomatics professionals pride themselves on the learning and training they have undergone in order to reach their elevated status as knowledge workers; however all of this will eventually count for naught unless they too embrace this technological wave. A switch in mind-set is required, with an emphasis on identifying the business value and opportunities for innovation arising from the increased array of enhanced technological offerings.

It is a fact that machine learning is going to result in humans losing jobs, especially people doing repetitive, mundane tasks. But machines are also going to free people up, enabling them to be more innovative and creative with the knowledge that they have acquired.

Whether you work with geographical information systems and geospatial data; whether you work as an engineering, land, or mine surveyor; whether you work as a remote sensing scientist or a hydrographer; you need to accept that the machines are coming. If you are an employer, you will have to up your game in order to identify and seize new business opportunities as they open up, and if you are an employee, you will need to do the same in order to justify your relevance to your organisation.

As December heads our way and we become increasingly concerned about South Africa and its future, take heart from the fact that not even Zuma can stand in the way of this tsunami of technological disruption. Innovation is going to take place, with or without him.


Clare van ZwietenTechnological disrupters are increasingly commonplace and geospatial professionals need to be alert to developments arising from the Internet of Things (IoT) and the arrival of the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0).

Growth has been identified by research company, Gartner, as the foremost strategic priority for many businesses over the next two years, and to achieve this growth, decision makers will require insights into data and information to facilitate decisions that will boost productivity, efficiency and profitability. Not surprisingly, Industry 4.0 technologies are being seen as the answer to this quest for growth.

According to the World Economic Forum, the fourth industrial revolution, which includes developments in previously disjointed fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, and genetics and biotechnology, will cause widespread disruption not only to business models but also to labour markets, with enormous change predicted in the skill sets required.

In order to thrive in this new world, geospatial professionals need to assess the potential impact of Industry 4.0 technologies on their traditional roles and decide on the skill-set adaptions that they will be required to make.

A key component of Industry 4.0 is digital data, and geospatial professionals are adept at handling large datasets. They also understand the benefits of data sharing and the need for data standards to facilitate data interoperability. It is not surprising then that geospatial experts feature, along with data analysts, in the 2016 World Economic Forum report, The Future of Jobs, as job categories that are expected to become critically important by the year 2020

Further good news is provided by Ordnance Survey Ireland’s Hugh Mangan, who believes that the core GIS industry will remain a highly specialised and complex area, requiring domain expertise, particularly in the power, water, property, telecoms, transport, health and environment sectors. In addition, he states that the creation and maintenance of authoritative core geospatial databases will continue to play an important role for many public sector and commercial organisations.

However, the problem is that geospatial professionals tend to work with historic data, and what the business world is crying out for is future predictability with IoT and Industry 4.0 seen as key to achieving this.

Consequently, geospatial professionals seeking to play a significant role in an Industry 4.0 world are advised to adapt to the changing times and requirements. According to Mangan, geospatial specialists will need to understand the provenance of data and the inter-relationships between complex data models, and they must also be able to leverage geospatial technologies across many application domains. He states that increasing numbers of computer science and data science graduates will take on geospatial tasks, and advises geospatial professionals to extend their careers by adopting data driven, as opposed to cartography driven geospatial technical competencies.

Clare van ZwietenThe recent elections in France, and not so recently in the US, have exposed how data can be used to influence the results of elections. Companies like Google and Facebook are acquiring massive global repositories of data resources and developing algorithms to analyse and filter data which can then be used by commercial and political interests to further their particular goals. (A recent article in The Guardian is very illuminating on this point.)

While it is concerning that data is being used to subvert democracies, there are also many instances where data collaboration and analysis are helping to change our world for the better. The recent International Symposium on Remote Sensing of the Environment 2017 held in Pretoria, highlighted how scientific data is being collected and analysed by an international assortment of space agencies and projects in order to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals which seek to eradicate poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.

At this august gathering which showcased how satellite imagery and data can be used to have a positive impact on our world, it was somewhat surprising to hear comments about remote sensing data not being shared in developed countries such as Britain and Norway. While complaints about data silos are common in South Africa, it is often assumed that the rest of the developed world is playing nicely and sharing their data for the benefit of their societies. This however, appears not to be the case.

Inadequate sharing of data is actually an international problem. Data silos exist everywhere and it is important to realise that in many instances they are not deliberately created to prevent data sharing, but are created by a combination of ignorance, inability and inertia. To put it simply, these stockpiles of underutilised geo-intelligence data are gathering dust because the immense socio-economic potential of geospatial data and remote sensing imagery is not yet fully understood by many leaders of organisations, businesses and societies.

Geospatial and remote sensing scientists are sitting on a treasure trove of data which is capable of radically transforming our societies for the better. In order to effectively use this data for the public good, these specialists need to do much more to highlight the socio-economic potential and value of this data and the extensive benefits that can be derived from using and sharing it.

Geo-intelligence professionals are going to have to work together, in their official capacities and informally, to actively promote the use of geospatial data and remote sensing imagery. They also need to identify new and innovative ways of doing this in order to get their message heard by the people who count, the decision makers.

If they don’t, it is likely that the data scales will tip dangerously in favour of vested interests that understand the commercial and political benefits, but won’t necessarily have the greater good in mind.

Land reform in South Africa is a complex matter and efforts to ensure sustainable land distribution and authenticated land restitution need to be supported. More funding, increased resources and efficient management of the land reform process will go a long way towards speeding up the land claims and redistribution processes as well as preventing corruption and maladministration. However, what is really needed is a fundamental overhaul of government land reform policy.

The policy needs to be imbued with a fuller, more comprehensive understanding of the historical processes of pre-colonial and colonial black South African societies which belie the notion of unified black peasant communities longing for a return to a pastoral way of life. In addition, policy makers need to understand that society is not static, and that trends such as increased urbanisation need to be taken into account.

Over the last 100 years the world has undergone a radical transformation. Economies have industrialised, and technological developments have created new employment opportunities while simultaneously rendering others obsolete.  South Africa’s poor, both rural and urban, have not been isolated from these developments, and would like to participate in the capitalist economy and have the opportunity to reap some of its benefits.

In an attempt to deal with the failures or unintended consequences of land reform, government has shifted and reworked land reform policy over the years in an effort to deal with matters of land restitution and distribution. Sometimes these policy shifts have worked but more often than not, they haven’t. Instead they have had unintended consequences or have resulted in land programmes becoming bogged down by laborious and inefficient systems.

Persistent efforts in recent years to bestow increasing powers on traditional leaders, does not augur well for attempts to get the land reform programme refocused on poor, black South Africans. These efforts provide opportunities for corrupt chiefs to develop patronage networks around communal tenure systems that will work to their own benefit, instead of the rural poor. The declaration of the Communal Land Rights Act of 2004 as unconstitutional in 2010 and provincial resistance in 2008 and 2011 to the Traditional Courts Bill, which subsequently lapsed in 2014, have helped to hamper these efforts, but for how long.

The reworked Traditional Courts Bill is due to be tabled in parliament in 2017, and there is still a need to be cautious about a policy programme which seeks to entrench traditional leaders’ authority over the rural population and communal land. Opportunists are on the prowl aiming to enrich themselves via authority over communal land restitution claims and control over mineral rights. Politicians too are seeking to entrench mechanisms that will protect traditional electoral bases.  It is vital that decisions are ultimately made that will enable growth and development for the benefit of the majority.

Between the local government elections, Brexit, #FeesMustFall, the goings on at the National Prosecuting Authority, the State Capture Report and the triumph of Trump, it has certainly been an eventful 2016. While we have been entertained by social media depictions of the arrival of Jesus during the local elections and the ongoing search for the #SaxonwoldShebeen, the jokes belie something far more serious.

Amidst the court interdicts, South Africa has been left rudderless as the ruling party turns on itself in its quest to protect privilege. Instead of focusing on the strategic management of South African resources to ensure growth, development and service delivery, far more effort appears to have been spent on diverting cash flows for the benefit of the privileged few.

The current leadership vacuum is also having a negative impact on the South African geospatial sector which has been working for years to gain the collective attention of South Africa’s national leadership. Whether via surveying, GIS or remote sensing, there is no denying that geomatics professionals have the strategic skills to assist with effective governance. However, the geomatics sector also needs the support of political leaders whose attention is focused on governing, not gathering.

The South African geomatics industry needs government leadership to recognise the urgent need to develop and implement national strategies, policies and legislation that will strengthen geospatial information management at local and national level. It needs leaders to understand and appreciate the role that geomatics plays in facilitating planning, revenue protection, asset and resource management, service delivery and disaster management. And it needs leaders to tackle the challenges of open data, as well as the issues of data security, availability, accessibility and privacy.

In the meantime though, people around the world have had enough of empty political promises and their impatience has led to the ANC losing ground during the local government elections, the Brexit vote in the UK, and the election of President Trump in the US.

These developments are a loud signal to political leaders that focused attention needs to be paid to the complex art of governing democratic societies. This entails governing for the benefit of the people, and not for the benefit of the elite at the expense of the poor.

In South Africa our elected officials need to check their consciences. Things cannot go on as they have been. Serious allegations have been raised about the management practices at our state-owned enterprises and in several of our national departments. The sooner these allegations are dealt with via an above-board judicial inquiry, the sooner honest government officials can resume their mandated responsibility of running South Africa.

In the meantime, the geomatics industry is standing at the ready with the geospatial data, skills and tools to ensure that government policies are carried out and that the allocated resources are distributed and utilised effectively for the benefit of the majority of South Africans.

A significant milestone has been reached by the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) following the adoption of a draft resolution by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) entitled “Strengthening institutional arrangements on geospatial information management”. The move is an acknowledgement of the UN-GGIM’s efforts over the last five years to co-ordinate and facilitate geospatial information management at an international level.

The adoption of the resolution followed a consultative review of the work and operations of the UN-GGIM and took place prior to the sixth session of the UN-GGIM which was held at the United Nations headquarters in New York from 1 to 5 August 2016.

The resolution acknowledges that the Committee of Experts is well placed to continue to contribute to the work of the United Nations, especially in the context of assisting member states to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the SIDS Accelerated Modalities of Action (SAMOA) Pathway.

During his opening remarks, Wu Hongbo the Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, stated that the resolution represented a milestone for the Committee of Experts, that it would streamline the work of the subsidiary bodies of the council in the field of geospatial information management, and strengthen and broaden its mandate as the relevant body to report to the council on all matters relating to geography, geospatial information and related topics.

He further stated that the UN-GGIM has a valuable role to play in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which aims to guide the world’s collective social, economic and environmental transformation over the next 15 years. Hongbo pointed out that the resulting new data needs are unprecedented and that they will require co-ordinated efforts at global, regional and national levels. He emphasised that “efforts to increase the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data, disaggregated by a range of metrics, including geographic location, will be critical in order to track progress, make informed decisions and to ensure no one is left behind.”

The adoption of the draft resolution on strengthening institutional arrangements on geospatial information management, means that ECOSOC has agreed to broaden and strengthen the mandate of the Committee of Experts and to confirm the inclusion of the annual session of the committee within the regular United Nations calendar of conferences and meetings. Member states will also be encouraged to provide voluntary contributions, and to ask the Secretary-General to mobilise additional resources to support the activities of the UN-GGIM.

This is good news for all who work with geospatial information. The resolution gives geospatial data and its management a more prominent role on a global stage, and will ultimately assist South African initiatives, such as our own Committee for Spatial Information, to acquire the status and authority required in order to operate successfully.

Johannesburg Mayor Parks Tau recently pointed out that South African society has a tendency to criminalise the poor. And he is right. Entrepreneurs trying to make a living by selling goods on the side of the road are prosecuted, and people without basic services such as electricity are penalised for connecting themselves illegally. There are many ways in which poor South Africans are given a raw deal, and one of these is the transport facilities available to them, namely the mini-bus taxi industry.

Mini-bus taxis are the transport mode of choice for the majority of South Africans, they offer flexibility and a price that suits the needs of their customers. They also go when and where their customers need them. However, the safety of the service provided is, in the majority of cases, shocking and the dangerous driving tactics due to inter-driver competition are simply staggering. Traffic infringements such as driving on pavements and driving on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic are an all too common feature of the South African rush hour.

One of these days a class action law suit will be taken against the Department of Transport and the taxi federations for allowing the taxi industry to defy the rules of the road, and for enabling a culture of general disregard for the traffic regulations to take root amongst the driving public. This is no idle day dream. Laws such as the Consumer Protection Act have opened the way for class actions to take place in South Africa as evidenced by the judicial go-ahead given to the silicosis class action suit against the gold mining industry.

But why wait for a class action law suit? Steps can be taken now to professionalise the mini-bus taxi industry and make it accountable for its actions for the sake of taxi passengers and other road users.

Rectifying this situation requires the business model for the taxi industry to change. A priority should be that taxi-drivers receive a set wage instead of their income being based on the number of passengers they carry a day. Fleet management and vehicle tracking systems should also be installed in all taxis. These systems can be used for the benefit of taxi owners to monitor their drivers’ behaviour, to optimise their vehicles’ logistics and to manage the maintenance of their vehicles. The Department of Transport in turn can fulfil their mandate to the public and ensure that licences are only made available to taxi operators making use of fleet management and vehicle tracking systems. Initially the taxi owners’ profit will take a hit, but a safer, well-regulated taxi industry will attract more customers. Just look at the popularity of Uber.

Going geospatial is a win-win situation for all parties: the mini-bus taxi industry, the Department of Transport and above all the general public. It will be cheaper all round too, to invest time and money into upgrading the mini-bus taxi industry instead of upgrading existing roads and expanding the road network. However, taking the first step requires the powers-that-be to decide that South Africa’s poor are worthy of having safe public transport.

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