Archive for the ‘general’ Category

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.


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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.

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2016 is shaping up to be a very tough year. There’s no water, there’s no money, jobs are dwindling, local elections are looming, and political infighting is intensifying. This year we will all be paying the price for inadequate planning, and for allowing corruption and inefficiencies to take root.

The sooner we all acknowledge that it’s time to stop passing the buck, time to stop turning a blind eye, the better. South Africa needs all hands on deck, and in particular, it needs its geographic information specialists to come to the rescue.

The gloomy economic scenario facing South Africa needs to be fought head on with systems that will enable optimisation of efficiencies for asset and resource management, revenue protection, budget expenditure, monitoring and logistics, utility maintenance and so on. Geospatial personnel, geodata infrastructure and geo-tools hold the key to enabling this efficiency optimisation.

In previous boom times, decision makers weren’t too concerned about efficiencies as there was enough fat in their budgets to obscure mismanagement and/or wasteful expenditure. In these trying times though, budgets are fat-free. Decision makers wanting to keep their jobs need to identify how to extract maximum value from limited budgets to ensure that their business units fulfill their mandated responsibilities.

It is clear that the Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, intends fulfilling his mandated responsibility – the prudent fiscal management of South Africa. Just like his courageous predecessor, Nhlanhla Nene, Gordhan has stood up against the monetary waywardness at South African Airways and, unlike Nene, he hasn’t been fired. Running on with Nene’s baton, Gordhan is continuing the race for financial prudence and we can expect a very tight budget for 2016.

Bearing this in mind, geospatial practitioners across all sectors, whether working with minerals, energy, water, education, transport, health, local government, environmental affairs, social services etc., need to understand the business value of their work. If they don’t understand the financial implications of their work, they need to make it their responsibility to ascribe a value to their efforts. In addition, geospatial specialists need to communicate this business value effectively to the executive management structures of the organisation they work for.

Geospatial practitioners are experts in geospatial matters but it is imperative that they understand the money principle; that when money talks, people listen, and that when Pravin is on the warpath, people’s listening improves dramatically.

There is also strength in numbers, and geomatics colleagues from across government departments need to collaborate, to join forces, and communicate with the finance minister. They need to use policy maps and geo-visualisation tools to show how geospatial personnel, geospatial tools and geospatial technologies are being used and how they can be better utilised to ensure efficient financial management of our country and its resources on behalf of all its people.

In order to weather the storms of 2016 and beyond, all members of the South African geomatics community need to make a concerted effort to get decision-makers in their respective organisations on to the geospatial highway as soon as possible.

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Depressed commodity prices, the continuing economic downturn and pervasive illegal mining activities, have been hitting South Africa’s mining sector hard. Cost cutting plans, retrenchments and even mine closures are the order of the day.

While stimulating commodity prices and resuscitating the global economy are beyond the South African mining industry’s scope, the sector has no choice but to find a way to deal with illegal mining activities that are carried out without regard to issues of health, safety, and human rights.

Previously illegal mining activities were limited to abandoned mining operations where lax closure controls had enabled informal mining entrepreneurs to eke out a living re-mining old workings. Increasingly illegal mining is now taking place at operational mines with gangs violently fighting back against mine owners attempts to reclaim their legal operations.

Gangs operated by sophisticated syndicates have also reportedly taken to kidnapping informal mine workers underground, holding them captive for weeks at a time and forcing them to work for free. This is slave labour.  It would not be permitted above ground, so why is it allowed to take place below ground?

Combating illegal mining activities head-on is clearly not working as syndicates continue to extend their reach and to professionalise their activities in order to maximise their profits.  In addition, the next round of mine worker retrenchments is only likely to boost the ranks of illegal mining entrepreneurs making a living off South Africa’s mines. If something is not done to transform the current mining sector model, illegal mining will be the final death knell for South Africa’s ailing mining sector.

The formal mining industry needs to have a radical rethink about its current operating structures and find a way to incorporate different levels of mining entrepreneurs within their organisations. Legal opportunities for informal mining entrepreneurs that do not compete with formal mining activities need to be identified and built into the larger formal mining framework. These informal mining entrepreneurs could be supported by the larger mining entity while at the same time acting as a buffer against the spread of illegal mining syndicates that are already prepared to do battle to continue their illegal mining operations.

At present the pattern of illegal mining that is being allowed to persist is creating new chains of corruption that will be difficult to eradicate. These include the recruitment of legal miners to provide support to illegal mining operations by smuggling food and supplies underground or by renting out their access cards, policemen who lie in wait to grab the ill-gotten gains of informal mining entrepreneurs as they emerge into the light from their weeks spent working underground, and mine security officials who are bribed to turn a blind eye to illegal mining activities.

The mining sector needs to fight fire with fire. This requires being innovative in identifying solutions that will empower informal mining entrepreneurs and make them feel that they have a stake in legal mining operations. It won’t be easy, and will require co-operation from the mining companies, trade unions and government, all of whom have competing agendas. However, if compromises aren’t made and solutions identified, South Africa’s mining sector will find itself hijacked.

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Lucia Pelser and Meshack Thusi

Meshack Thusi is a third year student at the University of Johannesburg studying electrical engineering. Life for him has been a struggle but he is determined to make something of himself. Setting out from the village of Zwelishane in Mpumalanga with R3000 in cash earned by his street vendor mother, Julia Mkhonto, he headed off to Gauteng and the University of Johannesburg. A rural boy from a poor family, he knew this was his only chance to make something of himself.


Despite having no income he managed to get himself registered at the university but his attempts to obtain funding from the NSFAS, the South African government student loan and bursary scheme, were fruitless. A fellow student from his home town tried to provide support by letting Meshack sleep over whenever the landlord was away and by sharing what little food he had.

Aside from having no food and accommodation, Meshack also had no money for textbooks, stationery and the other sundries many of his fellow students take for granted. He resorted to sleeping on campus, hanging around until late in the evening before climbing through open windows to find a safe place to sleep for the night.

His story could have been yet another variant on the student drop-out, but UJ’s engineering faculty had been influenced by the good-hearted generosity of former personal assistant, Lucia Pelser, to start paying attention to the overall well-being of its students.

At 10 pm one night, Lucia received a phone call from Dr. Norah Clarke who had been going through first year survey forms filled out as part of the university’s First Year Experience programme which aims to assist students with the transition from school to university. The survey is intended to provide details on how first year students are coping with the transition, and what Norah read on one of the survey forms disturbed her greatly.  She phoned Lucia to alert her to Meshack’s situation…

Lucia couldn’t sleep that night knowing that one of her students was struggling so.  A self-appointed mother to the engineering students at UJ, she had created her own position as Relationship Co-ordinator through her own kind-heartedness. All her life Lucia has cared deeply for those around her, and the death of her two sons and her daughter being seriously injured in a car accident has made her even more determined to help others. “It’s better to give than to take,” she says.

“Lucia is showing us the true version of humanity,” says Meshack. “I don’t want to disappoint her. We engineers are privileged to have Miss Lucia… it seems easy because we have her.“

Trained as a graphic designer Lucia took a position at UJ as a personal assistant to Prof. Wimpie Clarke at the electrical engineering department. The well-being of the students she encountered quickly became a major concern to her. Soon she was identifying quiet places for the students to study, helping them find suitable accommodation and bringing them food from home.  Her activities came to the attention of her boss, who told her to stop her “underground activities” and take them above ground. People, he said, needed to know what she was doing so that she could help more students.

Once word got out that there was a “mother” in the electrical engineering department, more students went to Lucia for help and in 2010 Prof. Wimpie Clarke pushed her to go full time with her “mothering” activities. In 2012, following appeals from the other engineering departments, Lucia was moved to the Faculty of Engineering where she could be in a position to help all engineering students, and not just the electrical engineers. She was appointed as Relationship Co-ordinator for all engineering students at both the university’s Auckland Park and Doornfontein campuses, overseeing the well-being of over 4000 engineering students.

Returning to Meshack’s story… Lucia still remembers the time she gave him his first textbook, a second-hand one. “He sat there with it, rubbing his fingers along the covers, slowly up and down. The next day he was in my office, his precious textbook in a plastic bag. I handed him an old conference bag to keep his book in. It was his only bag… when he got mugged later that year in Brixton, he pleaded with his attackers not to steal the bag that Miss Lucia had given him…”

“Meshack goes through tough times. Times when he goes hungry,” continues Lucia, “but he is determined to get his degree, that is why I will go the extra mile for him.”

“Everything is possible if you put your mind to it… despite your circumstances,” interjects Meshack. As a young boy growing up in Zwelishane, near Nelspruit, he knew that he wanted to make something of himself. “It’s hard,” he says, “for youth in the rural areas to find a way out.” Encouraged by his Maths teacher Mr. Mandlaka at Mandlesive High School, who passed away last year, and his Principal and Physics teacher Mr. Mlombo, Meshack studied hard. “I wanted to be involved in doing something big… designing things…” he says.

Meshack initially registered as a mechanical engineering student, but once his personal circumstances had been stabilised his experience at university saw him being drawn towards an electrical engineering degree. But before altering his academic path, Meshack had to get past Lucia who was concerned about the motivation for this change. On hearing that his decision was soundly based on his interest in telecommunications and automation, she gave her approval and support for this change in vocation.

These days Meshack is a third-year student with dreams of working at SASOL and travelling the world. Lucia has other plans for him though. She is encouraging him to continue with a Masters degree once his four-year engineering degree is complete. Meshack has other concerns too. He wants to help his mother, and provide her with support. “For the sake of my Mum, I need to get working,” he says. “She is so proud of me… seeing me and my laptop,” he says, adding that their roles have changed, with him being treated as an elder of the family.

For now, Meshack’s financial position is stable. EE Publishers, has provided R25 000 towards his 3rd year tuition fees, with the remainder sponsored by Plasserail.

Chris Yelland, managing director of EE Publishers, says the company is proud to be associated with UJ’s Faculty of Engineering. “I am delighted our donation of R25 000 is being used to assist Meshack continue and complete his studies. We are looking forward to receiving feedback on his progress. We also challenge other companies to get involved in supporting students in need at UJ and at other tertiary institutions.”

Aside from working on his studies, Meshack is helping Lucia to “mother” his fellow engineering students in need. He gives talks to first year students. “You think life is hard,” he tells them, “but look at me… anything is possible.” He also assists with the mentoring programme, helping first years with time management and the correct study methods.

Lucia says there is a big need for money to assist students who have managed on their own so far but who need help. It is four months into 2015, and she has helped 17 of her “kids” get bursaries, another seven find vacation jobs, and nine graduates find employment. She is also working on finding bursaries for 37 electrical engineering students, from first through to fourth year.

Her work is starting to overflow into other faculties at the University of Johannesburg, and also to other universities. Lucia is happy to share her knowledge and experiences of helping her engineering students. “It’s my passion,” she says. “I want to be part of their lives.”

“She is here for us 24/7,” adds Meshack. “Our lives will never be the same because of her.”

It’s no surprise to hear that Lucia was awarded the 2014 UJ Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Award for Service Beyond the Normal Call of Duty. All strength to her and her students.

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As those of us working in the geospatial sector are aware, geomatics is key to planning, infrastructure development and service delivery in virtually every sector of the economy. With this being the case, it makes sense then that geospatial data, services and tools are essential for achieving the goals of the National Development Plan (NDP) or in case you are an NDP non-believer, good old national development planning.

While the NDP has many worthy goals, it is disconcerting to see that instead of focusing on the NDP objectives that have broad support across our society and pursuing those objectives vigourously, the entire NDP has become part of a political game that has more to do with election alliances than changing people’s lives on the ground. The events at Marikana, service delivery protests, the attacks on Somali shopkeepers, the turf battles between trade unions are all symptoms of a discontented society and a discontented people. And this is only going to get worse.

National development planning is needed as a matter of urgency. We need houses to be constructed, roads to be fixed, schools to have school books and food on people’s tables. Why wait for the turmoil and trouble of an African Spring, when we can take control of our destiny and work on making South Africa a better place for all?

To get our national development planning on track, South Africa urgently needs to get its spatial data infrastructure (SDI) up and running. SDIs justify their development costs by generating greater economic benefit for the countries that build them and the developed world has taken note of this. Countries in the developed world are making increasing use of SDIs while we here in South Africa seem to be getting nowhere despite the numerous SDI workshops and meetings that have been held over the last decade or so.

A call was recently issued for suitable candidates to be nominated to become part of South Africa’s Committee for Spatial Information (CSI). It is hoped that government departments are putting a great deal of thought into who should be on this committee. The CSI needs members who have both the ability and the authority to drive the development of South Africa’s spatial data infrastructure (SASDI).

Building an SDI is a complex process, and perhaps one of the areas where South Africa has failed is in acquiring buy-in from top level government leaders. While we urgently need an interoperable, accessible SDI containing updated geo-reference data from a variety of sources, we also desperately need the support of a selection of high profile public and private sector representatives who can help to spread the message that an SDI is essential for improving efficiency, increasing productivity, reducing risk and improving decision making processes for national development planning.

South Africa’s SDI initiative needs strong dynamic leaders who understand what an SDI is capable of doing for the country. It needs leadership that understands the necessity of promoting the concept of an SDI to all levels of government. It needs crusaders who can help to get South Africa on track with its national development planning.

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South Africa’s proposed privacy law calls for fines of up to R10-million rand or prison terms of up to 10 years for directors of companies and organisations failing to comply with its provisions. The Protection of Personal Information Bill (PPI), which is in its seventh and final draft, is being circulated in parliament and is expected to be signed into law in the next few months.

The bill has been generally welcomed as a necessary protection of the privacy rights enshrined in the Constitution and will bring South Africa in line with international data protection laws which require the protection of personal information collected and processed by public and private organisations. The bill requires organisations to establish appropriate policies and procedures to protect the various forms of data that are part of their business operations.

Any organisation processing information such as names, addresses, e-mail addresses, ID numbers, employment history, health data associated with an individual; or organisations outsourcing data to third parties, will have to comply with PPI. All organisations have personal information about shareholders, employees, customers and suppliers and this data falls under the provisions of PPI.

The bill is expected to take effect this year, and businesses and organisations will be given a year to comply with the provisions of the bill. It is important to note though that the PPI is not intended to impede economic and social progress and efforts will be made to balance the need to protect personal privacy with the need to develop and build the South African economy and society.

The PPI bill states that personal information will have to be collected directly from the person involved and consent from the individual will be required before the information can be processed. Personal information that will be processed further than the initial purpose of collection must comply with the conditions of the bill. Data can only be collected for a specific, explicit and lawful purpose and the processing of personal data must be compatible with the stated purpose of collection or must be legally compliant. Companies will be responsible for the security and integrity of personal data and security measures have to be put in place if a third party processes information on behalf of the company.

Geospatial technologies have the power to build and transform our society in ever-evolving ways and the reach of these technologies are reliant on data sharing principles that are much discussed within the geospatial sector. While much of the data used, collected, maintained and/or visualised by geospatial specialists does not contain personal information relating to individuals, there certainly is data being used, collected, maintained and/or visualised that does contain personal information. Organisations working with this kind of data need to be aware of the PPI bill and its legal implications for their organisation.

While the proposed bill has implications for all South African organisations, there are implications for the South African geospatial industry that are not readily apparent as yet. Our geospatial industry will need to keep an eye on developments with regard to personal privacy to ensure that there is a balance between the need to protect privacy and the societal benefits that geospatial technologies can bring about.


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