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Inside efforts to develop an Artificial Intelligence driven South Africa

The open data approach in this process is one of the most important interventions as this will allow more entities to access the data, the writer says. Picture: Gerd Altmann/Pixbabay

The open data approach in this process is one of the most important interventions as this will allow more entities to access the data, the writer says. Picture: Gerd Altmann/Pixbabay

Published Jul 4, 2023


Last week, South Africa took an integral step towards laying a solid foundation in creating an Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven society.

Although there are AI companies in South Africa, the country is limited by a lack of data. The Spatial Economic Activity Data initiative was launched by the National Treasury and Human Sciences Research Council to close the data gap in South Africa by leveraging tax and other administrative data sources.

For the first time, granular spatial data exists to help answer vital policy and research questions about urbanisation, uneven development, territorial disparities, productivity and economic conditions of municipalities, cities, towns and suburbs/wards.

The creation of robust disaggregated and granular economic data is not only essential for monitoring changing economic conditions but for the advancement of the AI industry in South Africa.

Data is the key resource in creating AI tools that can provide insights about the country.

The initiative that is led by the Human Sciences Research Council and the National Treasury: Cities Support Programme and Economic Policy Unit is a major boost as Stats SA had stopped developing such data, in 2014/15, due to economic reasons.

The HRSC, together with the National Treasury, partnered with other organisations that include UNU-WIDER, Statistics South Africa, Metropolitan Municipalities, the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, South African Local Government Association, South African Cities Network, the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs and the University of the Free State to close the data gap in South Africa.

As part of their deliverables, they have launched the Spatial Tax Portal (, which is a user-friendly web interface that makes it simple and easy to explore and download spatial tax data.

The portal includes a number of online tools for building custom maps (‘map explorer’) or exploring particular themes (‘dashboards’) across different municipalities, including economic growth, industry diagnostics and equitable economies.

This portal will enable any tech start-up in South Africa to build other information products based on this data.

The open data approach in this process is one of the most important interventions as this will allow more entities to access the data for research, planning and the development of other information products.

This initiative serves as a very powerful example to organisations in South Africa to enable access to data. SEAD-SA focuses on economic data.

Other sectors need to carry out a similar initiative. The private health sector has already started a process of sharing health data for purposes of advancing health research.

In the transport, agriculture, sports and housing sectors, there’s a need for more open data collaboration to improve planning and ignite the data economy.

The City of Cape Town took this step a while ago and later took a step back by only enabling internal access to data.

Recently, the municipality has invited the public to comment on open data within the city.

It is hoped that this marks an open data comeback for the city. In the AI age, open data has become an important cog to grow the data economy.

Open data enables transparency which also takes care of corruption prevention.

The value of open data is currently not known. However, its impact is immense.

During the pandemic, health entities across the world shared data which partly saved lives. There’s a need for that to continue across sectors and avoid the silo trap.

As artificial intelligence takes centre stage, everyone is racing towards playing a role in this field. However, businesses, countries and other entities lack the necessary data to play a meaningful role.

Organisations such as Microsoft and Google have been mining data for years, and they are better positioned to take the lead now.

It’s, however, not too late for countries and businesses to take care of their data in a way that will yield economic benefits.

Initiatives like the SEAD-SA will need more support to keep delivering quality data and avoid what happened at Statistics South Africa which led to an economic data gap, which is crucial for planning. May the efforts by the SEAD-SA also inspire academic institutions to train more data scientists to make up the coming data deluge.

Wesley Diphoko is a technology analyst. He serves as the Editor-In-Chief of FastComopany (SA) magazine and as the Chairman of the IEEE Open Data Initiative.

Wesley Dipoko. File Image: IOL