Wesley Diphoko, Head of the Independent Digital Lab (02 June 2017)
CAPE TOWN - ‘I did not know” has become a common saying by most candidates and leaders who are currently being questioned about their role in State Capture inquiries and other failures in state owned companies and organisations.

In some instances it is true that leaders do not always know (although they should) what is happening at an operational level of a government entity.

When one considers the damage of not knowing when leaders should know it is clear it is high time that leaders are always aware of all details to avoid a catastrophe.

How can leaders keep a pulse of developments within the country and be informed of everything they need to know? There’s no better way to keep leaders informed than creating a Smart Country.


A Smart Country is a country that is connected and a country that enables its leaders and citizens to be informed and served through the use of digital platforms that provide data and information about all aspects of the country.

In the case of South Africa, the National Development Plan (NDP) should form the basis for informing both leaders and citizens about the progress within the country.

Currently, although leaders and citizens have a sense of how far the country is from achieving the goals that are set out in the NDP, more can be done to keep every leader and citizen informed.

Classic example

The Life Esidimeni tragedy is a classic example of what could have been avoided if timely information had been available for health leaders, families and health care providers. On all aspects that the NDP seeks to address there should be a publicly available measurement and information sharing environment that allows everyone to be informed.

To achieve this every stakeholder in a country will have to play a role in enabling a free flow of information.

In terms of crime it will mean that over and above reporting crime to the police every citizen will have to report crime via their digital device and in a manner that will allow such information to be recorded with integrity and be accessible.

Once such information is recorded and reported the police will have to act and also record their actions.

A combination of this information will have to be immediately available to every leader that has the responsibility for safety and security of the country.

In this way crime information will not only be accessible annually, but daily to everyone.

Leaders can see what actions to take based on available crime data and citizens can be better informed about places to avoid and even foresee crimes based on data available at their disposal. The Minister of Police can therefore not say “I did not know”.

In terms of safety and security this is what it would mean to be a Smart Country.

The same can be achieved with other key items of the NDP such as education, employment, economics, food security and others. South Africa is on its knees right now, although there are positive signs of making a comeback as seen in the current performance by the rand.

This is the perfect time for South Africa to work towards becoming a Smart Country. It is during a time of crisis and difficult times that smart countries are created. It is when solutions are mostly needed that technology can intervene to develop solutions.

One of the greatest examples of a Smart Country is Estonia. Currently Estonia almost does everything through technology and the country has become an example of what it means to be a Smart Country.

How and why did Estonia become a Smart Country? Understanding the circumstances that led Estonia to become a Smart Country will be crucial for South Africa to make a comeback through digital means.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Estonia was suddenly faced with a number of challenges. The country had to rebuild and establish itself in the international community.

To solve these challenges Estonia decided to use technology to the fullest.

The government in Estonia started building a basic platform on which alI information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure might be connected. Data for a new ICT project was retrieved from this source to prevent data duplications. The citizens received an ID-card with a chip which, in combination with a pin code and an Universal Serial Bus (USB) reader, formed the digital identity of the citizen.

The citizens were also enabled to access their data by just logging on a system. Through the citizen access to their own data they could see who has access to their data. This meant officials and doctors could not just access citizen data without permission and data violations could be avoided.

Currently all schools in Estonia are online and inhabited areas have access to Wifi network.

Once logged into the system the inhabitant has access to all his/her data.

The country digital platform enables a process of collecting data and creating information that can be used to better govern, plan and make decisions.

More importantly, since information is easily accessible to leaders, challenges can be detected early and prevented.

To create a Smart Country, the first action would have to be the development of a country digital platform that can be aimed at providing essential services.

Such a digital platform would have to be built and enabled by a team of capable people that can drive innovation within government. It would have to be a team with the start-up mentality.


Once such platforms are created no leader can justifiably say “I did not know”, because from the president to the councillor every leader will have access to government information from their smart watch, smartphone and laptops and be informed of every area of their responsibility.

Citizens will have the ability to receive government services quicker online and thereby share data with the government that can become useful information for decision making, planning and better management.

Wesley Diphoko is the founder of Kaya Labs and chief executive of Infonomist. He also serves as the current chairperson of the IEEE - Industry Connections on Open Data Initiative.

- BUSINESS REPORT