File image: Wesley Diphoko, Head of the Independent Digital Lab. (IOL).
CAPE TOWN - Uber, the world’s leading transport technology company, uses geographical data to know how to move people from one place to another, while Tesla, the innovation machine in the vehicle manufacturing space, is also using geographical data to enable automation which allows the car to drive itself.

All of these companies would not have been possible without geographical data. The same is true of other technological innovations that will dominate the fourth industrial revolution.

Data is the secret sauce for creating companies of the future. It is for this reason that the Data Economy matters for society today, especially for the African continent.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, addressing Parliament in May, alluded to the value of data when he was outlining what needs to be done about land. 

The president indicated that there’s a need for land data in order to inform decision-making processes around land allocation in South Africa.

 The truth of the matter is that data on land exists; however, it is not easily accessible. In fact, since South Africa is a signatory of the “Open Government Declaration”, such information should be easily accessible to everyone.

The declaration calls for South Africa to champion Open Data, which is a phrase that refers to enabling and making available government data and shareable public information.

 Open Data also includes making information about health, crime, education, transport, finance and important aspects of society available in its raw format for governance, accountability and, more importantly, economic development.

The accessibility of data is a critical area if South Africa is to create a thriving data economy.

According to the Digital Economy Report by Digital Reality in Europe, the Data Economy is worth trillions.

 In Germany, the size of the data economy is £100.8billion (R1.68trillion), and its untapped potential is estimated at £87.9bn. In the UK the size of the data economy is estimated at £73.3bn and its untapped potential is estimated at £53.3bn.

Currently, no one knows the exact value of the South African data economy. However, it can be concluded that billions are wasted based on data that is not used for economic value.

There’s a need to move government data from resting in government databases by making it available for better use.

Currently, there are many stumbling blocks in creating the data economy.

Although efforts to make government information available through avenues such as the data portal and government websites have improved, more can be done in regard to the following matters:

* Lack of quality data sets;

* Lack of open data policy;

* Lack of data leader.

Lack of ideal open data

The publicly available data is not structured in the manner that makes it possible to create digital assets such as Uber, AirBnB and other tech innovations made possible by data. Although there are some companies that were created based on data in South Africa, more can be done to make sure that more of these companies can be created.

Lack of open data policy

Another area that needs attention in order to create the data economy is a data policy that will inform the manner in which the government makes data available to the citizens.

Once such data policy has been established, it will need to be reviewed from time to time to ensure that it aligns to the needs of society.

Lack of data leader

More importantly, for the data economy to thrive, there will be a need for data leadership in the country.

Lack of leadership in this regard makes it difficult for data projects to be implemented seamlessly.

A starting point in this regard may be a ministry that may focus on technology and with a particular focus on creating the data economy.

What will enable data economy?

The time is now for South Africa to take the data economy seriously through the manner in which it makes data available, by developing a data policy and by appointing leaders who will advance the data economy of the country.

Today the IEEE Open Data Initiative is beginning a process of developing an open data standard.

This standard which will serve as an instrument that can provide guidance on how open data can be accessible.

The IEEE Open Data Initiative is currently based in the Western Cape, with various stakeholders across the board participating in the development of an open data standard.

The open data standard development process will be conducted over the period of two years, starting with workshops in 2018.

Wesley Diphoko is the founder of Kaya Labs and the chief executive of Infonomist. He is chairperson of the IEEE Open Data Initiative (Industry Connections programme) in South Africa. Follow him on Twitter for more insights on the information economy: @WesleyDiphoko