Picture: SUPPLIED/SANLAM INVESTMENTS/iSTOCK
Picture: SUPPLIED/SANLAM INVESTMENTS/iSTOCK

If data is the new gold or oil, how well are SA cities doing in using this precious resource to drive development and improve service delivery to citizens?

Globally, local and national governments continue to gain access to ever more powerful technologies for collecting, storing, processing and applying data. As cities improve their capacity for collecting and analysing data, and continue to gather more of it, an opportunity for open collaboration emerges.

Many of the risks we face — rapid urbanisation, the effects of climate change, and the effective management of scarce resources such as water — are shared among SA’s cities. Leveraging shared data and analytics could help identify risks quicker, drive the development of solutions to common challenges and greatly improve service delivery, thereby fostering trust and building greater social cohesion.

With the volume of operational and experience data growing rapidly, cities could, with the correct investment into intelligent technologies, seamlessly merge data sets to produce real-time insights that can guide decision-making at every step of the citizen journey.

In a recent UN e-government study, SA was ranked third in Africa in the e-government development index, an indicator of digital government services maturity. This put the country in the top 100 countries worldwide and above the global average, though still well behind countries in Europe, North America and Asia.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, data is a vital step in improving finance within African cities. Considering the parlous state of finances in some SA cities, the improved use of data could help bring greater transparency to public spending and ensure critical financial resources are applied where they can make the greatest difference to citizens. An open data policy, in which cities make important data visible and accessible to citizens, could improve oversight over how governments make important decisions, how public funds are spent versus what the budget priorities are, and how well different government departments are functioning in providing essential services to citizens.

Open portals

According to the UN, the number of countries that have set up open government data portals continues to increase, growing from 46 in 2014 to 153 in 2020.

Locally, cities such as Cape Town have established open data portals that encourage citizen participation in local government decision-making processes. Cape Town offers nearly 86 data sets for downloading by the public, with stakeholders such as universities, laboratories and non-profit organisations using the data to drive local research and innovation.

Cape Town’s Emergency Policing and Incident Command (Epic) programme, which went live in 2016 and is a first of its kind in SA, provides a centralised emergency control platform for the preparation, mitigation, response and quick resolution of all public safety incidents in the city. The platform is built on powerful intelligent technologies with comprehensive reporting capabilities that provide real-time access to incident data, which informs broader planning and response strategies.

Johannesburg is accelerating its plans to become a smart city by mobilising its enviable community of start-ups and innovators through a citywide smart city innovation challenge. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s vision for building a smart city on the outskirts of Johannesburg could foster a new era of innovation.

Business models

Relying on renewable energy and built with a focus on nonmotorised transport, the planned smart city could accommodate up to half-a-million residents by the end of the decade and transform the economic and employment prospects for millions living in the region.

Improved use of data within SA’s cities could also foster new business models that are built on data-driven innovation and real-time insights. By improving the use of data as a vital public resource, cities could achieve the following:

  • Improved governance through evidence-based policy-making, outcomes-based contracting for key public works programmes, and community budgeting that increases citizen engagement with vital budgetary processes to help ensure optimal use of public funds.
  • Better mobility through the integration of ride-hailing and demand-based transit services into public transport networks, improved e-mobility, and the establishment of network logistic hubs.
  • Superior citizen experiences through the improved delivery of e-government services, better experience management to remove pain points from citizen interactions with government services, and predictive public safety initiatives.
  • A cleaner environment through the establishment of infrastructure and services enabling a circular economy, and empowering citizens to become digital prosumers.
  • A stronger economy through improved public-private partnerships, access to more accurate city data to drive economic development, and intelligent revenue collection.

However, cities need to invest in intelligent technologies that enable the seamless collection, processing, storing and application of a broad range of data. A business technology platform that can easily integrate new technologies and provide a single source of truth to policymakers can help optimise decision-making and ensure citizens remain at the centre of city plans, initiatives and interventions.

Investing in intelligent technologies such as the internet of things and experience management tools can give cities access to broader data sets, which can be mined for insights using AI and advanced analytics. And using cloud technologies can help provide ready access to critical services even during times of heightened disruption, while offering opportunities for scaling services to new citizens or regions as needed.

• Letwaba is head of public sector sales: Southern Africa at SAP.

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