South Africa

OPINIONISTA: Government must step up its capacity to handle and analyse big data

South Africa must increase investment in digital infrastructure and access to affordable, fast connectivity — and the service delivery model needs to be digital. We must prepare ourselves for the data wars and ensure we manage our lives, privacy, invasive technologies, cybercrime, misuse of data and social engineering.

We are in a digital era, we must own the gold, which is our data, and use it to our advantage. The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is here and it entails changes in the world of work and affects everyone, including governments and companies. There is an acceptance of the confluence of technologies that use large data sets, “big data”, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, blockchain and system programming to bring intelligence to machines.

We leave digital footprints as we collect and circulate data. There are implications, including cybercrime, and also advantages such as epidemiological uses. There is an increasing paradigm shift towards reliance on valuable insights provided by algorithms on gathered data to enhance the performance of business analytics solutions and thus improve functionality and efficiencies.

The efficiency of the Presidency can be enhanced and through the Department of Monitoring and Evaluation can be the depository of data (generated from all departments and strategic state-owned entities), enabling it to improve its monitoring and evaluation function more efficiently and therefore improve planning, impact, accountability and the president’s ability to, at the press of a button, have a dashboard bird’s-eye view of the entirety of government functioning.

Can we be protected?

The Protection of Personal Information Act officially became effective and enforceable in South Africa on 1 July 2020. The purpose of the act is to protect the personal information of citizens which is obtained and processed by both public and private institutions. It also attempts to balance the right to privacy with other rights such as access to information.

As we implement fundamental macroeconomic reforms to protect the economy from vulnerable shifts in market sentiment, we need to be ready for the data war. The act is also enacted to provide for the rights of persons regarding unsolicited electronic communications and automated decision making. It also regulates the flow of personal information across the borders of the republic. The provisions of the act empower the South African Information Regulator and others to monitor and enforce compliance by public and private bodies.

Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams recently published for comment a National Data and Cloud Policy in terms of the Electronic Communications Act of 2005. The policy is intended to create an enabling environment for the provision of data and cloud services to ensure socioeconomic development for inclusivity.

The draft policy defines the digital economy as a hyper-connected economy characterised by a growing number of interconnected people, organisations and machines through the web and by the use of digital technology which includes advanced manufacturing, robotics and factory automation, new sources of data from mobile and ubiquitous internet connectivity, cloud computing, big data analytics and artificial intelligence.

The draft is intended to be aligned to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Framework, which links the data-value cycle and policy issues including three components — datafication and data collection, data analytics and data-driven decisions. It is argued that to unlock the value of data, key policy issues need to be addressed, such as increasing the pool of collectable data, enhancing data analytic capacities, and promoting responsible decision making for growth and wellbeing.

Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan

As part of the fight against the global Covid-19 pandemic, the South African government adopted the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan in 2020, aimed at returning the economy to its pre-Covid-19 levels and growth. These interventions are also in line with the National Development Plan goals of reducing unemployment, poverty and inequality. The Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan presents an opportunity to fast-track the transformation of the patterns of ownership in the economy, as well as enhance competitiveness through the provision of quality services and infrastructure.

The digital economy has the potential to unlock inclusive growth and is recognised as a key enabler to economic reconstruction and recovery. To realise this, the government has committed to improving information and communications technology infrastructure, connectivity and rolling out affordable fast-speed broadband countrywide. This will enable the use of new technologies with a range of possibilities, such as satellite, big data analysis and manipulation, use of artificial intelligence, availability of robotics innovation, enhancement of drone technologies, enabling of security applications such as cattle-watch, use of autonomous tractors, robotic harvesters, automatic watering and seeding robots. This will ensure that we fast-track economic growth and rural development.

Statistics South Africa reported that, as at the end of 2020, 57.5% of South Africa’s population had access to the internet. In the Economic Commission for Africa Report on the impact of Covid-19 on e-commerce, released at the annual Conference of African Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development in March 2021 in Addis Ababa, Guy Futi, one of the authors, says the hindrances to e-commerce and the digital economy are poor internet penetration and high data costs — although, by 2019 Africa had registered unprecedented growth in its digitisation through the addition of 290 million people with access to the internet.

The onset of Covid-19 has presented us with the opportunity to use digital technology and an improved spatial planning system guided by the principles of equality, fairness, good governance and efficiency, as embedded in our Constitution. The crisis can assist in facilitating a fast-tracked approach to the digital economy and an opportunity to ensure we accord the necessary investment towards achieving vibrant, equitable and sustainable rural communities and thus food security.

In a post-Covid-19 universe we need to explore the 4IR to create home-grown innovation to resolve our agriculture challenges, improve our lives and facilitate commerce. Smart farming can add value to the land-reform interventions and when redistribution of land is done, young people can be empowered with hi-tech greenhouses, as well as farm automation to make farms more efficient. These options are likely to excite youngsters and present more opportunities for their participation in agriculture.

Thus, information and communications technology infrastructure remains a lever through which industrial development and economic growth can be ignited, implemented and sustained. The new District Development Model, with its comprehensive, digitally accessible “one country, one plan’’ approach can be enhanced by the availability of connectivity while ensuring measurable impact.

Citizens’ rights in the digital age

As we are now 27 years into our democracy, we should have a world-class interactive databank portal that can, at the press of a button, provide much-needed statistical information and improve our census data. The District Development Model adds another layer of opportunity for ‘’business unusual’’ and to shake up the edifice.

Africa should actively invest in the manufacture of digital technologies, devices, software, applications design and development. It is untenable that we lag behind and our education system needs to support improved development and the collection, control and commercialising of data in our countries. This will help us to generate problem-appropriate solutions in a plethora of areas, including crime prevention, infrastructure development, water and sanitation and power generation.

To date a lot of critical personal and public data have been collected as part of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, stored on government websites and sites such as www.coronavirus.co.za, while generally citizens’ data are in the hands of StatsSA, the Department of Home Affairs, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, GovChat, medical aid credit collectors and agencies, among others.

We must be vigilant about whether private information in the hands of second and third parties is lawfully collected, adequately protected and copyright protected, and whether all public-interest considerations are observed to protect citizens and South Africa during its acquisition.

Additionally, the passing of the Protection of Personal Information Act also brings to light other issues, including what online threats and cyber-protection solutions prevail, protecting personal data and cybersecurity. We also need to ensure those we have entrusted with our data have cybersecurity policies, including encryption and maintaining the security of data and applications. We need to know whether our data are passed on for commercial gain — such as selling them for advertising purposes — without our permission. It is critical to also establish whether there is anti-competitive behaviour in the data wars. As a country, do we know how many data breaches take place and are we acting against those who access people’s data without authorisation and release such information into untrusted environments?

As the saying goes, “every move we make, every step we take, creates an output of data”. It can be scary, when you think deeply about it: every tech business (small and large like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon), despite their contention at times that their main business is advertising, is eager to control and use our data output. To grow, businesses want to know and predict our tastes, behaviours and buying patterns. Our data are used to predict in what is called the predictive economy.

South Africa needs to put in place actions to reduce negative impacts, like unemployment, skills mismatch, through, for example, promoting digital skills, empowering entrepreneurs, and access to digital infrastructure, devices, software and applications. While we don’t have all the answers, when we come together or take a global view of the issue, the key question is: how can we reap the rewards?

Due to unprecedented access to data, some big tech businesses and companies potentially know more about our lives than our governments do. These data could be of great use — in terms of the Protection of Personal Information Act — to our government for planning, to the National Planning Commission, to Statistics South Africa, to research institutions like the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, to the South African Revenue Service to expand the tax base and the Independent Electoral Commission, as well as to improve education and health systems.

This requires that we invest more in developing artificial intelligence and virtual reality systems to process user data and enable seamless access to data for fighting Covid-19 and crime and for vaccination, the visa regime, planning, an efficient and speedy judiciary (justice delayed is justice denied) and a range of public-interest objectives. We also need to develop our own cloud and back-up servers.

Alternatively, given the limited resources and that others already have collected data, do our laws, be it the Protection of Personal Information Act or the Statistics Act, give the state access to the reliable data collected by private companies? If not, should we amend the laws? Are we happy with private companies owning our data?

This is the time to look at how our information and communications technology small, medium and micro-enterprises, through shared value, can be partners, strengthened, and focus on developing business solutions promoting innovative solutions, addressing social problems, education, development, entrepreneurship, digital procurement, smart farming, among other things. Most of our leaders, like President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of Small Business Development Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, are passionate and supportive of this trajectory and digital transformation — let’s make it happen together, in our lifetime.

Our information regulator must be empowered to protect us against unintentional information disclosure, data leaks and information leaks and data spill through ensuring compliance with the Protection of Personal Information Act.

Data has thus become the new currency and core component of the political economy in this digital era. Citizens and consumers are increasingly accessing and receiving services through digital platforms on mobile devices. We must increase investment in digital infrastructure and access to affordable fast-speed connectivity, and the service delivery model needs to transform and be digital.

We must prepare ourselves for the data wars, ensure we manage our lives, privacy, invasive technologies, cybercrime, misuse of data and social engineering. As part of the data war, we must caution the public against the unprecedented massive data breaches and our citizens must be extra vigilant with their personal information, as abuse of personal information is rife. Who is better placed as a custodian of protecting our personal information?

“Contemporary organisations are both culturally impelled by the data imperative and powerfully equipped with the tools to enact it,” Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy have written. And “data is in fact a new kind of capital on par with financial capital for creating new products and services. And it’s not just a metaphor; data fulfils the literal textbook definition of capital,” according to an MIT/Oracle review.

South Africa needs to put in place actions to reduce negative impacts, like unemployment, skills mismatch, through, for example, promoting digital skills, empowering entrepreneurs, and access to digital infrastructure, devices, software and applications. While we don’t have all the answers, when we come together or take a global view of the issue, the key question is: how can we reap the rewards?

Collection and analysis of large datasets can be advantageous as the economic landscape changes and can assist in addressing our socioeconomic challenges. The accumulated data have the potential to drive many key decisions about the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, technological development, political governance, accountability, fighting crime and pushing back the frontiers of poverty, inequality and unemployment. DM

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