BY Wesley Diphoko 3 MINUTE READ

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 constrained by lack of quality 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 Human Sciences Research Council and the National Treasury: Cities Support Programme and Economic Policy Unit is a major boost as StatsSA had stopped developing such data, in 2014/15, due to economic reasons.

HRSC together with National Treasury partnered with other organisations that includes 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 startup 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 and sets a fine example for 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 within the private sector. In transport, agriculture, sports and housing sectors there’s a need for more open data collaboration to improve planning and to 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 economic value of open data is currently not known however it’s 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. The challenge is that most 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 therefore better positioned to now take the lead.

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 ultimatelyled 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 light workof the coming data deluge.