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SPISYS – Google Earth, homebrewed

Groundbreaking technology that literally breaks new ground.

BY  Nick van der Leek , 3 January 20120 comments

Fanie Minnie, SPISYS, is one of only 84 professional GISc practitioners in South Africa.| photos: Nick van der Leekphotos: Nick van der LeekFanie Minnie, SPISYS, is one of only 84 professional GISc practitioners in South Africa.

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Fanie Minnie is a big man with big ideas. Using homegrown technology, his team is building a powerful alternative to Google Earth. SPISYS is a sophisticated Geographical Information System (GIS) developed for the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform.

Minnie is one of only 84 professional Geographical Information Science (GISc) practitioners in South Africa. “My mandate,” he says, “is to make government work by getting all information in the same spatial environment.

“The biggest challenge is people not having access to the tools that properly inform them.”

The SPISYS idea came about when he and Hennie Stander, a GIS manager for Mangaung (Bloemfontein’s municipality), realised there were high levels of frustration because people didn’t have access to certain data sets.

Both men hypothesised that by creating a new platform, a sharing network, ‘everyone could stop running around looking for data’. According to Minnie, the department’s own consultants often spend up to three months on some projects ‘just collecting data from 15 disparate departments, trying to develop a complete picture’.

This is problematic, especially against the background of what Minnie describes as “a big land crisis brewing at the moment. Government wants to buy farms, but it doesn’t know where, while farmers will tell you many of them want to sell.”

SPISYS was developed to integrate diverse data, and to simplify and streamline a process that ordinarily takes months, into an instantaneous solutions platform.

Minnie’s efforts are geared towards what boils down to a more structured way of bringing information together, which will enable more ‘collaborative governance’ and cut out duplication.

Started in April 2011, with a budget of R6 million, the two-year project is currently focussed on photographing the Free State on half-metre resolution (Google Earth is typically 30 to 70 metres, peaking at around 20-metre resolution).

“With SPISYS,” Minnie says, “you’ll be able to see the white stripes on a tar road.”

But the idea is more than just a high-resolution map. Minnie’s vision involves integrating data from as many as 15 sector departments, which will facilitate land use, and solve what he describes as ‘the riddle of what’s happening where’.

“I wanted (the developers) to build me a cloud,” says Minnie of his prerequisite for this project. Thus SPISYS, being internet-based, is accessible to users anywhere in the world.

The project will use the same servers used by Sars, buried in a secure bunker near Pretoria.

But why not just rely on Google Earth?

“Everybody is creating a GIS,” Minnie responds. “That’s not new. The challenge is getting the data. We’re not creating a separate system; we’re creating a sharing platform. Some of our data can be directly exported to Google Earth, especially on the public side.”

Minnie explains how the technology can enable the average person: “What this means is a developer in Bethlehem can find out online the status of parcels of land. For example, whether the land is for sale, how it is zoned, what the flood plains are around a river, even the nature of the vegetation.”

The platform also allows citizens to upload issues such as potholes, water or sewerage leaks, so that the required services can be accurately reported and logged.

SPISYS can also be used by mobile devices. Says Minnie: “It has been specifically developed for iPhones, and works best on Chrome. It also works on Android. The mobile application is important because we want people to make decisions where they are.”

By fixing the information disconnects between municipalities, the metros and the public, SPISYS cracks ‘the riddle of what’s happening where’.

Things get really interesting when Minnie explains how the software can be customised. “What the user sees depends on who you are. A municipal manager will have access to a different map, than, say, a premier.”

There’s also a separate system geared to government needs. Here, the application of highly structured and integrated data becomes impressive. Satellite images and temporal analysis offer high-end projections to plot, for example, the future growth of a city and the impact on farms on the urban fringe. Changes in vegetation, and soil erosion, can also be analysed.

“Where are clinics needed? What are the trends in informal housing? Can you develop within the Vredefort Dome? SPISYS will show you what’s happening. You can download the relevant forms from our platform. So a politician visiting a rural area can quickly inform himself, using our GIS, of its land use and infrastructure requirements.”

For the South African public, this is very good news.

Farmers, property buyers, ordinary residents and developers wishing to purchase and develop land have often found themselves hamstrung by municipal departments that themselves lack clarity on zoning and other land classifications. A paralysis in development all over South Africa has resulted from a lack of access to land data.

SPISYS clearly provides a remedy for this. Once implemented in the Free State and Northern Cape, SPISYS will probably roll out to other provinces. Minnie’s vision provides an elegant solution to a complex, and sometimes intractable problem. By pooling government data into a single space, he’s creating a meaningful map that ought to improve the circumstances of South Africans everywhere.