Mapping the world class African city

The City of Johannesburg is closing off its GIS data in a ‘cost recovery’ move that other South African municipalities are set to follow. This, say some industry players, is not in keeping with Joburg’s plans to become ‘a world-class African city’.

1 September 2009
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Marcelle Hattigh is director of the City's Corporate Geo-Informatics directorate, which has won an 'Innovation Award' but is charged with preventing innovation in the local GIS sector.

Go to the City of Johannesburg’s ‘e-services’ online mapping site on a Mac or on a Firefox browser and you’ll be disappointed. In bold red letters, a notice reads: ‘PLEASE NOTE: The online map viewer is only compatible with Internet Explorer 6 or higher...’

The problems don’t end here. Further along in the process, you’ll see a ‘disclaimer’ that reads: ‘The contents may not be copied, reproduced, redistributed to third parties in any form for any purpose whatsoever, or applied to commercial use without the written consent of the Council.’

Entering the City’s physical premises is only marginally more inviting. After struggling to enter the underground parking and being accused of ‘not providing my details’ beforehand, I soon realise that the City’s GIS department should have started with a map of how to get to their offices.

I wander around the parking lot and am eventually directed to an unmarked door leading to the entrance. I wait ten minutes for a lift (some of the lifts are ‘under repair’) and squash into the packed compartment to get up to the eighth floor.

As the lift inches upwards and I hold my breath, I think that if this represents the headquarters of a ‘world-class African city’ then we have a long way to go.

I’m here to interview Marcelle Hattingh, director of the City’s Corporate Geo-Informatics directorate (CGIS). Under Hattingh’s watch, the directorate has won an ‘Innovation Award’ from the Joburg Innovation and Knowledge Exchange, for its ‘Land Information System’.

The Land Information System is an integrated property information system that brings together four different sources of information – the Deeds Office, Valuations, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and the planning department – into one database.

This is a major achievement for the City. Previously, every department was using its own database, information was fragmented, and there were revenue losses because of unbilled properties, unread meters, returned bills and missing deeds information.

Although there are still problems with unverified and incomplete data, at least the City is starting to provide citizens with an address and an integrated bill every month. I’m not here to talk about the LIS – not directly, that is – but it’s interesting to hear Hattingh describe how important it is for every citizen to have a true address.

“In the past, especially in townships like Soweto, citizens used a stand number to refer to the location of their house,” she explains.

The City is only now working on developing road names and official street addresses for many of these areas, ensuring that emergency services can more easily get to the property and that local services can be delivered more efficiently. Basic spatial information is obviously a critical public service, which makes the City’s closed GIS data policy more confusing.

The City’s Corporate GIS department offers two kinds of mapping services: a free service, with basic information about motorways, city administrative regions, and voting wards, and a subscription service, which provides more extensive information down to stand level. Features of this service include full resolution aerial photographs, maps of proposed townships, and customised map-making tools.

The subscription service is not overly costly (R1 100 a year, according to Hattingh) but none of the maps, even the ‘free’ ones, are allowed to be redistributed to third parties (for example, by publishing the map on a website) without permission from the department. Even with permission, the commercial licence agreements state that companies can only use the maps as a backdrop, that they must agree to share their improvements with the City (for example, if they add points of interest) and that they cannot resell the data.

When asked how the department justifies charging for public data, Hattingh says: “We have to be sustainable. Aerial photography costs, for example, are huge. We need to show an income in order to justify the huge expenses we have.”

The City of Johannesburg’s closed data policies are working for some. Its current clients – mostly those in the property development industry – only need to view the data, rather than to edit, re-use and add value.

But critics say that the closed data approach is being questioned in countries around the world, where closed data policies are having a negative effect on the GIS industry, on citizens’ access to services, and on public service groups that could be using the data in new and interesting ways.

Missed opportunities

According to Johannesburg resident Tim Sutton, who provides GeoSpatial free and open source software solutions through his company Linfiniti Consulting (, the restrictions on the City’s data are bad for the economy.

“By adopting a subscription model and placing onerous restrictions on what you can actually do with the data, there is zero scope for small entrepreneurs to add value and create services around these data. Instead, the policy favours large enterprises with large wallets that gain advantage from small businesses not having equal access to the same data sets.”

Shuttleworth Foundation Intellectual Property Fellow Andrew Rens agrees. “This is a missed opportunity for innovation,” he says. “If you want to be a 21st-century city, then this is not the way to go about it. By opening up government data, the City could enable people to create applications on top of that data that the city could never have imagined.”

One of the reasons Hattingh provides for closing the data is that they: “Don’t want to be inundated with unnecessary requests.”

Critics believe that the small, unexpected uses of spatial data are where the biggest opportunities lie. Closed data policies preclude use by student researchers wanting access to the downloadable dataset so that they can map social problems and find reasons for illnesses in certain areas.

It precludes small businesses wanting to develop mash-ups for taxi routes across the city. It prevents initiatives such as, which enables citizens to report problems to the municipality. It prevents citizens from helping to improve the data where there are problems, and it prevents the business applications that can be developed for small businesses using mapping applications to enhance their services.

Says Sutton: “The upcoming World Cup event in 2010 offers a great opportunity for small businesses to create spatial services for visitors to Johannesburg.

To do this, they need unfettered access to current and accurate data, which only the City of Johannesburg is in a position to provide. The current policies of the City of Johannesburg amount to self-disenfranchisement – the City has the most to gain by providing an environment where a vibrant and innovative economic environment can be built up around the geospatial data holdings they curate on behalf of tax payers.”

Open access vs cost recovery

The upcoming World Cup event offers a great opportunity for small businesses to create spatial services for Johannesburg visitors in 2010. Tim Sutton,
Sutton and Rens aren’t the only ones criticising the closed data approach. A debate is currently raging in Europe over the commercial value of public data when it’s closed, as opposed to the United States’ policy that sees all spatial data collected with federal funds made available to the public at the cost of distribution, without copyright restrictions.

Says Peter Weiss of the US Department of Commerce: “In the US, open and unrestricted access to public sector information has resulted in the rapid growth of information intensive industries, particularly in the geographic information and environmental services sectors. Similar growth has not occurred in Europe due to restrictive government information practices.”

In the United Kingdom, public GIS services are carried out by government-owned entities such as Ordnance Survey, which adopts a ‘cost recovery’ strategy by charging for, and closing up, data to follow-on use. Ordnance Survey is designated as a trading fund (which means that it operates as a self-contained commercial entity receiving no direct tax funding) but 50 percent of its income comes from the public sector.

The ‘Free our data’ campaign by the Guardian to ‘make taxpayers’ data available to them’ is fighting Ordnance Survey’s closed data policies in favour of the US’ ‘open access’ approach. “Making that data available for use for free – rather as commercial companies such as Amazon and Google do with their catalogue and maps data – would vastly expand the range of services available,” announces the campaign.

“It cannot make any sense that Google, an American organisation, is presently more popular with people aiming to create new map applications.”

Research commissioned by the European Commission on the ‘Commercial Exploitation of Europe’s Public Sector Information’ backs up this claim, concluding that the fledgling EU market would not even have to double in size for government to more than recoup in extra tax receipts what they would lose by ceasing to charge for public sector information.

“The problem,” states the report, “is these recovery policies, by which both individual agencies and partner publishers have grown adept at extracting monopoly rents from captive markets to their own benefit but to the detriment of the economy at large.”

Relevant here?

Hattingh specifically refers to the UK’s Ordnance Survey when she talks about the model adopted by the City, but then says that we can’t compare ourselves to countries like the US and the UK because we’re talking about “different economies of scale here”.

If anything, the conditions of a developing country like South Africa should make the open data solution more attractive. By providing a high-tech GIS industry with base data on top of which it can provide value-added services, and by enabling citizens to help build and refine data, the City of Johannesburg would develop a much more efficient system that would help businesses provide better services and would help citizen groups, researchers and non-profit organisations to better fulfil social goals.

Hattingh can’t really answer questions about lost opportunities. “Even if we wanted to go open, we couldn’t do it alone.”

This is the best answer she’s given all afternoon. The lack of an integrated strategy on public intellectual property is probably the City’s biggest problem. Like other cities, it sees the sale of data as an opportunity for income generation, distinct from other public services.

The best conclusion about why things haven’t changed comes from the now-defunct Canadian campaign that was run in the ‘90s:

“There aren’t bad or stupid people to blame for this problem. People are simply doing the best they can to follow their mandates, and we expect they are probably doing a good job in the context of their narrow mandates. Smart people are making the best decisions they can. Granted, it certainly seems absurd that it could be more expensive to charge for information than give it away at the cost of distribution. Except that it isn’t absurd. It is absolutely the case.”