Accessible GIS data: The game-changer for SA

February 11th, 2015, Published in Articles: PositionIT

 

This article outlines how 1Map has democratised GIS data by championing the open online availability of spatial data to South Africa.

We live in a wonderful country where the sun shines most of the time and where clouds bring promise of new life. In the world of geography and maps it’s also fitting that the cloud should symbolise a new dawn, a promise of new growth.

In South Africa, the pioneers of survey have left us with a legacy which is the envy of many a country. South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that boasts a national repository where all approved survey records are saved and made available to all who require them in the execution of their work.

A legacy gives you a head start, but if the next generation of visionaries does not rise to the challenge and build upon the legacy, it soon fades and becomes merely an interesting historical fact.

Fig. 1: Erven cadastre with Stand numbers in Soweto.

Fig. 1: Erven cadastre with Stand numbers in Soweto.

The vision: open data

Like Madonna, we all live in a material world – meaning that we are physical beings, living in physical houses, on physical erven. We drive on physical roads. Maps and spatial data will therefore never become redundant. On the contrary – the more technology advances, the more value we can now extract from spatial data through GIS.

The necessity for spatial data transcends the traditional users – the town planners, land surveyors, etc. – and now there is almost no industry left that does not have an aspect that can greatly benefit from spatially enabling their databases. From the obvious ones such as courier companies and travel agents, to more unconventional ones such as credit bureaus and retailers. Even if a company does not have a physical storefront, or sell physical items, the customers remain physical people, and their location remains important.

What is open data?

In order for data to be classified as being “open data”, the data should be:

  • Freely accessible: Acquiring access to the data needs to be easy, and any person wishing to obtain access should be able to do so without much effort. This includes the medium that is used to access or distribute the data.
  • Affordable: Price should not be a barrier to entry, and should only be used as a means to subsidise the cost of the data and dissemination channels.
  • Usable: Data should be in a format that enables even non-technical users to make effective use of the data.

Why open data?

In South Africa, a country with a huge amount of potential and yet an obscenely high unemployment rate, it is more important now than ever before to leverage every single advantage that we possibly have to grow the economy and generate value for all citizens. It is important to use GIS data optimally to ensure effective and efficient service delivery to overcome challenges and capacity constraints. In a globalising world, our companies and individuals are no longer only competing against themselves, but are competing against other countries much larger and more developed than we are. Open GIS data is one of the elements that is needed in order to compete on the international scene.

Achieving this vision

Now we come to the interesting part of the discussion – what is needed to realise this vision of open spatial data? Firstly, we need to look at the issue of the data being freely accessible.

Freely accessible

Currently, a lot of spatial data in South Africa is theoretically “freely accessible” in the sense that the public can gain access to it. But often times the general public is not aware of the procedures to be used or indeed which custodian to approach in order to gain access to specifically needed GIS data. Furthermore, some custodians require users to collect the data from them on a physical medium, greatly decreasing the accessibility especially for users who need quick access to a small amount of spatial data for a specific purpose. The only feasible solution is an online solution, where data is made available through an internet portal.

The modern trend is for users of data to be increasingly mobile. We need access to our data from our laptop at home, our workstation at the office, and our phones when we’re on the road. Obtaining a full dataset on a physical medium that you load onto your various devices is no longer a feasible option in today’s cloud-based world.

In order for the data to be truly accessible, the procedure to obtain the data needs to be easy to follow. In an internet solution, this means that the web portal needs to be user friendly and intuitive. It should be easy to find the specific data that the user requires, and to extract the required value from the data. The portal should also be well known, and easy to access. Currently, each municipality and organ of state that makes its data available on the internet has its own unique portal, with unique layout and interface – necessitating users who require access to a range of different areas’ spatial data to become proficient in the use of each of these disparate portals, not to mention that users need to be aware of and know the addresses of each portal. What is needed is one single, consolidated portal that users know, and where they can access any spatial data.

Fig. 2: NGI aerial photography, 1Map street addresses and road centrelines, SG stands.

Fig. 2: NGI aerial photography, 1Map street addresses and road centrelines, SG stands.

Furthermore, especially in a developing country such as South Africa, many internet users do not have access to a computer, but rather access the internet through their cell phones. This necessitates that “freely accessible” data needs to be available on smartphones and not only on computers.

Affordable

In order for data to be open to those who need to use it, it needs to be affordable. Pricing of data provision services should cover the costs of providing the service. Unfortunately we often see international companies charge exorbitant fees for even the most basic GIS functionality or data subscription. Sometimes more affordable data subscription options are offered, but these data subscriptions are often so riddled with fine-print and restrictions, that users of the data are unable to effectively use or share the data.

The argument of many is that data is expensive due to the cost incurred in procuring, managing and disseminating the data. But as with most infrastructure and basic services, it is our belief that it should be subsidised by the fiscus. Imagine if you were presented with a payment-up-front bill by the fire department before they extinguish the flames in your house…

Usable

Data is only valuable to the extent that it is usable. Even if you have data of the highest integrity, updated daily, and made available at no cost – if it is not in a format that makes it usable, it is not useful. This means that data should be made available in the industry standard data exchange formats, and be usable by standard application software.

Furthermore, the data should be searchable to enable users who need to access a certain section of the data to easily locate it.

Lastly, the usability of data is greatly increased by the context. If you see a cadastral erven boundary without coordinates, it has very little value since you have no way of knowing where this property is. Adding the spatial reference coordinates adds significant value since the property now becomes a spatial object with a known location. Add to this property an aerial photography layer, and now you can see what the area looks like. Is it in a forest? Is it in a river? etc. Add the municipal utilities data, and you know what services are connected, what the usage is, whether there are variances, and more. Therefore, the more data from various sources are combined, the more useful and usable the data becomes.

Now the question begs to be asked: If open data is such a big priority, what is being done in order to make it a reality?

Realising the vision

1Map is the first platform in Africa that hosts spatial data for an entire country, including Surveyor General erven cadastre and NGI aerial photography, on an online portal (see Figs. 1-4). We source, upload, manage, and update the data centrally.

Making spatial data freely accessible?

As mentioned above, a major challenge to achieving the “freely accessible” status of our data, is the distribution by the data custodians. 1Map overcomes the challenge by making data available on an internet portal. This means that at any time of day or night, wherever a user might be, he or she can have access to data produced by any number of the South African data custodians.

The 1Map portal hosts data from all the major data custodians in South Africa, including SG, NGI, StatsSA, various municipalities, and others (see Figs. 1-4). This means that whatever spatial data users are looking for, they only need to remember the web address of one data portal, and only need to be proficient in the use of one portal and its tools. There are also step-by-step video tutorials and detailed documentation to guide users in how to gain the full benefit from the application. This removes many of the barriers to freely accessing data.

Fig. 3: SG diagram 3.

Fig. 3: SG diagram 3.

The fact that 1Map is a web app, also means that users are no longer limited to accessing their data only on the specific computer on which the data or application has been installed. Wherever there is an internet connection, the user can use any PC to gain access to all their 1Map data and functionality.

Internet speed is a big concern in many places in South Africa. As 1Map has been developed locally, it has been a priority to achieve a high level of speed despite bandwidth constraints, making the portal accessible even on slow connections.

The 1Map online GIS does not only have a powerful user interface, but also allows for other applications to access the data and features of 1Map directly without human intervention through the extensive API (application programming interface). This drastically increases the accessibility of the data, and reduces the amount of duplication of effort and resources. Applications that need to be spatially enabled, i.e. having a spatial reference point brought in to augment the application, can now access the data and tools already built into 1Map directly, with no need to re-engineer the spatial engine.

1Map has also developed a mobile app that accesses the powerful 1Map back-end through the API. This gives users with an Android smartphone or GPS device access to their 1Map accounts and data through their mobile device for navigation, inspection, and even capturing. There are also plans to develop an iPhone app in the near future.

Affordable

1Map is proud to be a South African company, and we believe that if we are to make our country work, we should all work together. Therefore we do not chase high profits, and keep our overheads as low as we can. We do this by making use of open source spatial software, and supporting our official data custodians in improving their data rather than building our own competitive dataset.

This means that we have been able to build the largest online GIS in South Africa, with over 6000 registered users, and have never charged a fee for basic access to the GIS data that we serve, offering free Lite accounts to any user who wishes to register.

We are also constantly looking for subsidies from government or sponsorships from investors and corporate partners in order to keep our Lite service free and to continue to improve the tools and data that we offer. In order to continue to maintain and improve 1Map, we have recently introduced access to advanced features and functionality to professional and power users at a nominal fee, starting at R195 per month.

This means that price is no longer a barrier to gain access to reliable spatial data.

Fig. 4: Wealth distribution Stats SA household income.

Fig. 4: Wealth distribution Stats SA household income.

Usable

1Map has placed a lot of importance on the usability of the data hosted on the portal.

Firstly, there is a range of different search options, including 1Map’s proprietary street address database, differentiating between areas which use street addresses, house numbers or stand numbers (especially useful when navigating in informal housing settlements).

Users can also view, edit, print, or export spatial data1 to be used in a desktop GIS application. Editing functionality includes editing both attribute data and spatial data, live
and dynamically online, with a reversible audit trail of all changes made. Export formats include shapefile, TAB, DXF, and KML formats, for use in a variety of applications. Users can also print the data directly from 1Map, in large format prints and with full colour aerial photography.

Because 1Map brings together spatial data from a wide variety of sources, the data can now also be viewed in context, even by non-GIS technicians who are unable to create a multi-layered map from various sources. Any user can now view a piece of land with their chosen spatial data all displayed as a layered map, including the user’s own custom
spatial data2.

These factors all contribute to the usability of spatial data in South Africa.

Conclusion

Much has been said about open spatial data, the importance thereof, the requirements to implement it, and the complexity of making the dream a reality. 1Map has taken the vision, and has started to run with it. We are already at a stage where we can start making the claim that open spatial data has become a reality for South Africa. That does not mean there isn’t still much that can be done to refine and improve, but every day brings with it more people and organisations who are willing to participate and to cooperate. Together we are realising a vision of establishing a solid infrastructural foundation of reliable, accessible, affordable, and useful spatial data available to any person who can use it to grow our economy, help our people, and build our nation. Will you partner with us?


Note 1: These features are limited depending on the users’ permissions and subscription option.
Note 2: Users can create and edit spatial objects in the Sandbox layers, or import their own Shapefiles as custom layers, which can be edited and maintained online.

Contact Nicolaas Klopper, 1Map Spatial Solutions, Tel 021 873-0546, jnk@1map.co.za