Data as infrastructure: who should carry the costs?

July 9th, 2014, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT, Featured: EE Publishers



Nicolene Fourie

The value of geospatial and earth observations data to facilitate informed decisions is indisputable. Increasingly decision-makers have become aware that a single problem may require access to many datasets, while one dataset may have many applications. Having access to a variety of datasets that are current and accurate ensures superior solutions.

Essential datasets that are critical to support sustainable development of a nation or region include meteorological, geological, agricultural and land cover data, but also extend to data used for the management of ecosystems, biodiversity and water. These data sets are drawn from public sector earth observations and geospatial information repositories. Their collection, management and distribution should be funded from the public purse for public good. These datasets should be free with open access.

There are several cogent arguments to support this viewpoint. Firstly, the real value of data lies in its use. A simple but compelling analogy is that of a public road which is funded by the state but which makes it possible for commercial sectors to derive economic value by making use of this infrastructure.

Secondly, making data available at no cost drives innovation and allows companies, including SMMEs, to develop value-added solutions and decision support. Data empowerment becomes a powerful driver for socio-economic development.

The third point is that changes to policy shaping the collection of data and its management by public sector information holders has the potential to initiate and sustain a virtuous cycle of data use and value addition with associated downstream socio-economic benefits for improved data collection. Free data is the fuel of the knowledge economy.

This cycle presupposes accessibility (that is, the lack of access barriers) to data, which in turn catalyses industry competition. Innovation results in an increase in revenue to government, thereby providing the necessary funding to government.

To realise this ideal, it is necessary to examine the barriers to access data, as set out in current literature. An overview listing of these barriers starts with the various policies in place to regulate data use, reuse and exclusive licensing of data.

Standardisation of processes to acquire or request public sector geospatial information is necessary for public reassurance of fairness. Similarly, public sector information holders and their commercial partners must adhere to regulations and legal frameworks, and pricing policies, which do not disadvantage the ability of the commercial sector to enter the market.

Political factors, diversity of data policies and associated bureaucratic structures negatively influence the ability of public sector information holders to deliver information, and stem the dissemination of information throughout the public sector.

At a practical level, inadequate delivery of data and unreliability of delivery by public sector information holders, uncertainty regarding quality of the data, lack of standardisation and the dearth of up-to-date data discovery portals or metadata describing the data holdings, and technology constraints disadvantage the end user, the quality of decisions and the development of the country.

International trends and technological advantages must be recognised and integrated to ensure that South Africa remains at the forefront of data exploitation to inform environmental sustainability and to bring about socio-economic benefit. So, for example, the concept of data publication and the allocation of digital object identifiers to datasets,will in future ensure the traceability of data within a national spatial data infrastructure,
which will in time be part of the national integrated cyber infrastructure.

Support for the concept of data as infrastructure is gaining traction locally and internationally and the repository of free and open data is growing globally. Public sector geospatial information data models, premised on cost recovery and profit maximisation, are no longer in line with global trends. In South Africa, more benefit will be derived from geospatial and earth observation data if access is democratised and barriers to access removed.

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