Information is power, so they say. Which is why the launch this week by Cape Town authorities of an open data portal should prove exciting for any entrepreneur looking to provide solutions to better manage urban challenges.
Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille (pictured left) says the new portal (the Open Data Portal) will boost the city's competitiveness by allowing entrepreneurs to create new apps.
Such apps could help the city improve public transportation, fight crime, attend to infrastructure faults better or improve living conditions and employment chances of its residents.
So far the city has uploaded 25 data sets to the portal - including city budget data and the location and boundaries of all district parks, community parks, cemeteries and its MyCiTi bus stations and routes.
The portal follows similar ones that cities like Rio de Janeiro have (Data.Rio which has 1,200 datasets) as well as cities London and Helsinki have.
'$3 trillion' opportunity
A 2013 McKinsey report estimates that open data adopted could generate more than $3 trillion a year in additional revenue for companies, while a study (Open Data 500) tracks US companies that use open government data to generate new business and new ideas.
Matt Ehrlichman of Seattle used data on work permits, professional licenses and other home-construction information, to build Porch.com - which helps users to compare ideas and costs for projects around their neighbourhood. Today the business has over 80 employees. And in Finland, using data on public transport
around Helsinki, a developer built BlindSquare, an app that helps blind people navigate the city.
Must be usable
It's all well having a portal - most important will be to ensure that the data is user-friendly. One criticism last year of the Malaysian government's open data portal was that much of the data is contained in PDFs and that some machines found this difficult to read. Some links were also reported broken.
But De Lille said this week that the city had made every effort to ensure the data was available in various formats. It can be accessed via cellphones and smartphones as well as computers.
It's also essential to create awareness about the portal and the use of open data. A World Bank survey last year found that open data in the developing world remained a very unknown idea to many, even though a number of companies are mining public information (mostly to solve social problems or improve business services).
Running a hackathon to design apps that could help users to interpret city data, as the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have done, is one way to popularise the portal. Another good example is a recent competition run by Helsinki. The best apps receive develpment funding.
Yet the sheer amount of data may be put many off from even venturing onto the portal. Placing data in clear categories may help, as could workshops for entrepreneurs on how one can mine the data - much like a recent workshop run in Santiago, Chile by the School of Data and a local entrepreneur network.
The government can also help by improving its use of e-government services. In South Africa much still needs to be done. In the UN’s 2014 e-government survey, the country rose eight places from the previous year, but is still at a lowly 97. This is far behind Chile (33), Malaysia (52) and Brazil (57).
Ensuring that the State Information Technology Agency (Sita) – which is mandated to deliver internet services on behalf of government departments and has been undergoing a turnaround strategy for some years - works, will also help.
But for an open data portal to succeed South Africa must also get the basics right - like rolling out cheap and fast broadband to more of its citizens, providing better education and nurturing a culture of entrepreneurship (particularly one geared at embracing the use of technology and innovation). Getting this right could help spawn a whole new generation of entrepreneurs.
Timm writes on small business. Click here to sign up to his monthly newsletter. Follow him on Twitter at @Smallbinsight and on Facebook.
Stephen Timm is a