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Something remarkable is happening

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON
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The Minister of Science and Technology launched the BioEnergy Atlas in March 2017


Wim Hugo, Chief Data and Information Officer and Manager of SAEON’s uLwazi Node


“The potential for environmental, scientific, human capacity development and socio-economic benefits to be derived from the remarkable growth and work of SAEON's uLwazi Node is significant.” – Johan Pauw, SAEON MD

It began just over a decade ago, at the seventh SAEON Advisory Board meeting held on 28 June 2007; thus five years into SAEON’s existence.

The Board minuted this visionary statement: “SAEON is expected to grow its business by using the infrastructure and capacity for data management that it has developed in performing the role of service supplier to other programmes.”

It is with great satisfaction that I can now report on the realisation of the growth trajectory that the Board recommended at the time.

SAEON’s role in the South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas

A ground-breaking historical relationship between the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and SAEON started in 2008 with SAEON’s successful development of a shared geospatial data platform (COGIS) for the two state entities’ research endeavours. SAEON contracted an innovative and entrepreneurial systems engineer for this purpose (Wim Hugo, currently Chief Data and Information Officer and Manager of SAEON’s uLwazi Node).

The collaboration between SAEON and the CSIR started at the time that the Department of Science and Technology (DST) launched the national Global Change Grand Challenge. To create a connection with the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), SAEON was then tasked to develop a web portal for the South African Earth Observation Strategy (SAEOSS).

In the course of time, the CSIR and SAEON agreed on 12 follow-up development and hosting COGIS projects up until March 2015. In 2009, the DST determined that the South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas (SARVA) would become part of the architecture of the Global Change Grand Challenge and awarded a contract to the CSIR for the purpose of developing the SARVA.

The CSIR’s SARVA Programme Management Unit subsequently subcontracted SAEON to develop the SARVA portal based on the COGIS portal. This was regarded as part of Phase 1 of SARVA, which was later followed by Phase 2, during which SAEON successfully continued its development of the technology platform.

The year 2015 marked a change in the DST-CSIR-SAEON collaboration in that the DST’s programme for Socio-Economic Innovation and Partnerships contracted SAEON directly for further work on SARVA. This work was completed during 2017-18, which led to the launch of SARVA 2.0 towards the end of 2018.

From 2018 onwards, SAEON has continued working on and hosting the SARVA 3.0 platform. It is significant that SAEON has become the DST’s trusted service provider on the SARVA and has been given the sole authority for developing and managing the project in collaboration with partners such as the CSIR. 

Largely based on the sustained and growing SARVA project, SAEON established the uLwazi Node for data and information platforms at the beginning of 2018. ULwazi is a Zulu word for “useful knowledge”, which is exactly what the node stands for in modern society.

The main outcome of the SARVA is in the fields of predicting, planning, mitigating and reacting to the vagaries of climate change, a serious socio-economic threat recognised in South Africa’s State of the Nation Address of 7 February 2019.

SAEON’s role in the BioEnergy Atlas

Based on the initial success of SAEON’s SAEOSS and SARVA platform developments, the DST’s Programme for Technology Innovation contracted SAEON for the development of the BioEnergy Atlas (BEA) in 2012. The project was completed in 2013.

Although the contract was not immediately extended, SAEON continued development work during 2014 until the DST awarded a contract in 2015 for the finalisation of the portal. This product was publicly launched by the Minister of Science and Technology in March 2017.

Based on SAEON’s rapidly growing reputation for providing technology platforms, research and programme management during the previous two phases of the project, the DST requested SAEON in 2018 to prepare a follow-up proposal in respect of future operation and support of the BEA.

The BioEnergy Atlas is hosted in a stable environment and future hardware and infrastructure costs will diminish as long-term funding for the SAEON Open Data Platform becomes institutionalised.

SARVA, BEA and the uLwazi Node as national research infrastructures and platforms

Infrastructure for hosting a range of technology platforms, integrated with SAEON’s research data infrastructure, data dissemination platform and associated systems such as the SARVA, BEA, SAEOSS and South African Spatial Development Infrastructure (SASDI), is now well-established and well-resourced by way of government contracts.

The physical infrastructure for hosting the systems is mature, managed according to National Research Foundation (NRF) policies, and provides fast internet connections via the South African National Research and Education Network (SANReN) and mirrored backup via two sites – one in Pretoria and one in Cape Town. Shared storage capacity approaches 150 TB at present and is likely to grow significantly in the near future due to investments through SAEON by the DST’s Programme for Research Development and Support under the auspices of the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR).

SAEON has further established a wide-ranging collaboration agreement and funded contracts with various programmes in the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), involving collaboration in respect of Climate Change Monitoring and Evaluation, emissions tracking, Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Response, metadata management and Marine Systems. On behalf of DEA, we also physically host and maintain the computing platform used by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) to model and estimate alien invasive plant distribution.

SAEON now has access to and provides analysis services using Sentinel Hub (a cloud platform with all publicly available satellite photography online) – resulting in improved verification of data sets obtained from third parties, estimates of seasonality of biomass sources, and significant events such as fire and flooding being monitored continuously, and as a history. We have been successful in working with DEA and the CSIR in the hosting and dissemination of the Carbon Sinks Atlas and will be included in a CSIR-led consortium to update the Carbon Sinks Atlas during 2019 with much improved biomass estimates based on LIDAR – funded by DEA and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).

Other prospects are the development of an Atlas to track South Africa’s progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) and a Land Reform and Rehabilitation Atlas for the Presidency of South Africa.

SAEON has now established a multi-skilled team, providing capabilities ranging from infrastructure maintenance and helpdesk facilities, systems development capabilities, data curation and data management staff, and personnel providing data science, modelling and domain expertise. The uLwazi Node is focused on making scientific evidence (research and government data) accessible and to offer online platforms to derived societal benefits (decision, planning or policy support based on evidence).

This team, with up to 25 funded positions, is highly competent in the field of building and maintaining evidence-based policy and decision-support systems and can, in addition, draw on domain experts in the field of long-term impact of global change on ecological systems at other SAEON Nodes.

Why did SAEON move so far up the information pipeline?

Open access information management has been a pillar of the SAEON construct since its conception. As a long-standing member of the International Long-Term Ecological Research Network (ILTER), SAEON was fortunate to learn from the experiences of other national LTER networks.

Later, with the onset of the DST’s Global Change Grand Challenge, strong connections were formed with global environmental and earth observation data initiatives such as GEOSS, the Research Data Alliance (RDA) and the World Data System (WDS). Headed by Wim, SAEON started to play a leading role globally.

We are rapidly entering the global era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution under increasingly adverse environmental conditions due to global change. Public and private sector decision-makers will increasingly rely on automated systems to rapidly and efficiently arrive at optimal decisions with respect to the creation and implementation of policies to address societal and economic risks, as well as to identify investment opportunities for sustainable development.

Such decision-support systems will increasingly be improved through more and better data and data science, and through refining bioeconomic models boosted by machine learning and artificial intelligence for synthetic knowledge production. The potential for environmental, scientific, human capacity development and socio-economic benefits to be derived from the remarkable growth and work of SAEON’s uLwazi Node is thus significant.

Finally, from a higher-level perspective, these decision-making platforms should be recognised as systemic-level Science Engagement automation. This is because they draw on comprehensive datasets to interpret and serve scientific data in the form of informative knowledge immediately useful to society, an arena that is sometimes described as the ecology-policy interface.

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