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South Africa urged to tap into big data to prevent future unrest

Read time 5min 30sec

Big data analytics can be a vital tool government can deploy to, in future, prevent the deadly violence and looting that engulfed South Africa.

This is according to academics ITWeb spoke to after the country’s intelligence community was seemingly caught off-guard by the unrest, which resulted in unprecedented looting and wanton destruction of property and infrastructure, claiming over 100 lives.

Although State Security Agency minister Ayanda Dlodlo refuted claims SA’s intelligence service was caught unaware by the rampant violence and looting in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the academics believe government is not adequately harnessing the power of big data to ensure public safety.

Dlodlo pointed out that intelligence agents, working with the South African Police Service, had averted “much more than was seen”.

Over the past few days, SA descended into chaos and violence, sparked by the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma.

Social media pundits have highlighted the ways in which online platforms Twitter, Facebook Instagram and TikTok were used by rioters to co-ordinate looting and trigger the violent attacks.

Big data analytics is the use of advanced analytic techniques against very large, diverse big data sets that include structured, semi-structured and unstructured data, from different sources, and in different sizes, from terabytes to zettabytes.

Asked for comment, Mava Scott, spokesperson of the State Security Agency, said: “The law prohibits the agency from unauthorised disclosure of intelligence information or any methods related to collection of such information. This is viewed as an operational matter that cannot be shared with third-parties.”

Threat prevention

Several governments across the globe are tapping into big data analytics to measure public sentiment and use the findings to make informed decisions.

Professor Rabelani Dagada from the University of Johannesburg says governments in Russia, West Europe and North America use dig data to prevent the kind of threats SA is facing.

“Unfortunately, the South African government doesn’t have the skills and infrastructure to do this. Sadly, many of these officers lack basic computing skills,” he says.

The University of Johannesburg has developed a platform that measures the sentiment of South Africans by mining and analysing data from social media platforms.

The project is an ongoing study by a team of well-being researchers – Professor Talita Greyling (University of Johannesburg) and Dr Stephanie Rossouw (Auckland University of Technology), in collaboration with Afstereo.

They developed the Gross National Happiness Index, a real-time measure of the mood of a nation. The team constructs the index by using natural language processing (machine learning methods) to analyse the underlying sentiment of tweets.

The team also analyses the underlying emotions of tweets, and differentiates them between eight emotions – anger, anticipation, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise and trust.

Greyling tells ITWeb via e-mail that the New Zealand government is already making use of the index.

Analysing the tweets for Monday, 12 July, the team found negative sentiment in the country. It also found tweets that portray fear and anger. The tweets showed fear at the uncertainty of the future, as well as worries about jobs and safety. There was also anger, as many people believed Zuma should not be in jail.

“We saw the nation’s mood decreasing to 3.9 with president [Cyril] Ramaphosa’s speech on 11 July, which extended the lockdown. Added to this, the Zuma riots (protests against Zuma’s incarceration) raging since early Monday morning (12 July), turning into the looting of businesses, pushed the mood to the lowest low measured, as yet, of 3.68 on Monday afternoon,” Greyling says.

Dagada points out that SA used to have highly-skilled operatives in the Secret Service (focusing on foreign threats) and National Intelligence Agency (focusing on domestic threats).

“Unfortunately, that intelligence capacity was weakened when Mr Jacob Zuma became the president of the Republic. Bright minds were either pushed out of the service or they resigned. They were largely replaced by apparatchiks that were largely aligned to political factions.”

He says Zuma amalgamated the departments of Secret Service and National Intelligence Agency into the State Security Agency.

“As it was publicly stated at the State Capture Commission, most of the money that was budgeted to fund operations was diverted to fund some factional political activities. This has largely disadvantaged the State Security Agency from investing in technology infrastructure.”

Professor Rabelani Dagada from the University of Johannesburg.
Professor Rabelani Dagada from the University of Johannesburg.

Although government doesn’t have infrastructure or skilled professionals in public security agencies, Dagada says, they could work with the private sector to do this and they may not even have to pay a cent.

For example, he notes, according to the Electronic Communications and Transaction Act of 2002, government was supposed to have recruited cyber cops (cyber inspectors).

“Seeing that government is not doing that, the private sector closed the gap. South Africa’s big banks, and a few other companies in other sectors, have dedicated teams fighting cyber criminals.

“It doesn’t seem the South African government is working with SABRIC [South African Banking Risk Information Centre], Business Against Crime, and private security to maximise the use of big data to measure public sentiment, and this boggles the mind.”

Privacy concerns

From a privacy point of view, Dagada says there is nothing wrong with picking up broader consumer trends without focusing on people as individuals.

“Recent retail transactions showing massive purchases of used tyres and petroleum products in containers in KZN should have alerted authorities that something is brewing.”

Greyling concurs, saying: “What is in the public domain is already in the public domain and available for data analysis. Remember that we are mining data − this is the data freely available to anybody.”

However, Dagada says: “I should hasten to indicate the Protection of Personal Information Act makes it difficult for the big data to thrive. This Act makes it very difficult for government to use big data for public safety purposes and the country at large to fully enjoy the benefits of big data because it insists that personal information must only be gathered for a specific purpose only.”

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