Driving Joburg’s digital future

Read time 4min 30sec
Dr Denisha Jairam-Owthar
Dr Denisha Jairam-Owthar

Following a hack in October 2019, perpetrated by a group called the 'Shadow Kill Hackers', the City of Johannesburg (CoJ) upgraded its ICT systems to guard against future breaches.

As CIO at the CoJ, Dr Denisha Jairam-Owthar is actively working to prevent this from happening again. Her focus at present is on integration and upgrades, which is all about doing away with legacy systems and manual processes and embracing automated, digital processes, which align with broader government initiatives. In doing so, the city will be able to eradicate inefficiencies.

But we can’t have one leg on the bus and one leg off. We need to either be on or off.

If you were walking the streets of Boston a few years ago, two robots called Mario and Luigi might have been working beneath your feet. These smart robots were deployed into the city’s sewer system to inspect the flow of human waste. Part of MIT Underworlds project, the robots mine urban sewage for information about human behaviour and ultimately help scientists predict outbreaks, map the health of different socio-economic groups across the cities and better understand the causes of chronic disease.

A smart city coming to you soon
During his 2020 State of the Nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa outlined plans for a new smart city in Gauteng. “A new smart city is taking shape in Lanseria, which 350 000 to 500 000 people will call home within the next decade,” he said. “The process is being led by the Investment and Infrastructure Office in the Presidency alongside the provincial governments of Gauteng and North West, working together with the cities of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Madibeng. Working with development finance institutions, we have put together an innovative process that will fund the bulk sewerage, electricity, water, digital infrastructure and roads that will be the foundation of the new city. It will not only be smart and 5G-ready, but will be a leading benchmark for green infrastructure, continental and internationally.” While some welcomed the development, sceptics believe that government should rather focus its attention on more serious issues facing the country.

Jairam-Owthar mentions Mario and Luigi as a prime example of how smart cities can benefit everyone and how they can improve every aspect of our lives. “Smart cities are connected, they are digital and they use data to drive faster, and better, decisions,” she says. Data tells a million stories and if we look at examples of smart cities at work, like the Boston example above, we can see how the use of digital innovations to analyse and interrogate information has enabled them to be more proactive than they were in the past.

“At the CoJ, we are focussed on getting the basics right and are keen to implement transformative smart city initiatives. We’re also trying to embrace emerging technologies for the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” she says. Part of this back-to-basics approach entails a lot of everyday `run IT’ initiatives, as well as a number of more innovative initiatives that seek to transform the city into a smarter space. Jairam-Owthar says the city is implementing a new SAP system that will automate internal processes for city officials, like applying for leave and allowing city employees to easily access and view their payslips. ERP implementations like this will bring a new level of visibility to the city’s operational processes. “When you put in effective ERP systems, it’s almost impossible to not have transparency.”

What one needs to remember is that the CoJ has around 35 000 employees, which means that any of the projects it undertakes is truly enormous, she adds. To break things down into more manageable chunks, CoJ has decided to divide its transformation efforts into various smaller initiatives so that it could test out new solutions before deploying anything more broadly.

Obviously, IT is a huge enabler of digital transformation, but it needs to be owned by everybody, including citizens.

Jairam-Owthar notes that there will always be stumbling blocks on any journey like this. For starters, CoJ faces numerous financial constraints. This makes it important to think creatively and leverage public and private sector partnerships in order to secure the investments needed to make a digital city possible. In addition to this, she says there are many people in the public sector who are afraid of technology and resistant to change. “But we can’t have one leg on the bus and one leg off. We need to either be on or off.” What we need is for the public sector to learn how to co-exist with technology and use it to its advantage.

'Heart' work'

Digital transformation has to permeate every aspect of an organisation. It cannot just be an IT or a technological aspect, she says. “The person sitting in governance or HR needs to understand how digital transformation affects them and the work they do. Obviously, IT is a huge enabler of digital transformation, but it needs to be owned by everybody, including citizens.”

Making existing cities smarter rather than building new ones

Existing cities in South Africa need to become smarter and more people-centric. An article by Tijs van den Brink, from Royal HaskoningDHV, explains that flagship smart cities often put technology at the centre, which equates to high upfront capital investments that are inevitably recovered via higher property values and rentals. The problem with this strategy in a South African context is that it prevents the majority of the population from ever being able to afford to live in these high-tech, digitally-enabled spaces.
According to Van den Brink, making SA’s existing cities smarter can happen in three simple steps:
#1 Gather data
#2 Experiment rapidly
#3 Partner broadly 

One of the city’s initiatives aimed directly at citizens is the expansion of its free WiFi hotspots. In July 2020, CoJ announced that it would be allocating funding to expand access to free WiFi across the city during the 2020/21 financial year. “WiFi is a great enabler because it allows young people and upcoming SMEs to connect, gain knowledge, communicate with customers or potential employers and market themselves,” Jairam-Owthar says. “Ultimately, when technology is properly integrated and implemented with the right level of rigour, you’ll see a very different public sector – one that is transparent, automated and accountable.”

Having worked in both the private and public sectors, Jairam-Owthar stresses that people shouldn’t be afraid or weary of the public sector. “Many of the challenges you experience in the public sector, you will never see in the private sector. The public sector is both ‘hard work’ and ‘heart work’.”

* This feature was first published in the February edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.

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