ICT Research Development & Innovation roadmap, including cyber infrastructure: Department of Science and Technology briefing

Science and Technology

03 June 2015
Chairperson: Dr M Goqwana (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

A delegation from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) delivered two presentations. The first was on the National ICT research and development and Innovation (RDI) Roadmap, which described the DST's plans for the near future, and detailed the ongoing success of several important initiatives. It was stressed that although ICTs were vital for South Africa's development, the percentage spent on R&D was only 0.065% in 2009 and far too much was being spent on importing technology. The DST had a roadmap to guide ICT research, development and innovation, to create "digital advantage", and covered 27 market opportunities distributed over six key priority areas, of broadband infrastructure and services, development, sustainability and the environment, grand science, industry applications and the service economy. DST was assisting the Departments of Basic Education and Health already. Because of these robust plans the DST had managed to secure IR697.7m in co-funding and leverage funding to establish R&D centres at two universities. Its Technology for Rural Education Programme had impacted on 26 schools in Cofimvaba whilst the Broadband For All had connected over 250 schools in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Northern Cape. An  Advance Fire Information System had saved Eskom an estimated R300m, and was being exported to Kenya and Zimbabwe, with further possibilities elsewhere and the MLab project had generated success in supporting software developers in the mobile sector.

The second presentation on cyber infrastructure described the three major developments in the cyber-infrastructure field: namely, the South African National Research Network, the Centre for High-Performance Computing and the Data-Intensive Research Initiative of South Africa. The significant investment in each was described, as well as the key achievements. The connections achieved in SANReN had helped to secure the Square Kilometre Array bid. In respect of the Centre, South African students participating in the International Schools Cluster Competition had won and thus secured a commitment from Dell of over R120 million to the academy, and the Centre was contributed to big science globally. The Data initiative had been used to develop a heart disease portal at UCT. DST said that although these initiatives were at first developed individually, they would be gathered into a National Integrated system, and this would handle the "data tsunami" driven by the SKA and other forces. The main challenges were the expense of data transmission and the multi-disciplinary nature of data science.

Members commended the presentation and the approach. They asked if there were plans to counter cyber-crime, whether the present initiatives and wireless networks used by the general public could be linked, and asked if there would be closer collaboration with commercial broadband networks, commenting that connectivity was still a problem in many areas, and wireless technology had to be developed for rural areas. The Department explained why the linkages could not always be obtained.

Members suggested that other useful applications would include tele-medicine and education, and suggested that joint sessions with the Portfolio Committee on Telecommunications would be useful. Members asked whether the dependency on foreign imports could be lessened. The Department explained that it was being strategic about investments and would try to invest where others had not, despite the need. Members asked about the implications of the DELL deal. They expressed some concern about the country's readiness for an approaching at a tsunami driven by SKA. The Chairperson urged Members to become ambassadors for the DST in Parliament and asked the DST to keep the Committee fully informed and up to date so that it could fulfil this role.

Meeting report

National ICT Research, Development and Innovation Roadmap: Department of Science and Technology briefing
Mr Imraan Patel, Deputy Director-General: Socio-economic innovation, Department of Science and Technology, introduced the team.

Mr Isaac Maredi, Chief Director: Sector Innovation and Global Change, Department of Science and Technology,  began by stressing the economic importance of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for South Africa's economic development. Although 10% of South Africa's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was spent on ICT, most of this went to import ICT goods and services. The percentage of GDP spent on ICT research and development (R&D) was only 0.065% in 2013, and had actually declined from 1.2% in 2009. The socio-economic benefits of ICT could only be harnessed if this percentage increased.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST or the Department) stated that its vision was to create “digital advantage” for South Africa. The roadmap, which guides ICT,  and research, development and innovation (RDI), is divided into 27 market opportunities distributed over six key priority areas of broadband infrastructure and services, development, sustainability and the environment, grand science, industry applications and the service economy. It would aid the Department in having structured engagements with Government. It supported the National Broadband Policy as well as the Department of Basic Education (particularly in the preparation of the e-education White Paper and the roll-out of tablets in schools in the Nciba district) and the Department of Health (for example, the development of the Health Normative standards Framework, and the Health Patient Registration System).

Mr Maredi shared some of the Department's successes over the past financial year. Thanks in part to the robust roadmap, DST had managed to secure R697.7m in co-funding and leverage funding, which included a joint investment of R439.6m over seven years from The International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) and Cisco Systems to establish R&D centres at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). The Technology for Rural Education Development (TECH4RED) programme had impacted on 26 schools in Cofimvaba, amounting to 6500 learners, 246 teachers and 16 district officials. The Broadband for All (BB4ALL) programme had connected 200 schools in Mpumalanga and Limpopo and 50 in the Northern Cape with Wireless Mesh broadband connectivity. The Advance Fire Information System had saved Eskom an estimated R300m, and was being exported to Kenya and Zimbabwe. There was a possibility of it being used in Argentina Uruguay and Chile in future. The Mlab project to help skill and support software developers within the mobile sector had generated several successes.

Presentation on cyber-infrastructure in South Africa
Dr Daniel Adams, Chief Director: Emerging Areas and Infrastructure, DST, began the DST's second presentation by pointing out that there were two equivalent terms, cyber-infrastructure and e-infrastructure, that both referred to a base on which science, engineering and knowledge stand. Since 2006, there had been three major developments in South African cyber-infrastructure:
(i) the South African National Research Network (SANReN)
(ii) the Centre for High-Performance Computing (CHPC)
(iii) the Data-Intensive Research Initiative of South Africa (DIRISA).

The DST's investment in SANReN had been significant over the last six years, amounting to a total of R1bn. An additional R600m had been invested in the West African Cable System (WACS) over the same period. SANReN included 1 100km of dark (otherwise referred to as unused) fibre network and 3 500km of cable leased from Telkom, and it had connected 204 research sites to date, dramatically reducing their internet costs and helping to secure the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) bid.

The DST's investment in the CHPC amounted to R639.05m over the last six years. The CHPC had joined the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) as a second-tier data processing node, which was a testament to South Africa's ability to contribute to big science on a global scale. The DST was also committed to human capital development in high-performance computing. He noted that one of South Africa's stories was that the fact that it had, in 2013 and 2014, participated in the International Student Cluster competition. This led, in April 2015, to a commitment of over R120m from Dell to support the students who won, through the ICT Academy. In industrial applications, HPC had the potential to dramatically reduce prototyping times for a wide variety of projects.

The DIRISA also had a wide variety of applications in various fields. The data storage facilities it provided had been used by a team from the University of Cape Town to develop a rheumatic heart disease portal.

For the DST, the next step was to gather these initiatives, which had until now been developed individually, into a National Integrated Cyber-Infrastructure System (NICIS). This was part of its preparation for a forecasted “data tsunami” that would reach South Africa soon, driven by SKA and other forces. One challenge was that data transmission was very expensive and data science was multi-disciplinary.

Mr Adams ended by confirming the importance of cyber-infrastructure for economic development and innovation. He hoped NICIS would help position South Africa as a world player in Big Data and super-computing.

The Chairperson asked whether the Department had plans to counter cyber-crime. He was impressed with the Department's level of achievement in spite of the low level of investment.

Mr P Mabe (ANC) asked whether there were plans to create a linkage between the Department's present data transmission initiatives and the wireless networks ordinary people used to communicate from day to day.

Mr C Mothale (ANC) commended the Department for the reach of the SANReN, but noted that rural connectivity still lagged behind. He conceded that laying cables to every village would be prohibitively expensive, and suggested that wireless technology was a more viable option. He also hoped that there could be close collaboration between the Department and commercial broadband networks. Connectivity was a problem. There were even areas in Cape Town where cellphone reception could be interrupted.

Ms J Terblanche (DA) asked the DST to explain why the broadband access in Potchefstroom was so poor, despite the fact that it seemed to be connected to the SANReN

Mr Maredi said that the private sector mobile operators, like Vodacom and MTN, did not always have the same priorities as government. They were naturally motivated by profit, which meant that it might not make sense for them to invest in connecting a rural school, for instance. Another problem was that the Wireless Mesh technology that the Department was using employed different standards from the commercial networks. He said that interruptions to cellphone service were a result of changing between transmission stations. In some countries, like South Korea, such interruptions had been almost completely eliminated through fifth-generation (5G) network protocols, but it was not yet cost-effective for the commercial mobile operators to deliver this technology in South Africa. The geography of Cape Town also posed a particular challenge.

Mr Adams said that SANRen was distinct from the commercial networks. It was dedicated to research applications. This also explained why the fact that Potchefstroom was connected to SANReN had no effect on Ms Terblanche's home broadband service.

The Chairperson suggested that tele-medicine might be an important application of the data networks and computing capacity described by Mr Adams. At present, some people travelled very far to get good medical treatment.

Mr Adams agreed that a situation in which anyone, anywhere in the country could remotely consult a doctor in, for example, Gauteng, was a laudable goal as well as a worldwide trend. UCT's rheumatic heart disease portal was a step in this direction. He said that the Department of Health would have to be the main driver behind it at a policy level. There were also serious ethical matters regarding doctor-patient confidentiality which would have to be sorted out.

Ms L Maseko (ANC), adding to the Chairperson's comment, said that people also travelled long distances in pursuit of better education. She agreed that there was a need for a joint session with the Portfolio Committee on Telecommunications. She asked whether there was anything that could be done to reduce South Africa's dependency on ICT imports. She questioned whether 10% of GDP enough to spend on ICT to ensure that South Africa was competitive on the world scale.

Mr Maredi said that for the present, South Africa would remain a net importer of ICT. It simply could not compete with global corporations like Samsung and LG.

Mr Patel said that there was little DST could do to develop cellphone network technology without the thousands of engineers employed by the likes of Samsung. However, localisation was a part of the DST's new five year strategy. He said that the DST had to be strategic about its investment. One principle guiding their investment choices was to invest where there were “market failures,” that is, a situation in which the market was not responding to a need. For example, it was well known that the commercial mobile operators in South Africa were not investing in rural connectivity. However, examples of market failure could become viable markets in their own right.

Ms Maseko also asked whether the DELL deal would have any impact on graduate unemployment.

Mr Adams said that there were partnerships with other companies, such as Intel, that were aimed at graduates, but the DELL deal was intended to support undergraduates.

Dr A Lotriet (DA) expressed concern about the low percentage of GDP that was being spent on ICT R&D, noting especially that it had decreased in recent years.

The Chairperson suggested that some responsibility for this lay with the Committee and said that Members had to be the DST's ambassadors in Parliament. He asked the Department to make sure that the Committee understood its often highly technical activities, to mitigate the risk of funding being cut as a result of simple ignorance.

Mr Patel agreed. He said that the DST needed to empower the Committee to play that role. It also needed to be sensitive to other, non-technical factors that determined whether a technology was successful or not in a particular context. He said the recognition of the DST's role had improved over the last few years, although it was still variable and needed to be systematised: it could not rely on individuals.

Ms J Terblanche (DA) voiced concern about the country's readiness for the “data tsunami” that SKA would bring. She was worried that, as a result of the nuclear deal with Russia, South Africa would run out of money.

Mr Adams tried to assure the Committee that the DST would be ready and would not run out of money. He said that data science was a highly multi-disciplinary field. The DST was not the only contributor, and indirect contributions needed to be taken into account. It was important to remember that the SKA was a consortium of member countries. The data processing and skills load would be distributed over many countries' capacities.

Ms A Tuck (ANC) asked what benefits the Northern Cape could expect to see from SKA.

Mr Patel said that the DST would need to address this in future briefings.

The Chairperson said that in some cases, people responsible for transmitting the benefits of development to communities did not honour them.

The meeting was adjourned.

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